Deep Trouble

Deep sea mining’s murky corporate practices revealed by Greenpeace investigation

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

Home » Deep Trouble

Published: 18 December 2020

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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Main image: © Greenpeace / Gavin Newman

A Greenpeace International investigation, detailed in the report Deep Trouble, has uncovered the opaque lines of accountability and ownership – plus the murky corporate practices behind the nascent deep sea mining industry.

The investigation has revealed that commercial exploration of the deep oceans is increasing, despite serious economic and environmental concerns about the industry’s viability.

It has uncovered opaque corporate practices obscuring lines of profit, liability and control, with corporations acquiring exploration contracts covering 500,000km2, including large areas reserved for developing Pacific island nations.

Influencing government policy

According to the report, developing nations are being exposed to significant economic and environmental risk, while those in line to profit are overwhelmingly based in Europe and North America.

Industry exerts undue influence over government policy, with Freedom of Information requests showing that the UK Government has taken as fact a Lockheed Martin estimate that deep sea mining could make the UK £40bn over 30 years, with no independent verification.

The industry’s regulator, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), is dominated by the industry with corporate representatives literally speaking on behalf of governments at international negotiations.

Controlling the seabed

Deep sea mining risks serious harm to the barely understood biodiversity of the deep ocean, and could potentially damage the deep ocean’s vital carbon sink.

Despite this, commercial seabed mining exploration is increasing, with an area the size of France and Germany now opened to exploration by the ISA.

The nascent industry is dominated by a handful of European and North American parent companies.

Through subsidiaries, subcontractors and partnerships, Greenpeace’s investigation can reveal that these corporations have acquired control of deep sea mining exploration licenses that cover 500,000km2 of the international seabed in the Pacific, including areas reserved for developing Pacific island nations.

‘In the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis, when global inequality is as bad as it has ever been, why on earth are we even considering ripping up the seabed for profit? This is one of our planet’s last unexplored wildernesses, a shared global commons which acts as a vital carbon sink and is home to amazing yet barely understood marine life. But western corporations want to threaten all of this for an industry which might not even be profitable or practical.

‘What’s worse, while these corporations are lobbying to maximise their profits, they leave nations sponsoring the exploration high and dry, burdened with much of the financial and environmental risks associated with ripping up the seabed. This will deepen global inequality, and is another example of Western companies extracting profit from the developing world, with no consideration for the harm they will do to people and planet. The deep sea must remain off limits to mining.’

LOUISA CASSON
Lead author of the report and a Greenpeace UK oceans campaign

Corporate profits

The investigation has uncovered an opaque web of corporate connections, which obscure the concentration of ISA exploration contracts into the hands of a few European and North American companies, which stand to profit most from the industry.

Meanwhile the sponsoring states, including Pacific Island states Nauru, Cook Islands, Kiribati and Tonga, are left exposed to significant financial and environmental risk, with the majority of future profits set to maximise corporate gains instead of enriching the sponsoring nations.

The corporations involved are US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Belgian dredging firm DEME and Canadian start-up DeepGreen.

Lockheed holds the largest overall area of ISA exploration contracts covering 132,639 km2, via its UK subsidiary UK Seabed Resources.

UK and deep sea mining

The UK Government sponsors Lockheed’s exploration in the Pacific Clarion-Clipperton Zone, undermining the UK Government’s commitments to ocean protection. 

The UK Government has claimed that deep sea mining could contribute £40 billion to the UK’s economy, and has frequently used this figure to justify its involvement in the industry.

However, Freedom of Information requests have revealed that this figure was provided to the UK Government by Lockheed Martin, with no independent verification or analysis of the assumptions behind it – despite being used in speeches by then Prime Minister David Cameron, cited by ministers in Parliament and used in high-level government documents.

Contracts for deep sea exploration

DeepGreen has rights to explore three ISA contracts, sponsored by Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati, covering 224,544 km2. DeepGreen controls all three through different contractors.

However, despite its involvement in contracts sponsored by three developing Pacific Island nations, no DeepGreen board members or senior staff are from or reside in these nations. 

DEME is involved in two ISA contracts, covering 148,665km2. One is sponsored by the Cook Islands, covering 75,000 km2. DEME is ‘providing technical expertise and financing’ to the Cook Islands Investment Corporation to explore this area.

The Cook Islands retain full legal responsibility for the ISA contract, and potential liability for any damages caused, even if 3rd party firm DEME is undertaking all of the work.

Ocean protection

The investigation also reveals how the industry’s regulator, the ISA, has prioritised the development of deep sea mining over governments’ obligations to protect the deep ocean.

Corporations exert heavy influence over international negotiations regarding the seabed, with the ISA’s influential  advisory committee including experts employed by the industry.

More controversially, spokespeople from DeepGreen and DEME have quite literally spoken on behalf of Governments, addressing ISA meetings from Nauru and Belgian Government seats respectively.

Greenpeace is calling for the deep ocean to be placed off-limits to commercial mining operations. The world’s governments should also agree to a strong new Global Ocean Treaty as soon as possible in 2021 that will lay the framework for a global network of ocean sanctuaries and deliver regulations to protect marine life from the most damaging industries such as deep sea mining and industrial fishing.

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