December 7, 2021

Press Release
On 24 November the EU Parliament adopted a resolution on critical raw materials[1]. It is the latest in a series of texts adopted by the EU Parliament and European Commission which address the topic of deep seabed mining. Importantly, the text states that commercial deep seabed mining activity should be allowed to commence only when there is proof that the technologies and operational practices ‘do no serious harm to the environment’. This marks a significant shift in the attitude of the EU Parliament. As recently as June 2021, in its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030[2], the Parliament said a condition for deep seabed mining should be that it causes ‘no marine biodiversity loss nor degradation of marine ecosystems’. Note the shift from ‘no marine biodiversity loss’ to ‘no serious harm’. It’s a nuance, but an important one, because all mining activity – on land or potentially at sea – has environmental effects. Indeed, if no biodiversity loss were to be a condition of terrestrial mining not a single kilogram of ore would ever be mined. Deep seabed mining has featured in several other EU Parliament and European Commission texts over the past few years. In 2018 the Parliament adopted a text on ocean governance[3] that called on Member States to stop sponsoring exploration of the international seabed for minerals and to support an international moratorium on commercial deep seabed mining until all risks are understood. The aggressive language belies a simple truth, which is that a moratorium is effectively already in place since comprehensive environmental assessments are required by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) before a contractor can even apply for a commercial licence. In any case, the regulatory framework for commercial activity has yet to be adopted by the ISA and it won’t be until there is agreement among its 168 members, which include the EU. A clue to the changing attitude in Europe can be found in the EU Commission’s Strategic Foresight Report[4], published in September, which recognises the importance of a diverse supply of strategically important resources. “The potential for supply diversification for many critical raw materials is rather limited,” concludes the report, meaning that “novel ways of sourcing, such as seabed and space mining need to be explored in accordance with internationally agreed principles and commitments”. The EU continues to fund research into the impact of deep seabed mining and Member States including Belgium and Germany continue to sponsor exploration contracts in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, where billions of tonnes of polymetallic nodules containing clean energy minerals such as cobalt and nickel lie on the seafloor. Collecting them may or may not represent one of the more responsible ways of securing the metals required for clean energy transition and to meet the needs of a fast growing and rapidly urbanising global population. Further research will provide the answers needed for rational decisions to be made. It will allow for a proper assessment of the environmental effects of deep seabed mining and how they compare with the alternative, which is to rely solely on current and new terrestrial mining to meet our future needs.   THE CONDITIONS FOR DEEP SEA MINING: THE EVOLUTION OF EUROPE’S MESSAGING The conditions stipulated by the European Parliament and the European Commission for deep sea mining operations to proceed have evolved over time. The Commission has always reasonably asked for sufficient research and no significant harm. The Parliament, by comparison, has historically demanded the unachievable goal of no harm. In November 2021, the Parliament adopted wording that more closely reflects that of the Commission and is in line with the principle of Do Not Significant Harm (DNSH) as per draft EU Taxonomy Regulation. [1] European Parliament resolution of 24 November 2021 on a European strategy for critical raw materials (2021/2011(INI) [2] EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives [3] International ocean governance: an agenda for the future of our oceans in the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals [4] EU 2021 Strategic Foresight Report