Ep. 63: For Deep Ocean Mining, Questions Abound

Welcome to The Undark Podcast. In this episode, join Erik Olsen and this month’s host Lacy Roberts as they discuss the potential promise and peril of mining the deep ocean for minerals.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity.

A SPECIAL NOTE TO OUR SUBSCRIBERS: This will be the final episode of The Undark Podcast. Since the launch of Undark in early 2016, we have endeavored to deliver a monthly audio feature rich in science and storytelling, and while we changed formats and hosts a few times, we hope you have found the end product engaging and enlightening over these last six years. Unfortunately, we were never able to cultivate the audience we’d hoped to, and so we have made the difficult decision to bring this part of the Undark mission to a close. Our podcasts will remain archived here, of course, and you will continue to be able to listen and download them. And to our loyal listeners, we offer our deepest gratitude for your support of our journalistic work, which will continue in earnest elsewhere at undark.org.

Douglas McCauley: Oceans are facing an immense amount of threat from climate change, from overfishing, from ocean acidification, from plastic pollution. The last thing we need to do in this moment of so many stressors piling up on an ocean that is fundamental for our own survival is to run an experiment that could go terribly wrong.

Lacy Roberts: This is Douglas McCauley, he’s an associate professor of ocean science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. McCauley is one of hundreds of scientists who recently signed a public letter seeking a moratorium on mining in the deep ocean.

Douglas McCauley: There are a host of different companies that are getting serious, and making hundred-million-dollar investments in this bet that there is going to be a gold rush in the oceans.

And an environmental history across our planet is unfortunately a repeating story of us starting a new industry without answering what the impacts of that industry will be on our planet. Think of what we did with oil and gas. Think about chemical contaminations like DDT in our ocean. This, arguably, is our first opportunity to stop and say, look, before we begin a new thing on our planet of this size and this consequence, we need to know what it does. We need to have those answers come to us before we begin this new industry. And scientists … are moving just about as fast as I’ve ever seen a scientific community move to try to amass that data, but … we don’t have very complete answers to exactly what the magnitude of impact will be … I want that answer.

[Intro music]

Lacy Roberts: This is the Undark podcast. I’m your host, Lacy Roberts. People have contemplated mining the deep ocean for decades. But doing so is only recently possible because of advances in technology. Advocates say deep-sea mining will need to be a key part of any sustainable future. Some regions of the deep ocean contain vast, almost unimaginable quantities of some of the key minerals, like cobalt and nickel, that — absent widespread recycling — are needed to make batteries used to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy for other uses. But the negative impacts of mining could be tremendous — some say even cataclysmic — not only to the thriving and diverse ecosystems beneath the waves, but to the planet as a whole. It’s a paradox — we all want to create a sustainable future for the planet, but is it worth it to potentially destroy a large part of the deep ocean, and the life in it, to reach that goal? There is growing opposition to deep-sea mining among scientists, the media, and even large corporations saying it’s time to take a step back to better understand the consequences. In 2018, Erik Olsen went on a research vessel to explore deep ocean geology, and has since talked to experts about mining the deep sea. Here he is with the story.

Erik Olsen: I am on a large research ship at sea, about 250 miles off the coast of New Zealand, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There is no land in sight.

[Wind sounds]

The wind is howling outside on the deck where a massive spool is slowly spinning, unwinding thousands of feet of thick cable. At the end of the cable, down deep in the ocean, is a nearly 5-ton robot called Jason. Loaded with sensors, powerful robotic arms, and numerous cameras, it belongs to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, also known as WHOI, one of the world’s preeminent ocean science organizations.

[Background noise of control room]

Also on deck is a control room where a dozen or so scientists, engineers, and researchers have their eyes glued to a wall of large video screens aglow with moving images coming from the seafloor below.

[Background chatter]

On the screens in front of us are images of some of the most remarkable features on the planet: towering deep-sea chimneys that rise from the caldera rim of a volcano on the bottom of the ocean.

I’m standing in the back of the room, filming what’s going on. WHOI has brought me aboard as a freelance videographer to spend three weeks at sea documenting the expedition. As the ship heaves in the waves, I think to myself how grateful I am that I don’t get seasick. Not yet, anyway.

The chimneys that form around hydrothermal vents are colored deep rust, yellow and green, and they are spewing what appears to be clouds of black smoke into the water. And swarming across the base of the chimneys, illuminated by powerful lights aboard the submersible, are throngs of small shrimp, crabs, and strange translucent fish. It’s an astonishing sight, but not necessarily an uncommon one in the deep ocean.

Cornel de Ronde: Much of the world’s volcanism occurs on the seafloor. And in fact, about 85 percent of all the volcanic activity that we know of, occurs on the seafloor … So every single day there are volcanoes are erupting on the seafloor. Of course, most, if not all of which are not seen by the public … If we drained all the oceans, they would see that there are far greater features on the ocean floor than they’ve ever seen on the continents themselves.

Erik Olsen: That’s Cornel de Ronde, a New Zealand geologist who is onboard the ship, named the RV Thomas G. Thompson. He’s here to help scientists better understand how these chimneys work and to investigate what they’re made of. A small piece of the chimney has been broken off using a robotic arm, exposing the inner layers, which gleam a silvery metallic color.

Cornel de Ronde: So we’re looking at the interior of the chimney which is composed predominantly of brass-colored material with some copper sulfide. And there will be lots of other metals in trace amounts. But very rich with copper, and these chimneys can run up to 30 percent by weight in copper.

Erik Olsen: Thirty percent copper. That’s an astonishingly high concentration of one of the most valuable and in-demand metals on the planet. The chimneys can also be rich in gold, silver, and zinc. The team is here only to take samples, small pieces of the chimneys so they can be analyzed for their metal content and for the microbial life that lives on them. We are here also because a race is on that could eventually lead to the near-total destruction of this remarkable planetary feature.

Helen Scales: It was only 40 years ago, just thereabouts, we discovered that there was life on hydrothermal vents, a completely different form of life to anything else anyone knew about.

Erik Olsen: Helen Scales is a marine biologist and the author of several books about the ocean, including one published last year called “The Brilliant Abyss.”

Helen Scales: It blew biology apart, and all the time now we’re finding more species, more ecosystems, more connections through the ocean from the seafloor all the way through the water column.

Erik Olsen: These vent systems are only one part of the ocean where companies are hoping to begin future mining operations. Scattered across the globe, there are also thousands of seamounts, or underwater mountains, whose crusts are rich in valuable minerals. And then there are the vast fields of metal rocks, called polymetallic nodules, that stretch for thousands of miles in some parts of the deep ocean. The excavations that might occur to get at these nodules are of a scale we have never embarked on before, and they represent the beginning of a potentially troubling new global experiment.

Helen Scales: So this is not only an undertaking that is … technologically completely different and more challenging than anything we’ve done before as humanity, but also the potential scale of it is, is vastly bigger, too, in terms of its overall footprint that could eventually be happening. Some of these deposits are occurring over, you know, literally half of the surface of the earth. If you wanna go and get them, they’re down there.

Erik Olsen: The idea of deep-sea mining has been around for decades, but only recently have the technologies existed to get large mining machines down to the seafloor. And a series of recent events, including the triggering of an obscure provision of international law governing ocean exploitation, have made deep-sea mining potentially imminent. That has made many scientists and policymakers who study the deep ocean to grow concerned about how quickly things seem to be moving.

Douglas McCauley: This is probably the least disturbed part of our planet, but … with this new industry, we’re effectively introducing a new kind of disturbance that has never been seen in this ecosystem. And I think it’s fair to say that the deep ocean is the least resilient ecosystem on the planet.

Erik Olsen: This is Douglas McCauley again. Scientists are concerned that in the rush for riches, we could be opening the door to an environmental cataclysm.

Douglas McCauley: The machines that are being built right now, and are coming off these factory floors to do this mining are immense. We’re talking about 300-ton mining machines. Think of a bulldozer, hold that image in your mind’s eye, multiply that by 30, and suddenly you have the size of one of these mining machines. What they need to do is they need to get down there and effectively excavate that entire ecosystem. In the polymetallic nodule, they’re scooping up and mining all the nodules and all the sediment in which the nodules actually are embedded.

You mine a lot of stuff that you don’t want. And that’s just simply how it goes when you’re mining any mineral, whether that’s gold mining on land or polymetallic nodules in the ocean. They’re excavating and sending up this huge mass of seafloor that they’ve collected and ground up. It goes to the mining support vessels. They take out the minerals that they want, these polymetallic nodules, and then they have a whole lot of effectively effluent wastewater that they need to get back off the ship. That wastewater gets piped back down into the ocean and released. And that part is really important when we get to thinking about the biology and the environmental impacts, because those wastewater plumes can grow to very, very big size, and could have a very serious impact on life that shares that same space, where these miners are operating.

Helen Scales: The thing about mining the deep ocean is that we don’t see it. All of it is hidden away. Unlike land-based mines, you can send a drone over the top and look at how much that is impacting the environment and the landscape. And we aren’t gonna have the equivalent really ability to see what’s going on down in the deep.

Erik Olsen: Not only have we never mined in the deep ocean before, we’ve hardly explored it or even mapped it. Scientists say we’ve mapped more of the surface of Mars than the ocean floor of our own planet. The deep ocean is completely dark and the pressure from all that water above is immense. The average ocean depth is around 12,500 feet, which is about where the Titanic lies in the North Atlantic Ocean. At that depth, the pressure from all the water above is about 5,500 pounds per square inch. No wonder, then, that many people used to think nothing at all could live at those depths.

Helen Scales: It’s really extraordinary to think that it was, you know, at most, maybe 150 years ago when scientists were genuinely convinced that nothing lived in the deep ocean. That beyond the first few hundred meters, it was this vast empty void, an azoic place on our planet, as they called it.

Douglas McCauley: We couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s one of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made in thinking about the distribution of biodiversity on our planet, because these deep ocean spaces are incredibly rich in life and not just new life and interesting life, but weird, unique, fascinating, and important life. These are fabulously old ecosystems and…things simply grow slower. The pace of life ticks slower in the deep ocean because it is such a cold and high-pressure zone. And that’s actually very, very relevant when we think about that attribute of the ecology and the biology of deep ocean life. When we think about its capacity to recover after mining. These systems, because they’re so old, because they are so long-lived, are very, very incapable of recovering after human disturbance.

Erik Olsen: Potentially wreaking havoc on biologically rich, poorly understood, ecosystems may seem ill-advised, but the reality is that if we are to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, we will need to move to a more electric future, and that means batteries. We’ll need them for electric cars, for our homes when we have solar installed. Factories will use them. Even large cities might install massive banks of batteries to store energy generated from the sun or from wind farms.

Tesla has been building new battery factories for the last couple of years in places like Nevada and Germany. Construction on a new one in Lathrop, California started last fall. And to build all these batteries, we’re going to need a lot of minerals that are in relatively short supply on land.

Erik Olsen: Here’s Douglas McCauley again.

Douglas McCauley: Take, for example, cobalt. It’s a key ingredient, in fact, a near-magical ingredient in some of these modern batteries, like lithium-ion batteries that increases their performance and “energy to density”. And so, as … our own electronic life expands, as we begin to fast track, as we must, as we should, thinking and planning for electrification across our states and nations, at the heart of that new revolution … are batteries.

Erik Olsen: Building a sustainable future is likely going to require trade-offs, and as a society, we’re going to have to decide what is worth protecting versus what we will need to extract from the earth and its oceans to make that future a reality.

Samantha Smith: It’s something best described as the “sustainability paradox” because extracting metal from our planet inevitably comes from — comes with some environmental costs, regardless of where it occurs. 

Erik Olsen: This is Samantha Smith. She leads the sustainability program at Global Sea Mineral Resources or GSR. GSR is part of the DEME Group, a Belgian company that’s one of several within the European Union that hopes to begin mining polymetallic nodules in a part of the deep ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.  

Samantha Smith: One of the reasons GSR and DEME are interested in the CCZ nodules is that the four metals in the nodules never exist altogether on land in a single location. So that multi-metal, that multi-metal nature of the nodules means that a deep sea bed mining area could in effect be two or three land-based mines in one, which means that there is the potential to significantly reduce waste and CO2 emissions per ton of metal mined. We — and when I say we, I mean global we, global society — we do have some choices to make about where these metals should come from and the deep seabed is one option. And it’s one option that could have some advantages compared with relying solely on terrestrial mines. And some of those advantages include no need for deforestation, no need for people relocation, the potential to produce less waste and less CO2 per ton of metal mined.

Erik Olsen: In April of last year, GSR conducted several tests of a new prototype deep-seabed mining robot called Patania II that collected nodules from the seafloor. The company, and several others like it, are in the midst of an exploration phase to test equipment and do environmental surveys. None of these companies are yet allowed to actually mine the nodules. But it could happen sooner than we think.

Matthew Gianni: Well, it hasn’t yet begun in earnest, but there is a much greater commercial interest in deep seabed mining today than there was even five or 10 years ago.

Erik Olsen: This is Matthew Gianni. He’s the co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which comprises more than 100 nongovernmental organizations committed to the protection of the deep ocean.

Matthew Gianni: When you look at it, it’s kind of repeating the same mistakes that we’ve made over the last 300 years of the industrial revolution: going into a whole new part of the planet that we know very little about, embarking on large scale industrial resource extraction, whether it’s mining, whether it’s logging … And we could easily wake up in 30 or 40 or 50 years and say, “Oops, that was a big mistake.” But now there are millions of jobs dependent on the industry. There are millions of other — you know, hundreds of other — thousands of other industries depending on the supply of metal coming out of the deep sea…. We’ve got a deep-sea metal addiction the way we have a fossil fuel addiction now that we’re desperately trying to get ourselves free from.

Erik Olsen: With all this controversy, and consternation, over a potentially world-changing deep-sea resource that few people have ever heard of, maybe it’s time to ask: what exactly are polymetallic nodules and where do we find them?

Douglas McCauley: They look weird. I mean, let’s be honest … They are a strange rock.

Erik Olsen: This is Douglas McCauley again.

Douglas McCauley: So polymetallic nodules, geologically speaking are just fascinating.

Erik Olsen: One of these nodules is sitting in front of me on a table at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where McCauley is a professor and runs the Benioff Ocean Initiative.

Douglas McCauley: They are a tennis ball-sized mineral accretion that effectively form layer by layer by layer like a — mineralogically speaking — like the layers on an onion, except that these thin layers take millions and millions of years to actually grow.

Erik Olsen: These nodules began growing millions of years ago around what geologists call seed substrate.

Douglas McCauley: It could be an ancient fossil shark tooth. It could be a squid beak, this thing falls down to the seabed, is a little hard something, and then, layer by layer, in the really fascinating conditions that make up the deep ocean — these very low temperature, high-pressure ecosystems — create just the right kinds of conditions to allow that mineral to accrete layer by layer by layer.

Erik Olsen: The nodule is a cut cross-section of one that is about the size of an orange that’s been quartered. It looks like a dark brown rock, especially on the outside, but the open face of the cross-section is smooth, with an odd layering pattern that almost resembles tree rings. Closer to the core, the material gets rougher and appears as a lighter brown than the rest of the nodule. And in the very center is a small notch. That’s where the seed of the nodule that McCauley is talking about would have been.

Some estimates say that there could be trillions of these nodules spread out across the deep ocean. But there are a few places that scientists have discovered where they are especially abundant. One of the biggest, and richest, is known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone or CCZ. Here’s marine biologist Helen Scales again.

Helen Scales: The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is this huge area of this undulating abyssal plain. It stretches between Mexico and on, towards Hawaii, right through the middle of the Pacific. And it’s this huge area of nodule fields, where you find these rocks. The area is roughly the size of the lower 48. I mean, it’s absolutely massive, thousands of miles across, and this where most of the interest in deep-sea mining for nodules is currently focused.

Erik Olsen: So there is this massive area in the ocean — 1.7 million square miles in size by some estimates — where mining interests say the promise of a sustainable future lies on the seafloor. Enough minerals to make billions of batteries for electric vehicles, our homes, and possibly our cities. So who gets to say whether the CCZ gets exploited? The answer is: no one. Or at least no single country or person. The reason for this is that most of our seas are not controlled by any single country. Vast swathes of the ocean, also known as the high seas, lie beyond any single country’s jurisdiction. That includes the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. But there is a so-called supranational organization, mandated under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, that regulates the high seas. It’s called the International Seabed Authority.

Kristina Gjerde: Well, the International Seabed Authority is an independent, autonomous organization established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea back in 1982.

Erik Olsen: This is Kristina Gjerde, she’s the senior high seas advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Marine and Polar Program.

Kristina Gjerde: The International Seabed Authority was specifically established to administer deep seabed mining, but this is not its only mandate. It’s important to note that the international seabed area under the Law of the Sea Convention is designated as the common heritage of mankind. It’s both the area, the seafloor, and the sub-seabed, and the mineral resources that are part of this common heritage of mankind. The main provisions for seabed mining were drafted back in the 1970s when we had very little understanding about the deep-sea environment or what the potential impact of mining might be.

Erik Olsen: The International Seabed Authority, also known as the ISA, is made up of 167 member states and the European Union. It’s important to note that the United States is not a part of the International Seabed Authority. The ISA, remember, is mandated under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the U.S. never ratified it.

Kristina Gjerde: When the Law of the Sea Convention was negotiated in the 1970s, the U.S. was in fact a big supporter, including of its provisions for sharing the benefits of the revenue stream from seabed mining … Fast forward to 1980, and you had a new president come into power, President Ronald Reagan, and he called for a whole reconsideration of the U.S. position on seabed mining and the Law of the Sea Convention, and his people did not like the benefit-sharing, technology transfer provisions.

Erik Olsen: So while the U.S. is not part of the ISA, most countries are, and it is generally considered to be the legitimate regulating body for mining on the high seas. And the ISA has been granting licenses for companies to explore and possibly mine the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. That does not mean they get to mine for nodules yet, just that they can test equipment and collect baseline environmental data. As of May this year, the ISA has issued 17 exploration licenses to contractors wanting to exploit the CCZ for its nodules, including Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, and the state-owned China Minmetals Corporation. Both countries are part of the ISA. And a few of the contractors are companies who have gotten into the game by finding sponsoring states to represent them. One company in particular doesn’t want to wait, and some say they’ve employed a controversial strategy to force the issue. This is Matthew Gianni.

Matthew Gianni: The most aggressive at the moment is a company that used to be called DeepGreen but has now just been renamed The Metals Company … And The Metals Company has managed to use a very arcane, immediate post-Cold War rule that was tacked on to the Law of the Sea Convention … to trigger a so-called two-year rule.

Erik Olsen: The two-year rule that Matthew is talking about has been very controversial and the debate over its use is going on as we speak. Essentially, any member country of the ISA can trigger a deadline of two years, during which the organization must either complete regulations governing deep-sea mining, or provisionally allow mining to go forward. In June of 2021, the small island nation of Nauru triggered the rule, sponsoring a company called Nauru Ocean Resources, a subsidiary of The Metals Company.

​​Matthew Gianni: And if at the end of the two years, it hasn’t adopted those regulations, then The Metals Company gets some sort of provisional license to go and mine.

Erik Olsen: The Metals Company, did not reply to numerous requests for an interview with their CEO, Gerard Barron, to discuss their involvement with Nauru and triggering the two-year rule, and what their plans are for mining the deep seabed, should they get approval. But since the rule was triggered last June, more people have woken up to the potential harm that could result from deep-sea mining, and the pendulum may swing strongly against the idea.

Kristina Gjerde: We’re going into a period of intense scrutiny as to exactly what will happen.

Erik Olsen: Kristina Gjerde from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, again.

Kristina Gjerde: You have multiple forces. Some are saying, “Well, let’s adopt the rules and regulations as quickly as we can. Others are saying, “Wait a minute, if we’re going to adopt rules and regulations, these need to be as solid, as compliant with the Law of the Sea Convention’s intentions, and capable of being monitored and enforced. There’s a whole slew of unfinished business, if you will, that needs to be done before you would really be considering the rules and regulations ready for adoption.

And then there are still others in the environmental community, including now IUCN, who’s saying we really need a pause. We need time to consider moving towards a circular economy. We need to discuss, do we really need these deep sea minerals at all? How would we mine sustainably, if that is really possible? How do you limit the environmental effects, and how do you ensure that humankind is both compensated for any lost environmental services, environmental damage, per se, and that developing countries actually receive a fair share of any pie for an industry that was originally designed to actually help lift developing countries from poverty. So it’s a huge mess.

Erik Olsen: So, right now, when, or even whether, anyone will mine the deep sea, is an open question. Most people I talked to say it’s doubtful that the ISA will be able to come up with environmental regulations for mining that will satisfy scientists and the growing public outcry against it.

It should also be noted that several major companies, among them Google, BMW, Samsung, Volvo and Philips, have signed onto a call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, and have committed to not source any materials from the seabed. But at the moment, mining could still happen as early as 2026, according to the IUCN. The experts I have spoken to remain divided on whether that will happen. Here’s Douglas McCauley.

Douglas McCauley: This two-year sprint, that’s going now is right now projected to end in an event that’s going to be like letting a genie out of the bottle. We’re going to have one or two companies that are allowed to begin mining in the ocean, which will lead to tens or hundreds of companies and countries that are mining the ocean. We may start in one place, like the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the middle of the Pacific, which then will lead to mining in seamounts and sea vent communities … Once this thing starts, it’s going to be impossible to stop.

Erik Olsen: Marine biologist Helen Scales sees the pushback against deep sea mining growing.

Helen Scales: And I hope that that is gonna continue to grow … And that those voices coming from governments, coming from civil society, coming from corporations, that those voices are going to be listened to by ultimately the people who are making the decisions … and that’s the International Seabed Authority.

The science community, this momentum that’s building, it’s really important as well, because no one lives in the deep ocean. It’s the scientists who go there and study this place who are also the strongest advocates for protecting and looking after this place.

Erik Olsen: The fact remains that if the future is to be green, with many more wind farms, solar arrays, and hundreds of millions of batteries needed for us to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we’re going to have to get the metals somewhere. Maybe we will find them on land, but many places on land where we mine for minerals like cobalt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, can be politically unstable. Companies operating there are also known to exploit child labor. And the working conditions in these mines are miserable. The whole issue puts those who are concerned for the environment in a serious bind. Is mining the deep seabed inevitable? Matthew Gianni says no.

​​Matthew Gianni: And my response is no, it’s not inevitable. Seabed mining will only be permitted if countries decide to do it, the countries are responsible for that decision — the European Union, Germany, China, Japan, Chile, Russia, et cetera. And you can’t hide behind the inevitability of seabed mining and absolve yourself of any responsibility for making decisions at the ISA or opposing decisions being made by the ISA as a country member of that body. And say, “There was nothing we can do.” That’s not acceptable.”

Helen Scales: The next few months, the next few years are gonna be very telling for this industry… If deep-sea mining goes ahead, it holds the possibility of transforming huge parts of our ocean and, with it, the whole planet. And in terms of how humanity is exploiting the resources on our earth, this really is the biggest existential threat that we’ve come up with so far.

Lacy Roberts: Thanks for being here, Erik.

Erik Olsen: Hi Lacy. Thank you.

Lacy Roberts: So you really lay out quite the quandary in this piece. You know, we need the deep-sea minerals to build the more sustainable energy future that we need, but harvesting those minerals could unleash an environmental catastrophe. Have there been any studies comparing the impact of deep-sea mining to the impact of land mining? Is it possible that deep sea mining is the lesser of the two evils?

Erik Olsen: Well, the, the big study that came out that looked at the impacts of deep-sea mining was from MIT. It was very, very small scale. And by no means, can you say that it was the comparison to the impacts of terrestrial mining.

And the fact is, is they just haven’t done any of this mining, even on a small scale to speak of yet. And so, it’s very difficult, I think, to create a study that would compare the two. Um, you know, that said, we, we all know what the impacts are of terrestrial mining. You have mountaintops entirely removed in West Virginia for coal. In the Congo, you have, you know, massive gouges taken out of the earth with toxic chemicals being used in some cases to get the, the valuable minerals or the valuable metals out of the rock.

And a lot of the time that those toxic chemicals end up in tailing ponds, which can overflow into rivers and cause extensive damage. Um, so, you know, we know that the impacts of terrestrial mining can be very, very severe, especially if it’s not regulated. Because this hasn’t taken place yet at any scale in the ocean, it’s really difficult to make any comparison.

Lacy Roberts: You also paint a picture of mining companies that are just waiting on the sidelines to jump into this mining in the deep sea, but they’re held back by this waiting period while the ISA works to come up with their environmental regulations. So I’m wondering if, if the ISA doesn’t come up with those regulations in the two years it has, and I understand it’s, it’s less than two years at this point. Does that mean that mining companies can mine completely without regulation?

Erik Olsen: Oh, the answer is absolutely not. In fact, the ISA just met, uh, last week and the ISA is in a big quandary right now, right?

Now because of media coverage because of some studies that have been done showing what the potential impacts are because of scientists who study the deep ocean, really waking up to the damage that can be caused. There’s been a lot of pressure. And even though this two-year rule thing exists, the fact is that the Law of the Sea Convention does state very clearly that environmental impacts need to be considered. But it is going to be a fight, it’s not over. There will be a lot of debate and it’s going to be a fight. And I should add that there were some interesting, uh, articles out over the last week or so. People who attended the conference in Jamaica, where the ISA was meeting to take up this issue, said that they felt access to the actual discussions were very severely restricted. Some media outlets that have written on this before weren’t allowed in, because they were supposedly not mainstream media outlets…I think that’s of some concern.

Lacy Roberts: Wow. Well, we will wait and see. Um, thank you so much for shining a light on this super important issue.

Erik Olsen: Lacy. I appreciate it. Thank you very much. Hopefully it’s, uh, the podcast will be, you know, a way some people can come up to speed on this very, very, important environmental issue.

Lacy Roberts: Erik Olsen is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He’s focused on doing ocean science stories for the past decade. You can find more of his work at erikolsen.com.

We had some news we wanted to share — this will be the final episode of the Undark podcast for now. Thanks for being with us for these past six years — it’s been our pleasure to bring these science stories to your ears. Don’t forget, you can still find our journalism on Undark.org.

Our theme music was produced by the Undark Team with additional music in today’s episode from Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions. I’m Lacy Roberts. Thanks for being here.