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Deep Seabed Mining

Volume 814: debated on Monday 6 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have (1) to support, and (2) to campaign for, an international moratorium on deep seabed mining.

My Lords, the UK has a strong and respected voice in negotiations at the International Seabed Authority, where we continue to emphasise the need for the highest possible environmental standards. The UK has committed not to sponsor or support the issuing of any exploitation licences for deep sea mining projects unless and until there is sufficient scientific evidence about the potential impact on deep sea ecosystems and strong and enforceable environmental regulations and standards are in place.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that the rules to which he just referred are unlikely to be in place by July 2023, when, under current international regulations, full-scale mining, not just exploration, can commence—expert observers say that they are unlikely to be in place then? Further, does he think it acceptable that the International Seabed Authority—the licensing body for mining—benefits from revenue from that mining, giving it a clear conflict of interest, and that it has never turned down an exploration application?

The problem with the noble Baroness’s call is that if we just announce a moratorium, it will have no practical effect—other nations would just get on and negotiate treaties accordingly. We think the best, most constructive thing to do is to engage and make sure that strong and enforceable environmental standards are in place before any mining takes place.

Notwithstanding the answer given just now by my noble friend, and bearing in mind that Her Majesty’s Government have said that they will not instigate any damage to the seabed until the scientific evidence is there, does it not surely make sense to encourage a moratorium—although, as he says, discussions should still take place?

I think my noble friend has said essentially the same thing: we should take part in constructive discussions; anything else is just rhetoric.

My Lords, deep seabed mining is associated with the fragmentation of ecosystems and the loss of marine species. As we know, one of the best solutions is recycling and reusing minerals such as magnesium, cobalt and zinc, which are often the targets of deep seabed mining. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to accelerate this principle of recycling? Can the Minister explain a little more about the consultation and discussions with the ISA?

The noble Lord is absolutely correct. The net zero campaign that we all contribute to and support will produce massive demand for many of those minerals, so investing in two new interdisciplinary circular economy centres—one on technology metals and one on circular metals—will help. Separately, Defra will be consulting later this year on new measures that will ensure that we better manage electronic waste and do more to drive up reuse and recycling, because of course that is a much preferable solution.

Does the Minister agree that it seems deeply ironic that we are now about to dig up these nodules from the ocean without full knowledge of what that will do environmentally? We did the same with oil, and now we are trying to retract. As was just mentioned, recycling is one method of finding the metals that we need, but scientists now know that there are many other ways to produce the necessary batteries and technologies. In the same way that solar and wind power have now taken over from fossil fuels, we can avoid digging up the ocean. I would call for a moratorium, and I should like the Government’s opinion on how much R&D is going in the right direction.

I know that the noble Baroness is a big supporter of our net-zero policy, but many of the critical minerals found on the deep seabed are important and often irreplaceable in electric vehicle batteries, offshore wind turbines and other technologies. But of course we need to pursue alternative research and development, and find alternative battery technology, and, as the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, said, reuse and recycling will also be very important.

In the light of what the Minister just said, what metrics will the Government use to balance the need to reduce carbon emissions by encouraging the use of sustainable energy sources for the development of electric batteries against the potential for ecological damage caused by the extraction of seabed minerals used in battery production?

It is important to say that there are no mining projects ongoing at the moment; there is a discussion about possible mining projects in future. Our position is that we need to ensure that, before any projects take place, strong environmental regulations and controls are put in place, and we are playing a critical role in helping to ensure that.

My Lords, yesterday the congress of the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, agreed the wording of a motion calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining. How do our Government plan to vote on that?

We are engaging closely in the process. We will possibly abstain on the final resolution, but we are working closely with our international partners to drive this and ensure strong and sustainable progress.

My Lords, the problem is the environmental degradation inherent in mining for manganese, nickel and cobalt, whether you do it from the seabed or on land. This issue has been mentioned already. Will the Government commit themselves to doing the massive research project that is required so that we can have batteries for our electric cars that do not require that sort of environmental degradation?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Indeed, we are doing just that, with the Faraday challenge and many of our other R&D technologies. We have an extensive programme of research into new technologies. Of course we have to do that; I completely agree with the noble Lord.

My Lords, the integrated review quite rightly stresses the need to be an international lawmaker, and the United Kingdom should play a vital part in that. Given that the International Seabed Authority is part of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and that the United States has still failed to ratify that convention, will the Government use COP 26 and any other forum to ensure that the United States signs up to these international agreements?

The noble Baroness is quite right: the US is not part of the UNCLOS treaty; a number of other states are also not part of it. Of course we continue to engage with all our friends and partners internationally to encourage them to take part in these initiatives.

Does the Minister agree that, of the 12 countries on the list of countries that have exploration licences, a large number are clearly very small? They are reportedly relying on major international contractors to do all the work for them, including representing them on the International Seabed Authority. Does he therefore agree that there is a need for more independent technical expertise before this goes any further?

We work very closely with the companies based in the UK, including those to which we have issued exploration licences and those conducting R&D. That has produced a tremendous amount of research—something like 70 scientific papers so far—which of course we will seek to draw from. But we need to be responsible. The UK deciding not to take part in this and issuing a moratorium does not of course prevent other countries from doing it.

My Lords, undoubtedly a moratorium is required. In view of this, will the Minister outline what steps the Government will take to safeguard our precious fishing industry and unique fish species?

Of course, safeguarding the marine environment is extremely important. We would engage in extensive public consultation ahead of making any decision to issue or sponsor any deep-sea mining exploitation licences. That of course would include engaging fully with the fishing industry.

My Lords, BMW, Volvo, Google and Samsung are saying publicly that there should be a moratorium on the proposals to dig up metals from the deep sea and that other ways should be found to extract cobalt to make batteries to fuel the future switch to electric vehicles and increased mobile phone use. Can the Minister advise the House of the Government’s position on the views expressed by these major car and technology companies?

Well, of course they are entitled to their position; I would just advise the noble Baroness to read carefully exactly what they said in their declarations. The World Bank has estimated that something like 3 billion tonnes of metals and minerals will be needed to fully decarbonise the global energy system by 2050, so we must be careful, proceed with caution and do all the appropriate scientific analysis. But there is widespread support in this House for the net-zero challenge and we must provide the means to do it.