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Deep Seabed Mining

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impacts of deep seabed mining on (1) ocean health, and (2) the wider environment; and what discussions they have had with (a) the International Seabed Authority, and (b) its member nations, on permitting deep seabed mining.

My Lords, we recognise the growing pressure to extract deep sea resources and are deeply concerned about the potential impacts of mining activities on the fragile marine environment. Informed by evidence, we will continue to listen to and contribute to discussions on deep seabed mining, including those at the International Seabed Authority, pressing for the highest environmental standards in relation to existing exploration activity and potential future commercial exploitation, should that be approved by the ISA.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his first foray into Question Time in the House of Lords. The main thing about the deep seabed is what we do not know—there are an awful lot of unknown unknowns. But we know the result of the deep sea mining evidence review, which his Government commissioned:

“Mining in the deep sea will cause adverse impacts to the environment”.

While we wait to see what this will mean for what we do know, we do not want another environmental disaster, as we have had from the consequences of oil, for instance. Will the Government announce a pause or moratorium on all this deep sea mining?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her question. The UK recognises the growing pressure to extract deep sea resources. The UK’s policy is not to sponsor or support the issuing of any exploration licences for deep sea mining projects unless and until there is sufficient scientific evidence about its potential impact on deep sea ecosystems and strong, enforceable environmental regulations, standards and guidelines have been developed by the ISA and are in place. The UK’s approach is precautionary and conditional, and it is correct. The Government will continue to play an active role in the ISA and make sure that we listen to the evidence.

My noble friend will be aware that, in the winter months, seahorses can go 200 feet deeper towards the seabed and that deep sea mining has the potential to have a very serious negative effect on their habitat—the mining, the chemicals and the noise—and displace them. A more immediate threat to seahorses globally is the continuing pernicious trade in them. Will he join me and the Seahorse Trust, of which I am a patron, in trying to stamp out the illegal trade of seahorses on Meta once and for all?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I am very happy to offer him my full support on this issue. I will clearly have to take that back to the department to find what the position is, but it certainly makes perfect sense to me. I completely support him in the incredibly important work that he is doing.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his first Oral Questions. In the Government’s strategy on critical minerals, which are key for global supply chains and our own supply chains, they stressed the circular economy—recycling and getting critical minerals from resources that we already have. Will he confirm that that is a priority well before we do deep sea mining? One way of doing that is to make sure that we have standardisation on things such as batteries, so that they can be disassembled and their materials can be used again efficiently and quickly.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his opening comments. The simple answer is that we need to continue to investigate all possibilities. The point that he has made is incredibly important and we need to continue that investigation. Regarding deep sea mining, it is important that we continue to develop a future society based on renewable energy and technology. It will be critical to find sources of reliable, clean and ethically sourced mineral resources, which is why we will continue to work very closely with the ISA. To his very important point, we will certainly make sure that we are using all the resources that we have and that we are not damaging the planet.

My Lords, in response to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, the Minister referred to the Government wanting sufficient evidence about the potential impact of deep sea mining projects on the deep sea ecosystem. Can he assure the House that that means the Government will not approve any exploitation licences for deep sea mining projects unless the Government are clear that there will be no impact on the deep sea ecosystems?

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister today, although we have done debates in Grand Committee. What sort of impact will the beyond national jurisdiction treaty that has been agreed have on our position in the International Seabed Authority’s discussions on future licences? The sea is often open territory, not governed by Governments and countries. It is really important that we have international co-operation on this issue.

I thank the noble Lord for his opening comments. It is important, as he says, for us to make sure that we are working globally on this subject. As a responsible international actor and party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the UK will continue to engage fully with negotiations under way at the International Seabed Authority and we will work closely with partners who are committed to ensuring a regulatory framework with the highest level of environmental protection by 2025.

My Lords, I too welcome the noble Lord to his first Oral Questions. He is doing quite well at the moment, so well done.

I hope that did not sound too patronising. Are the Government doing any independent research of their own or encouraging universities to do the sort of research that we need? As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said, it is the unknown unknowns that are a real concern.

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments; I am very pleased with her scorecard halfway through. The Government are very much committed to research. That is not only through the ISA, although we are a very active partner there; we have a UK-based scientist at the heart of that research programme. It is hugely important that we focus everything in terms of the ISA, which is very much focused on exploration at the moment. Clearly, the Government will not move until we get those international agreements in place.

My Lords, there is huge opposition to deep sea mining from scientists, relevant experts, world-leading businesses and financial institutions representing over €3.3 trillion in combined assets—and, added to that, 73% of the UK public, as reported recently by ICM Unlimited. Will the Government join France, Germany, Canada and other states in calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining? Let us face it: no amount of regulation will stop the churn of the seabed and the disturbance of currently safely sequestered carbon sediments.

I know the noble Baroness takes an incredibly active interest in this subject, having asked a similar question not too long ago. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress, the UK abstained from voting on the motion for a moratorium on deep sea mining simply because it did not fully align with UK policy. However, no deep sea mining is currently happening in areas beyond national jurisdictions. There are no exploration licences for deep sea mining and no exploitation regulations have yet been agreed.

Does my noble friend accept that what he has said will cover all the overseas territories? The confetti of empire, so to speak, gives us considerable control over a great deal of the seabed, but these territories must be entirely part of this programme.

I thank my noble friend for his question. I know he has an incredibly keen interest in this subject. The answer to that question is yes, of course. We need to make sure that all those territories are involved in this.

My Lords, while we are on the matter of the seabed, a related factor, very deep sea net fishing, is extremely damaging to the ocean bottom, releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Do the Government have a position on this? What can they do to discourage this very damaging form of fishing?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, but I simply do not know the answer. I will take that back to the department and be in touch.