Deep sea mining
To the public, the expedition would be the first attempt to mine the deep sea’s metal nodules. In reality, it was an elaborate ruse.
In 1968, U.S. authorities had learned Soviet submarine K-129 had sunk in more than 5,000 metres of water, roughly 2,500 kilometres northwest of Hawaii.
Working with Hughes and his new Glomar Explorer ship, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency planned to recover the submarine and its nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
In 1975, reporting by the Los Angeles Times and later The New York Times would reveal the outline of what some have described as “the most daring covert operation in history.”
The story has shifted throughout the years, with some suggesting most of the submarine was recovered and others saying it broke up as it was pulled from the depths to the ship’s “moon pool” — a shaft through the bottom for lowering and raising equipment into or from the water.
Whatever the case, the extraordinary stories that emerged from what was declassified as Project Azorian in 2010 also helped set off a reckoning over who should have access to the deep — and in particular, the riches sitting on its abyssal floor.
A half-dozen competing international consortia would begin piloting deep-sea mining in the late 1970s. But by the early 1980s, commodity prices had dropped and that work was shelved as companies cut back their research budgets. As German historian Ole Sparenberg put it, deep-sea mining was essentially “dead in the water.”
Concerns over the environment and equity for less wealthy nations eventually led the United Nations to draw up the International Seabed Authority — also known as the ISA or “the Enterprise” — in 1982 under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and ratify its existence in a 1994 implementation agreement.
Today, the Jamaica-based body is made up of 167 member nations and the European Commission.
A custodian of the deep sea as a “common heritage,” the ISA’s mandate is to facilitate the extraction of mineral resources from the seabed, while at the same time protecting the deep-sea environment.
The prevailing sentiment at the time was that land-based mining was much more profitable, “and how are you gonna do this anyway?” said Tunnicliffe.
Even if the technology and financing were there to pull the metals from the deep, no regulations existed to allow for mining in international waters.
That is, until an ambitious company from Vancouver triggered a countdown that could open the floodgates for deep-sea mining and prompt a new age of resource exploitation.
>>> Halfway through a two-year countdown
On an overcast day in June, a handful of activists, scientists and artists dedicated to sea life unfurled an ocean-blue banner near Vancouver’s seawall and took aim at The Metals Company, whose headquarters sits in a nondescript office tower five blocks away.
“Imagine house-sized machines crawling along the seabed and indiscriminately vacuuming up the contents,” said Michelle Connolly, an ecologist who travelled 10 hours from Prince George to help lead the rally.
Through its wholly owned subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources, The Metals Company has an exploratory licence covering four areas in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone — a nodule-rich area halfway between Hawaii and Mexico where the company is looking to explore nearly 75,000 square kilometres of sea bed.
That contract is among 31 the ISA has handed out since 2001, when the price of metals began to surge again.
Until 2010, the international body largely granted contracts to national agencies. But as the price of metals climbed and technology developed, several companies have looked to get into the race.
“If you remember, that was when people were going around knocking down copper statues and stealing copper wires,” said Tunnicliffe. “That’s what suddenly turned [companies] back to looking at the deep sea.”
Nineteen different companies have sought exploration contracts to probe abyssal plains for the polymetallic nodules.
Another seven contracts have been granted to companies looking to mine hydrothermal mineral deposits around hot vents.
And in a third target for submarine mining, the ISA has approved five exploration contracts for underwater mountain ranges known as seamounts, where underwater peaks and ridges are at times covered in crusts of cobalt, platinum, manganese and rare earth metals — a multimillion-year process of accretion deposited like a 30-centimetre-thick cap of black snow.
All of those contracts are exploratory and none include provisions to carry out industrial-scale mining, largely because the ISA had not yet written the rules of the road.
That changed in June 2021, when the small island nation of Nauru, acting as a sponsor of Nauru Ocean Resources, approached the ISA, requesting that it establish a set of regulations that would govern how companies could mine the deep.
Through an obscure clause, which set off a two-year countdown under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ISA must finalize a set of regulations.
A final decision is expected to be released in July 2023, according to Tunnicliffe, who in the past led a mining working group at the ISA, providing expert scientific advice to help draft anticipated regulations around deep-sea mining.
Applications to commercially mine the seabed will still have to be approved on a case-by-case basis, with each one requiring an environmental review process, said the scientist.
“But at that point,” she said. “The inevitability is there.”
>>> Companies reaching a technology threshold
Despite concerns, the experiments keep coming.
In 2017, Japan conducted a pilot mining test in its Economic Exclusion Zone around Okinawa. And in 2019, Global Sea Mineral Resources began testing a collector vehicle to suck up nodules in exploration areas handed to Belgium and Germany.