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Deep Sea Rush

With valuable metals on the ocean floor, speculators are circling

Gerard Barron aims to be the first person in history to succeed in commercial deep sea mining, and he is growing frustrated with his detractors. “If you read some of the commentary from some of the environmentalists, it’s so sensational,” he says. “And it’s so bullshit, you know?” Barron is a talkative man, with the good looks of a bit character on a prestige television series. He speaks to me over Zoom from Portugal, where he’s working remotely from an Airbnb. “It’s art,” he tells me, when I ask him about the hooks and pegs on the wall behind him. He is wearing a lot of leather bracelets. The weather, when I glimpse the sky outside, looks beautiful.

Barron belongs to a fledgling class of new capitalists trying to build “compassionate” and eco-conscious corporations. He grew up on a dairy farm in Queensland, Australia, the youngest of five children, and founded his first company while he was still in college. Eventually, he moved to Canada, where he got involved in the automotive battery industry. But Barron’s greatest success has been in marketing: in 2001, he started a company called Adstream that has since expanded to thirty countries and helps brands like Mastercard, McDonald’s, Nissan, and Warner Brothers develop campaigns that will reach a global audience. “When an ad is delivered outside its country of origin there’s a risk that certain aspects of it may be out of step with the cultural customs and traditions of its new viewing audience,” an Adstream blog explains. “Generally speaking, a broader message crosses borders more clearly.”

Barron knows what sells around the world, which is not altogether comforting given his current ambitions. He is now the CEO of a mining outfit called DeepGreen, hailed for creating “mining’s Tesla moment” by, that aims to trawl the ocean floor for metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel—all of which the world will need in vast quantities if we hope to decarbonize the global economy.

“I liken it to a game of whack-a-mole,” says Barron of a green transition. “So, we whack down fossil fuels and up pops metals. . . . We’re not just talking about car batteries—we’re talking about grid storage, home storage, industrial storage, and heavy transportation. The demand for those metals that we’re currently using to build batteries is going to go off the charts.” We haven’t come anywhere close to whacking down fossil fuels, but otherwise Barron is right: the European Union released a report in early September warning that it was facing a critical shortage of rare metals. The Financial Times suggests that in order for the EU to meet its climate goals, “it will need up to eighteen times more lithium and five times more cobalt in 2030. The forecasts rise to sixty times for lithium and fifteen times more cobalt by 2050.”

Cobalt and lithium are key components of lithium-ion batteries, which are used for electric cars; copper is needed to conduct wind power. While these metals can be obtained through terrestrial mining, their extraction is arduous, carbon-intensive, and environmentally damaging. Scaling up current operations wouldn’t be simple. “Lithium isn’t rare,” Simon Moore, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told Al Jazeera in 2019. But “it takes anywhere between eight and ten years to build a lithium mine from scratch and to get it ramped up without any problems.” Deep sea mining, some believe, could offer a shortcut. The question is whether opening up a new extractive industry on the seafloor is an easy answer to the looming metals shortage, or an oceanic death march.

The Twilight Area

We know next to nothing about the ocean: a lawless, recondite mass, over 80 percent of which remains unmapped, that covers more than 70 percent of the planet; absorbs a third of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat generated by increased greenhouse gas emissions; and contains some of the largest mountain ranges on earth. Go down two hundred meters—the equivalent of two and half city blocks—and you start to lose sunlight, entering the twilight zone where the only illumination is bioluminescence. At a thousand meters you’re in the midnight zone, home to blind, gelatinous animals and the frill shark—a prehistoric-looking creature with teeth like fraying lace. At four thousand meters, you hit the abyssal zone, where most life feeds off the falling detritus of the dead and relies on the heat of hydrothermal vents to survive. Clustered around those vents are polymetallic nodules—small, black rocks each about the size of a potato. These potatoes are what DeepGreen is gunning after.

Polymetallic nodules were first discovered in 1868 in the Kara Sea, off the coast of Western Siberia, but deep sea mining expeditions first captured worldwide attention in 1974, when the U.S. government dispatched a large ship from Long Beach in California, in what they claimed was a deep sea mining expedition. In reality, it was a CIA cover story for an attempt to recover a Soviet submarine, known as Project Azorian. Billionaire Howard Hughes provided a civilian front for the mission and a ship—the Hughes Glomar—so that the United States could do covert recovery work on the sub while being monitored by international observers. A handful of recovered nodules were presented to engineers and corporate executives to bolster the cover story, but when it was revealed that no actual mining was taking place, and there would be no vast deep sea mining profits forthcoming, a public outcry followed. Investors felt they had been defrauded. In response to this compromised mission, as well as to international deep sea fishing rivalries, the Law of the Sea was written and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) formed.

DeepGreen wants to trawl the ocean floor for metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel—which the world will need if we hope to decarbonize the global economy.

The ISA was founded on a conflict of interest. It is both a licensing and a regulatory body, charged with selling off the seafloor as well as “effective protection of the marine environment [and] . . . prevention of damage to the flora and fauna.” A strange, opaque organization whose headquarters overlooks Kingston Harbor in Jamaica, the ISA’s main activity nowadays is issuing exploration contracts in international waters—an expanse known, somewhat forebodingly, as “The Area”—to various deep sea mining outfits. In order to obtain an exploration license—which allows a contractor to assess a particular tract’s resources and perform environmental impact studies but does not permit actual mining—companies need a sponsoring state to apply on their behalf. Lockheed Martin’s exploration contract, for example, is being sponsored by the United Kingdom; they are operating under the name UK Seabed Resources. The United States government is notably absent from the deep sea mining scramble, not because of any high-minded environmental concerns, but because it considers the Law of the Sea, which it has not ratified, to be insufficiently cruel. One of the central provisions states that the ocean belongs to the “common heritage of mankind,” and America, famously, does not believe in any such common heritage.

“It was a victory of socialism over capitalism in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War,” says Matt Gianni, who works with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, about the Law of the Sea. “Basically, amongst the [other] things that the seabed mining provisions of this convention do, is say, ‘If anybody goes out into the international area of the world’s oceans to exploit these seabed resources, they have to share the wealth with the whole of humankind.’” Under the royalty system, Gianni estimates that the payout would only amount to roughly $100,000 a year for individual countries. Most of the real money involved would go to the mining company, the sponsoring state, and, most troublingly, to the ISA. Still, when the Reagan administration came to power in 1981, they balked at the idea. “They said ‘No, this is communism,’” says Gianni. “‘This is socialism. We want none of this.’”

Today, the ISA is primarily driven by a body called the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC). Every year, member states arrive in Jamaica for the ISA’s annual meeting. Generally, the states that show up are those with a vested interest in beginning deep sea mining. Those states then nominate representatives to serve on the LTC, which is responsible for issuing exploration licenses. The body is composed largely of geologists and lawyers—not quite oil guys, but closely adjacent to the industry—who meet behind closed doors. There are few records of the meetings; business representatives are able to attend, but civilian observers and the press are locked out.

Shortly before I spoke to Matt Gianni about the Law of the Sea, he had attended a hearing on deep sea mining in Belgium’s Parliament. Gianni reported that Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the ISA, “made the extraordinary claim, as he often does, that the LTC is a completely independent advisory and the reason that it meets behind closed doors and its proceedings are relatively secret . . . is because they need to have the freedom to decide individually what’s the best thing to do and not be beholden to their [respective] states. Well, frankly that’s bullshit.” The LTC has never denied an exploration contract, and Michael Lodge himself appeared in an early promotional video for DeepGreen.

In total, the ISA has issued thirty exploration contracts in “The Area,” seven of which are held by private companies. DeepGreen holds three of those contracts, in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CZZ). They are being sponsored by the Pacific Nations of Tonga, Kiribati, and a tiny, desolate island republic called Nauru.

Duke of Nauru

If you went looking for a cautionary tale about capitalism, colonialism, and extractive industries, you would be hard pressed to find a better example than Nauru. Originally inhabited by twelve indigenous tribes, its first known contact with the Western world came in 1798, when a British trader sailing past Nauru from New Zealand to Calcutta spotted it and nicknamed it “Pleasant Island.” Afterward, Nauru developed a reputation as a haven for pirates, and it was largely avoided for years by all but deserters and convicts. Known as “beachcombers,” these men would help the indigenous islanders trade and communicate with passing ships. In 1878, as a critical mass of firearms began to accumulate on the island, a chief was shot in a drunken fight. A ten-year civil war broke out between the twelve tribes, ending only when the country was taken over by the Germans in 1888. Control of the island was then passed back and forth between the Germans, the British, the Australians, and the Japanese throughout both World Wars. It was attacked by Allied and Axis forces and only regained independence in the 1960s. But nothing destroyed Nauru like the British Phosphate Commission, which gutted the island in order to provide cheap fertilizer to British and Australian farmers.

One of the central provisions states that the ocean belongs to the “common heritage of mankind,” and America, famously, does not believe in any such common heritage.

After independence, the Nauruan government doubled down on the phosphate trade, knowing that it was only a matter of time before resources were exhausted. Today, more than 80 percent of the eight-square-mile island is uninhabitable, covered in knobs of phosphate that resemble tombstones or rotting teeth. The just over twelve-and-a-half thousand remaining Nauruans live clustered along the coast. With few trees “topside,” as Nauruans refer to the area overtaken by the phosphate mines, heat radiates off the island. Clouds drift away; rain has grown scarcer; king tides flood the coast and make the single main road, an artery that circles the island, impassable. Seawater contaminates the groundwater; dust from the dead mines causes respiratory issues; fish have begun dying off as the coral reefs surrounding the island bleach. In 1993, Nauru received $75 million from Australia for environmental remediation, but little to nothing has actually been done.

The bulk of the profits made when the mines were operational went to the British Phosphate Commission, although the Nauruans received small trust funds. During a period in the 1960s and 1970s, the island’s per capita income was among the highest in the world. That money came and went quickly, though. In 1993, the country’s then-financial adviser, a guy named—I shit you not—Duke Minks, a former roadie for the mercifully forgotten Brit Pop group Unit 4 + 2, suggested that Nauru’s financial problems could be alleviated by investing in a musical. Then-president Bernard Dowiyogo loved the idea. Nauru sunk over a couple million into Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love, which was essentially fan fiction, co-written by Minks, about a hypothetical affair between Da Vinci and the subject of the Mona Lisa. In June 1993, as Nauruan dignitaries were departing to attend its London premier, a group of women and children stormed the airport tarmac in protest of the musical and the misuse of public funds. The production was a flop, and Nauru did not recoup its losses.

After a brief foray into offshore banking, the big business in Nauru then became detention centers. Since 2001, much of the island’s income has come from housing refugees seeking shelter in Australia, part of the contentious “Pacific Solution.” Refugees live in what are reportedly horrific conditions; children attempt suicide regularly, people sew their mouths shut, and one Iranian man, Omid Masoumali, set himself on fire in 2016. As of June 30, 137 refugees were still on Nauru waiting for repatriation, but the program is winding down.

The island still collects no income tax, and abandoned mansions litter the coast. Having depleted their previous revenue streams, the Nauruan government is looking for a new way to make money—and, for sponsoring states, deep sea mining could mean quite a bit of money. But it also entails a certain amount of risk. The whole point of requiring a sponsoring state, rather than just allowing private companies to mine the sea at will, is that the state will be held co-responsible for any potential environmental damages, which could be staggering. Back when the Law of the Sea was first written, Matt Gianni says, “they thought these nodules were a renewable resource. That they would form as quickly or even more quickly than you can find them. A bit like Thomas Huxley, back in the 1800s, saying it’s impossible to overfish the ocean.”

Technically, the nodules are a renewable resource, but they take an incomprehensible amount of time to form. Ocean currents carry dissolved metals across the abyssal zone until they collect around a nucleus—a shark’s tooth, for example, or a fragment of whale bone—and coagulate in concentric circles. Dense, black rock slowly begins to appear. The nodules grow only a few centimeters every million years, and no one is totally sure how they remain perched atop the seabed, unobscured by falling sediment, which accretes much faster. Geologists suspect it has to do with the feeding patterns of starfish.

A Drop-Dead Date

There is a certain occult quality to the minerals that might save us from ecological ruin. Cobalt, which is found bound together with arsenic, was originally named kobald, or “the goblin,” by German miners who would smelt the ore, only to be greeted by startling blue and poisonous fumes. Nickel was named after a mischievous demon, also by German miners, who mistook it for copper before melting it down. And across one hydrothermal field along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, three-story-high spires of phosphate known as The Lost City rise out of the seafloor. Scientists believe it may be where all life on earth originated. Nevertheless, the ISA handed it over in 2017 as part of Poland’s exploration license.

Polymetallic nodules represent only one kind of deep sea mining—cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts line seamounts and ocean ridges, and polymetallic sulfides surround chimney-like hydrothermal vents called black smokers. But nodule mining is unique because it appears to be the least invasive form of extraction; one simply descends into the depths of the sea and scoops the things up. This is part of Gerard Barron’s complaint about the environmentalists who oppose DeepGreen’s work: “It’s as though the oceans are in perfect shape. They’re not, the oceans are halfway to being screwed because of global warming.” He finds many of the concerns directed his way histrionic and shortsighted, and he believes that some of his critics are confusing the impacts of different kinds of seafloor mining.

“We think of our machines as gentle giants,” says Barron. “Using a variety of really cool engineering, you know, things like the Coandă effect, which allows you to pick up an object without even touching the surface—it’s how planes take off, basically. Engineers love solving these problems, and we have an opportunity [to] design things that minimize impact.”

Of course, it is not really as simple as plucking something off the ocean floor. Much of the available research on deep sea ecosystems has come to light as a result of deep sea mining companies, who have to perform due diligence before mining begins. The results of the studies have not worked in their favor. Researchers have found highly varied and complex ecosystems and significant biodiversity; a 2017 paper in Marine Biodiversity estimated that nearly half of the megafauna within the Clarion Clipperton Zone depend on the polymetallic nodules for survival. Put simply, we have no idea what kind of cascading effects DeepGreen’s extraction process might set off. So little happens in the deep sea that large scale sediment disruptions could be catastrophic. Removing the nodules is only one step; the resulting wastewater will also have to be disposed of and could damage miles of midwater ecosystems.

“They’re talking fantasy,” says Matt Gianni of the deep sea mining speculators. He estimates that in order to double global cobalt production, you would need a minimum of twenty-two Clarion Clipperton Zone mines. To double copper production, you would need to be operating 648 mines.

Gianni is far from alone in his skepticism. “Even the greenest type of mining in the deep sea would cause just horrendous damage to these ecosystems, as well as pull up sediment that stores much of the carbon,” says Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceanographer at Greenpeace. “We’re worried that companies like DeepGreen are going to fast track the process in favor of industry without considering the environment, and we’re going to end up with a new extractive industry in the oceans. Now it’s easy, because it doesn’t exist. There’s very little investment in it. But once it’s started, that sets all the financial balls rolling. It will be extremely difficult to undo once it starts.”

Scientists and environmental activists have called for a ten-year moratorium on all deep sea mining to study its potential impacts, as well as for reform of the ISA. They’ve been joined by the European Parliament, deep sea fishing organizations, and the prime ministers of Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. Barron, meanwhile, is reportedly considering triggering the ISA’s two-year rule, which stipulates that the ISA has two years to get regulations ready before it issues an exploitation contract and mining can begin. It was put into place largely at the behest of the United States, which wanted some sort of assurance that if they were to get involved in deep sea mining, smaller nations wouldn’t be able to stop them.

Duke Minks, a former roadie for a mercifully forgotten Brit Pop group suggested that Nauru’s financial problems could be alleviated by investing in a musical about Leonardo and the Mona Lisa.

DeepGreen isn’t the only company that wants to see mining start—Norway, according to Gianni, has been “quite vocal about it,” too, although they’re looking to mine within their own waters. The Norwegian state oil company, Equinor, is under tremendous public pressure domestically to move away from fossil fuels. “I also wouldn’t be surprised,” says Gianni, “[if] countries like Norway may be quietly encouraging Nauru to trigger the two-year rule. Because they want to see regulations in place quickly, but they themselves would not want to take the political heat by doing so. But Nauru? Small Island Developing State, needs the revenue, you know. Who can blame Nauru for this?”

When I ask Barron if he is planning on triggering the rule, he demurs. “Well, it’s not for us to trigger, it would be for the member state to trigger,” he says. “Do I think a drop dead date would be useful for the development of this industry? Yes, I do.” We talked about why Nauru had been chosen as a sponsor state to begin with. I wanted to know if it was because of the island nation’s general disarray—a 2018 report from the Lowry Institute for International Policy stated that “Nauru has recently lurched towards authoritarianism”—or if he was looking to avoid the kind of pushback that DeepGreen’s predecessor, Nautilus Minerals, got from the indigenous people of their sponsoring state, Papua New Guinea. Barron becomes uncomfortable. Everything with Nauru was completely transparent and aboveboard, he insists. “I just thought it would be an interesting story to have one of the smallest economies sponsoring one of the most ambitious ideas,” he says. “Because these small nations, you know, have a voice, but it doesn’t get heard.”

Nautilus Minerals, in which Barron was an early investor, was doing a different kind of mining, digging up ferromanganese crusts within sovereign waters: “Very different business to start with.” “Nautilus was the pioneer that ended up with all the arrows in the back, I guess,” he continues. “A lot of lessons were learned, and a lot of mistakes were made.”

Sunk Costs

Those lessons began in 2010, when Nautilus Minerals managed to obtain both an exploration and an exploitation license within Papua New Guinea’s national waters, about thirty kilometers off the coast of New Ireland. It was called the Solwara 1 Project. This did not sit well with the locals, who believed their government had sold them out. A resistance group formed, calling themselves the Solwara Warriors; they organized with the influential PNG Council of Churches to fight back. The pressure they put on government officials, along with investor dissatisfaction with Nautilus, ultimately sank the enterprise.

“My mom’s experience with the Bougainville crisis concerning mining? That was the thing that really got me,” says John Momori, a local activist involved in the Solwara Warriors. Bougainville is a neighboring island in PNG and the site of one of the world’s largest copper mines in the 1970s and 1980s, which catalyzed a civil war between the people of Bougainville and the PNG government. Thirty years after the site’s closure, wastewater is still poisoning the people who live downstream. “On my mother’s side, we’ve experienced this, and people lost thousands of lives, twenty thousand lives lost. Because of the decisions of the government and corporate companies, coming in to prey on our resources at the expense of the livelihood of the little people. That’s our land, and the sea, too, belongs to us,” Momori continued.

A totally ethical green transition remains elusive when one man’s solar farm is another man’s cobalt tailing pond; there will be a seamy underbelly to any Green New Deal.

Gerard Barron would say that the Bougainville mining crisis is exactly the kind of situation that DeepGreen can help alleviate. They aim for their entire operation to be carbon neutral by 2050, and they’re able to avoid many of the human rights violations that come with land-based mining. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, for example, is currently produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of the larger mines are owned by corporations that employ heavy machinery, but a fair amount of the metal comes from smaller, independently operated “artisanal” mines that rely on child labor. Unemployment in the DRC is high, and the circumstances of the cobalt rush are particularly brutal—kids are often killed or maimed working in the tunnels after their parents are unable to pay their school fees. Deep sea mining doesn’t resolve the issue of child labor or the endemic poverty that leads to it, but it does offer an alternative.

Nautilus was unable to communicate their vision effectively to investors and locals, but in some ways, they were offering a more honest vision than the gospel of New Mining Humanism pushed by DeepGreen. “Nautilus were a bunch of cowboys as far as I could tell,” says John Childs, a professor at Lancaster University who researches extractive industries. He went out to Papua New Guinea in 2016 as part of his research into deep sea mining. “I interviewed Mike Johnson, who was the CEO at the time,” he tells me.

Not someone you’d necessarily want to take home and meet your mum. [He was saying] you know, “I can’t understand why these guys aren’t happy. We’re building them toilets. I’ve seen their toilet conditions, they’re dreadful.” It was like the worst kind of stereotypical, old school, colonial attitude. Pretty grim stuff. They had this headquarters, which was not very big—it was at the back of a shopping center in Brisbane. Honestly, it was all smoke and mirrors as far as I was concerned. You have this big public image of Nautilus as the world’s leading deep sea mining firm, but it was Wizard of Oz stuff. You get in there and there’s not very much going on.

Barron wants us to believe that this time will be different. If he is coy about DeepGreen’s intention to trigger the two-year rule, he has much more to say about the prospect of the ten-year moratorium championed by scientists and environmentalists. The trouble, he says, “is, if you do that, then all the money disappears. My stakeholders would say, ‘Gerard, good try, we’re not sticking around for this.’ And you know, who would be the loser then? Well, the planet would be the loser.”

But it’s clear, at this point, that DeepGreen would be the loser. A 2016 report from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology, Sydney suggests that we can actually decarbonize the global economy without deep sea mining. Even under the most advanced and ambitious decarbonization plans, the silver and lithium required would only comprise about 35 percent of known terrestrial resources. And we need less than 5 percent of all other metals—nickel, cobalt, copper, etc. Of course, “known resources” are not the same as readily available resources: the report estimates we will need 99 percent of the available lithium and 94 percent of the available silver. So the margins are worryingly tight, yes, but that alone isn’t a compelling argument to open a mining site the size of Nebraska in the Pacific, and a ten-year moratorium to study the impacts of this industry on the largest carbon sink we currently have working for us is not an overreaction.

Toward the end of our interview, Barron turns the tables, asking me what I think about the prospect of deep sea mining. I tell him I think that any Green New Deal that comes to pass is going to end up being much messier than people would like to believe. That the rhetoric around decarbonization and sustainability is inspiring, but it will ultimately involve a lot of pain. I am not sold on deep sea mining, though. He likes this answer, I suppose for its ambiguity. “Well, what I’d say is, you know . . . be brave. Don’t just fall for the line that we should just wait and see.”

It is not difficult to see why the man succeeded in advertising. But it would also be a mistake to dismiss deep sea mining out of hand. Humanity’s path to a habitable future grows narrower by the day—and there are competing visions as to what “habitable” means and for whom. Decarbonization is often presented as a choice between technological innovation and degrowth, when realistically we are probably going to need both. Corporations and the wealthy account for the bulk of global emissions, but the way most of the developed world lives is so clearly unsustainable that it’s difficult to defend. Personal sacrifice doesn’t sell well, but things are going to get grosser before they get better.

Barrons of the Future

In April 2019, The Intercept released a video narrated by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entitled “A Message from the Future.” It’s a speculative short that follows the life of a young woman, post–Green New Deal. She restores wetlands in Louisiana with a new, climate-focused Americorps; the country gets to work retrofitting buildings with solar panels; and the woman becomes a teacher, then a congresswoman, with the help of publicly funded elections. It’s a beautiful ad and a useful promotional tool, but there is something unbearably sad about it: it’s a fantasy. A totally ethical green transition remains elusive when one man’s solar farm is another man’s cobalt tailing pond, and there will be a seamy underbelly to any Green New Deal we manage to win.

DeepGreen is betting that if they make their message clear and legible to the public, it will be enough. They will be able to ignore the risks their own research has brought to light and present themselves as the ethical alternative, the white knight of decarbonization. In some ways, we have been here before. As Ocasio-Cortez explains in “A Message from the Future,” by 1977 ExxonMobil was privately funding some of the most groundbreaking and damning research on climate change. “So did Exxon listen to the science, including their own?” she asks. “No. They knew and they doubled down. They and others spent millions setting up a network of lobby groups and think tanks to create doubt and denial about climate change. It was an effort designed to attack and dispute the very kind of science they themselves had been doing. And it worked.” The death of the oil and gas industry is far from a foregone conclusion, but as money starts to collect around the new scions of Green Growth, there’s no reason to believe they will handle the corresponding power any more judiciously than their predecessors. We need better extractive industries. We may just end up with more.

“I’ve seen it for years in terrestrial-based mining,” John Childs told me. “Men making decisions based on very old tricks, that deep sea mining started to try and copy. And they realized quickly that they couldn’t do that, they had to come up with some new tricks. But I mean, I think actually when you start digging around, it ain’t so different, you know? It’s still about trying to win people’s minds.”