Government faces huge, unquantified liabilities over potentially “catastrophic” deep-sea mining industry

December 04, 2020


An investigation into the UK’s involvement in the opaque deep-sea mining industry has revealed that the British taxpayer could face enormous liabilities for damage done to marine ecosystems, which will not recover for millions of years, should deep-sea mining be allowed to go ahead.  The report, published today by Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE), also revealed that UK Government has failed in its duty to quantify the potential economic benefit to the Treasury of deep-sea mining, despite numerous promises to do so over the past two years and, worse still, that any profits that are made from the risky new industry could be siphoned off to large US-based parent companies.  The publication of the report coincides with the expected re-election of the controversial British Secretary General of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), Michael Lodge, as part of the 26th Session of the ISA.

The failure on the part of the Government to conduct the important economic assessment has arisen despite it being a specific recommendation made by a Parliamentary Select Committee in January 2019 which concluded that deep-sea mining “would have catastrophic impacts on the seafloor site and its inhabitants”.  Despite this warning, and the absence of the promised economic analysis to show what benefit, if any, deep-sea mining might offer the British taxpayer, the UK Government has chosen to sponsor a wholly-owned subsidiary of US corporate giant Lockheed Martin to pursue the risky new industry.  A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by BLUE to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) requesting the licence it holds with UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UKSRL) – the Lockheed Martin subsidiary – was denied.

The report highlights the “untold harm” that could arise from the commencement of deep-sea mining, both to the unique and mostly undiscovered marine life and to the treasure chest of seafloor fossils belonging to ancient, extinct whales and sharks.  The impacts on important global processes like climate regulation and nutrient cycling are also unknown.  As a result, the marine conservation charity has called for a “precautionary pause” on deep-sea mining to be implemented until further research has been undertaken.

Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter, said: “There is far more at stake here than national pride or corporate profits. That is why this report calls for deep-sea mining to be paused – the world needs to know far more about deep-sea life and its role in the global environmental processes that keep the planet habitable.  We must find this out before the damage is done, not when it is too late.”

In 2018, then-energy minister Claire Perry notified MPs that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was commissioning an independent analysis of the potential economic benefit of deep-sea mining to the UK which would report in early 2019 – a promise that was repeated in February 2019 when MP Perry told a parliamentary debate that they had “undertaken to analyse the potential economic value to the UK” of its deep-sea mining licences, and “that work should be completed this summer”.  The report by BLUE published the results of several Freedom of Information Act requests, one of which revealed that no such analysis was undertaken.

Jess Rattle, Head of Communications at Blue Marine Foundation, said: “Our research shows that the UK Government doesn’t know what the environmental harm of deep-sea mining would be and can’t say what the benefit of deep-sea mining for the UK will be, but is championing it anyway. What we do know is that, should this US-controlled company cause unforeseen damages to the environment as a result of the UK failing in its duties as a sponsoring state, the British taxpayer may find themselves on the hook for the costs of compensation or remediation, although no amount of money would be able to undo the damage done to deep-sea ecosystems.”

The report questioned the need for deep-sea mining at all, emphasising the importance of reducing, re-using, and recycling metals and the need to transition to a circular economy.  It also highlighted various institutional failings of the ISA – the organisation tasked with developing rules, regulations and procedures to enable mineral exploration and exploitation.  Notably, the report details the lack of neutrality shown by ISA Secretary General, Michael Lodge, whom the UK Government has sponsored for re-election this year – a decision that is likely to be confirmed today.

Please click here to download the report.

Photo credit: Alexander Semenov

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