Undersea
Photo: Cristian Palmer/Unsplash

An obscure UN body will determine if we can mine the seafloor

Protocol Climate

Good day, good people. The Protocol Climate team is reporting for duty. We’re here today to dive into deep-sea mining. After resurfacing, we’ll take you for a spin in an EV delivery van designed to make the last mile pollution-free. Don’t worry, we’ll get you home before midnight. (Unless you want to keep cruising, of course.)

Deep-sea mining: A new frontier

The deep sea feels far away. And, well, it is. It’s the bottom of the damn ocean, a place few have ventured. But it could get a lot busier soon depending on how things go in Jamaica this week.

There, an obscure international body is in the process of setting regulations for deep-sea mining. Digging up minerals on the ocean floor is an entirely speculative venture at this point, but one that could decide the clean-energy future — or turn the seafloor into a wasteland, much like we’re doing to the terrestrial world.

Meet the International Seabed Authority. It doesn’t have the cache of other United Nations bodies that convene governments or spit out major reports. But the little-known body, headquartered in Jamaica, will decide the fate of the deep sea.

  • “Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, the ISA holds a lot of power to make decisions for all of humankind about what happens in the area of the ocean that's supposed to belong to all of us,” Addie Haughey, the legislative director for Lands, Wildlife and Oceans at Earthjustice, told Protocol.
  • The ISA has brought together 167 nations plus the EU to meet right now thanks to Nauru, an island nation of just 10,000 or so people, which triggered a clause in the aforementioned sea law treaty (I feel like a pirate even saying that). That means the ISA either needs to come up with regulations by 2023 or start approving mining licenses with draft rules in place.
  • Among the issues being debated in Jamaica are what constitutes “serious harm” to the seafloor and the need to build public trust into the process.
  • Yet there remain obstacles. Big ones. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a watchdog group of 90 international NGOs, has pointed to eight “crucial shortcomings” in the process as it stands, including the lack of a scientific committee and transparency in general.

Polymetallic nodules are very hot right now. It may sound like a medical condition, but polymetallic nodules are at the center of the deep-sea mining push. The potato-sized hunks of minerals are a big deal for a few reasons.

  • They generally contain manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earth elements. If all those sound familiar, it’s because they’re vital to speeding up the clean-energy transition.
  • The nodules are just sitting there on the seafloor, ready to be vacuumed up. No, seriously. Mining companies literally want to suck the nodules up.
  • The Pacific is ground zero for nodules. Estimates vary, but most indicate that there are millions of tons on the seafloor, just waiting to be hoovered up.
  • Miners also want to strip cobalt from seamounts (a fancy term for underwater volcanoes) or mine around hydrothermal vents.
  • While the reserves of minerals on the seafloor are vast, at least some analyses have thrown water on whether we even need to mine the deep sea to build a clean-energy future.

Mining the sea comes with a catch, too. While solving the climate crisis with a couple of ships equipped with industrial vacuums sure sounds nice and easy, the reality is anything but. That’s because there’s a lot that could go wrong.

The risk with deep-sea mining isn’t what we know. It’s what we don’t. Deploying mining equipment to the middle of the ocean and then lowering it to the seafloor sounds pretty destructive. Still, humans do destructive things all the time — I once ate a whole bag of tortilla chips in one sitting — and deep-sea mining is being pitched in part as a solution to the battery supply chain crunch. The problem with deep-sea mining, though, is that we don’t know just how bad it could be for ecosystems or the people who rely on them.

  • There simply hasn’t been a ton of research on the seafloor because it’s so distant. What scientists have found down there, though, is stunning. Vents spewing hot water, weird creatures and much, much more all combine to make one of the strangest and most stunning ecosystems on the planet.
  • Because those ecosystems are so insulated from human activity, any disruption could be catastrophic. What little study there has been of the impacts of mining shows it could take decades for the seafloor to recover from the scars left behind. A 2020 study published in Science of a test plot on the seafloor found it would “need over 50 years to return to undisturbed levels,” if it ever does.
  • The impacts could hardly be limited to the seafloor either. A July 2021 study, for example, found the sediment plume kicked up by mining operations could mess with tuna fisheries.
  • “There's this illusion that this activity is so far offshore, and so deep that it doesn't impact anybody,” Haughey said. “And that's just completely false.”

Miners wanna mine; most everyone else wants a moratorium. The oft-misattributed quote “today's solutions are tomorrow's problems” really rings true here. The world needs to decarbonize rapidly, full stop. But going ham on the seafloor also risks recreating the same problems with onshore mining today, just in the middle of the ocean.

  • That’s why Haughey’s group is pushing the Biden administration to put a moratorium on deep-sea mining. So, too, is the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
  • While the small island nation of Nauru has put the deep-sea mining regulation wheels in motion in an attempt to dredge the seafloor, other nations like Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have also backed a moratorium.
  • Still others see the ISA as fundamentally the wrong avenue to even decide the future of seafloor mining. Matthew Gianni, a co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, told Protocol in an email that one of the ideal outcomes of this week’s meeting would be for parties to realize ”that the ISA itself is not fit for purpose as a regulatory body and that it must be fundamentally reformed before taking any decisions about the future of the deep ocean and seabed mining.”

This is all a complicated balancing act, which requires weighing opportunity against harm. “We must accelerate the transition to renewable energy — yet we must do so without creating new sacrifice zones whether on land or seabed, and without replacing dirty fossil fuels with irresponsible mining,” Payal Sampat, the mining program director at Earthworks, told Protocol in an email.

  • To do that, both Sampat and Haughey suggested focusing on recycling and a circular economy rather than risky mining practices. An analysis published last year by Earthworks shows demand for lithium, nickel and copper could fall 25%, 35% and 55% respectively with effective recycling programs. But that’s a work in progress, too.
  • Gianni also pointed to technology like lithium iron phosphate batteries, which “don’t use nickel or cobalt — the metals of greatest interest to the deep-sea mining industry at the ISA.”
  • The ISA has a few tough days ahead in deciding what the best course of action is ahead of the 2023 deadline. And the debate about deep-sea mining is unlikely to end even when they hit the lights in Jamaica.

— Brian Kahn (email | twitter)

I drove an electric delivery vehicle and no one got hurt

BrightDrop van

Just out for a spin.

Photo: Lisa Jenkins

I’ve begun to notice with some alarm the ever-increasing number of idling delivery vehicles as drivers run packages from truck to mailbox. The emissions, the exhaust, the obstacles they pose to the bicyclists braving my busy road: The machinations of modern deliveries can be fraught.

This week, I got a firsthand look at — and feel for — one of the many companies trying to electrify freight and deliveries in the U.S. BrightDrop is a relative newcomer with a focus on precisely the part of the delivery landscape that is most visible to the public: the “last mile.”

While the company, which launched in January 2021 as an EV-only subsidiary of GM, is still in early stages, it already has contracts with both FedEx and Walmart. BrightDrop delivered five EV600s — its flagship van — to FedEx last December, and more have quietly joined its fleet in the months since. The company’s rapid progress to this point accounts for the fastest-ever development-to-production process in GM’s history.

I got to take an in-person look at an EV600 and even put my foot to the pedal this week to see if it, well, delivers.

The EV600 is big, but also sleek. There is no space wasted, and everything was designed with the input of delivery drivers who step in and out of these trucks dozens of times per day.

  • The vans arrive in clients’ hands as essentially empty boxes, said Stephen Marlin, a BrightDrop account executive who showed me around the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, warehouse where the vehicles had been set up. That allows the client, be it FedEx, Walmart or another company, to outfit the cargo space to its own specifications.
  • The van has a dual charging port, allowing drivers to either juice up slowly overnight (which will be the case for most delivery fleets) to the maximum range of 250 miles, or to use direct-current fast charging that provides 160 miles of range in an hour.

And then: I got behind the wheel. I’m not a car person, let alone a delivery van person, so maybe take this with a grain of salt. But! There are a number of newfangled features that make driving the EV600 both easier and more fun than the 1999 station wagon I learned on.

  • The van uses haptic steering to keep you from oversteering out of your lane (not that I needed this, of course).
  • It also has a haptic seat, which vibrates when a pedestrian or bike crosses in front of the van or into the blind spot. That’s an important safety feature for those outside the van, given the rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths on roadways.
  • The vehicle is whisper-quiet, though the van does make a regulation-required low noise to alert pedestrians and cyclists to its presence. It sounded a bit like the first few notes of an opera: both pleasant and decidedly unlike any automobile I have previously encountered.
  • This was also my first experience of one-pedal driving, wherein easing off the gas pedal promptly slows the van to a stop without the need to rely on the brake pedal at all; with regenerative braking, this allows for increased efficiency and range. That said, I found one-pedal driving went against my right foot’s muscle memory, honed by over a decade of driving primarily conventional vehicles. I turned off the setting after a few blocks, and relied on both pedals as I normally would.
  • I am happy to report there were no collisions (thank you to the seat buzz that alerted me to an electric bike darting between me and a parked car!), though I’m pretty sure I held up an MTA bus that probably would have navigated the streets of Greenpoint with more finesse.

Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)

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Make it rain

There’s a new climate-focused VC fund in town. Known as Regeneration, the $45 million fund is backed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio and aims to decarbonize consumer materials like leather and plastic. Very on brand for Leo.

The retail electricity provider David Energy closed its series A round with $20.5 million in funding.

The oil field services company Nabors Industries made a venture investment in a geothermal startup called GA Drilling to the tune of $8 million.

United Airlines’ VC fund announced an initial $5 million investment in Cemvita Factory, a startup looking into more efficient ways of producing sustainable aviation fuel. (This tracks with United’s past investments.)

Treeswift, a startup aimed at forest monitoring via drone (no relationship with T. Swift, I checked), raised $4.8 million in seed funding led by the venture capital firm Pathbreaker Ventures.

The climate tech startup RenewaFi, which wants to be the middleman helping companies buy and sell renewable energy via an online marketplace, raised $3 million in seed funding.

It seems drones are even hotter than I had realized: Lord of the Trees (I cross-my-heart-hope-to-die promise this is really what the company is called. Apparently Ents was taken?) is yet another startup focusing on using drones, in this case for restoring damaged ecosystems with engineered seed pods. The company raised $1.25 million in pre-seed funding.

Lisa Martine Jenkins

Hot links

Protocol Climate’s fearless leader took a trip upstate to capture a showdown between bitcoin miners and the local community, and you simply must hear about it (and, crucially, see the photos). [Editor’s note: I do not make Lisa address me this way. Just Brian is fine, and now I am blushing!]

A rare glimmer of good climate news: The growth rate for solar and wind power is now increasing fast enough to potentially limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above a pre-industrial baseline. What is this feeling?

Access to renewable energy, however, is still a relative luxury when we take a look at the industry on a global scale.

Tesla isn’t unionizing just yet. The chief of the United Auto Workers union said he is not in talks with Elon about unionizing the electric car company, despite Elon’s invitation to hold a union vote.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Facebook’s algorithm fuels misinformation on climate change.

New efficiency requirements, incoming: The Energy Department proposed new standards for air conditioners and swimming pool heaters.

Hoping desalination will save us? Maybe lower those expectations a smidge.

Lisa Martine Jenkins

A MESSAGE FROM EMEX

Harness the power of APIs and IoT to streamline accurate data capture so you can track and quantify the most important sustainability metrics for your organization and your investors. All this power, one single platform.

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Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you next week!

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