These deep-sea “potatoes” could be the future of mining for renewable energy

Because of the impressive array of metals they contain, at least one company has likened each nodule to a battery in a rock. That’s why over the past decade, companies have begun to explore the possibility of commercial mining operations in the deep sea, mostly in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

But not everyone is on board with this use of the ocean, because a lot of life is found in and around these nodule fields, from corals and sea cucumbers, to worms and dumbo octopuses, not to mention all the tiny creatures we haven’t discovered yet. Scientists have also raised questions about what will happen when the mining operations kick up sediment: plumes could disturb wildlife or even the natural carbon storage beneath the seabed.

Who gets to decide?

Governing international waters is a complicated business. For deep-sea mining, there’s a UN group in charge, called the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was founded in 1994 and is based in Jamaica. The ISA has been developing a mining code for commercial operations, but some companies want to get things going already.

A process is in place to address this situation, called the two-year rule: at any time before regulations get passed, a member nation has the authority to give the ISA notice that it wants to start mining, and the ISA then has two years to come up with rules.

The small island nation of Nauru, in Micronesia, triggered the two-year rule just about two years ago, so the deadline is July 9, 2023. But the ISA’s next meeting, during which it could potentially finish up regulations, starts July 10, so that deadline is toast.

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