A month ago, it seemed to be just another tale of ruthless miners and desperate poor people conspiring to wreck the environment while distant regulators failed to get a grip. But it turns out to be more complicated than that, and rather more hopeful.
The mining company is DeepGreen, and the poor people are the 11,500 inhabitants of Nauru, a tiny independent island in the Western Pacific.
The regulators are the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN agency that governs the seabed in areas beyond the reach of national laws (i.e. most of the planet).
In principle, the main function of the ISA is to control mining on that seabed, but so far it only has issued exploration permits. Nobody wanted to do any actual mining, and it hasn’t even finalized rules that would control deep-sea mining yet.
But new technologies, from mobile phones and computers to batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage, have created a huge demand for cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earths, all found in vast quantities in potato-sized polymetallic nodules on some parts of the deep sea floor.