Secret data, tiny islands and a quest for treasure on the ocean floor
As demand grows globally for metals needed to make batteries for electric vehicles, one of the richest untapped sources of the raw materials lies two and a half miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
This remote section of the seabed, about 1,500 miles southwest of San Diego, could soon become the world’s first industrial-scale mining site in international waters.
The Metals Company, based in Vancouver, has secured exclusive access to tons of seabed rocks packed with cobalt, copper and nickel — enough, it says, to power 280 million electric vehicles, equivalent to the entire fleet of cars in the United States.
The historic climate legislation that Congress passed this month, extending tax credits for buyers of electric cars, will only accelerate the need for these materials as automakers also push forward with plans to phase out production of gasoline-powered vehicles. The Metals Company hopes to build a plant in Texas to process the seabed rocks and has been lobbying for federal assistance to do so.
An examination by The New York Times of how the Metals Company is prepared to exploit this new frontier in the green energy revolution — the firm calculates it will clear $31 billion in earnings over the 25-year life of the project — tells the story of a single-minded, 15-year-long courtship of the small Jamaica-based seabed agency that holds the keys to the world’s underwater treasures.
Interviews and hundreds of pages of emails, letters and other internal documents show that the firm’s executives received key information from the Seabed Authority beginning in 2007, giving a major edge to their mining ambitions. The agency provided data identifying some of the most valuable seabed tracts, and then set aside the prized sites for the company’s future use, according to the materials.
The sharing of that information has angered employees at the agency, who said some of the data was meant for developing countries trying to compete with richer countries, something the agency is mandated under international law to assist. “You are violating the legal concept behind the Seabed Authority,” Sandor Mulsow, who held top positions at the agency before leaving in 2019, said in an interview. “It’s scandalous.”
The Metals Company is one of nearly two dozen contractors that have exploration deals with the agency; most of them are held by nations. But the firm has been especially aggressive in pushing the Seabed Authority to allow it to start mining, and is now racing to begin in late 2024.
The Seabed Authority was established under the auspices of the United Nations well before climate change set off a surge in demand for the metals. Though it has never gotten off the ground, a unit of the agency was charged with leveling the playing field for developing countries, in part by reserving metal-rich tracts of the ocean floor and helping to mine them.
The agency has at times been at war with itself, interviews and documents show. Employees have complained about the secretary general’s spending — on travel and a chauffeured luxury car — and sounded alarms about ethical shortcomings, including a revolving door of consultants and staff lawyers who have worked for companies with matters before the agency.
At a meeting of the agency’s governing body last year, a Metals Company contractor was among a group of businesspeople who roamed freely among the international delegates as they debated agenda items, including the firm’s request for the authority to sign off on a plan to test mining equipment. One of the top rule-making bodies at the Seabed Authority, its legal and technical commission, is secretive, meeting behind closed doors, and some of its own members also work for mining contractors, The Times found.
The agency’s relationship with the Metals Company has turned the system on its head in other ways. Developing nations working with the Seabed Authority are supposed to get access to data in certain mining areas before companies do. But the reverse happened: A top executive at the firm got the vital data first, then secured two tiny island nations as sponsors.
Even with those partners — the Pacific islands of Nauru and Tonga, which have a combined population of 120,000 and are nowhere near the mining zone — the firm has maintained nearly complete financial control over the project, including rights to all but a fraction of the anticipated profits.
“This company set out to game the system and use a poor, developing Pacific nation as the conduit to exploit these resources,” said Lord Fusitu’a, a former member of the Tonga parliament. He said he was given less than an hour in 2014 to review regulations the country adopted to join the effort.
The governments of Nauru and Tonga, which declined requests for comment, have lobbied the agency on behalf of the Metals Company. In a letter, Nauru’s president, Lionel Aingimea, told the agency that the mining would help secure a carbon-neutral future and financially benefit his country.
“Nauru is no one’s puppet, I can assure you,” Gerard Barron, the Metals Company’s chief executive, said in an interview.
A law firm retained by the Seabed Authority, often referred to as the I.S.A., rejected the notion that anyone at the agency had acted inappropriately in sharing data or engaging with contractors, and said that all travel and other expenses by the secretary general were fully authorized. The legal and technical commission, the firm said, “meets entirely properly” with its members and exercises independence in its decisions.
Michael Lodge, the British lawyer who has served as secretary general for nearly six years, and was its legal counsel when the data was shared beginning in 2007, also defended the agency’s actions. Around that time, he said in an interview at the headquarters in December, it publicly released summaries of some data in an effort to draw attention to the seabed’s riches and generate interest in mining, and it welcomed inquiries by potential partners.
Mr. Barron said he was unaware that Nautilus Minerals had gotten access to some mining data before forming partnerships with Nauru and Tonga. (He was an investor in Nautilus, the forerunner company that received the information, and later became chief executive of what is now the Metals Company in 2017, which purchased certain Nautilus assets.) Nonetheless, he acknowledged, the company had rights to what is “generally regarded as some of the best areas out there.” In a filing last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company confirmed it had relied on data twice provided by the agency.
In March, Mr. Barron told Wall Street investors that seabed mining had been made all the more urgent for the United States and its allies because of China’s growing dominance of the cobalt trade and Russia’s role as a major nickel supplier.
As it seeks approval to begin operations, the firm has teamed up with Allseas, an offshore oil industry contractor, Glencore, a mining giant, and Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies. The metals are found in potato-size rocks known as polymetallic nodules, and the firm would suck them up from the ocean floor with a giant underwater vacuum cleaner and transport them to shore.
The plans to begin mining by the Metals Company and other contractors have generated fierce opposition from some environmental groups, which along with government leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France have called for a moratorium on mining until scientists can study the remote seabed and better understand the consequences of an industrial-scale operation.
“We have no clue what is going to happen,” said Stefan Bräger, a former Seabed Authority marine biologist who now serves as an adviser to the German government. “It’s like driving on the wrong side of the road at night and turning off your headlights.”
Both Mr. Barron and Mr. Lodge said in interviews that the criticism was unfounded. They said the mining would be for the “benefit of mankind,” as required under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which established the Seabed Authority, and they predicted that it would cause less ecological damage than open-pit mining.
Mr. Lodge mocked his opponents, referring to environmentalist groups as propagandists.
“To say, ‘Don’t harm the ocean’ — it is the easiest message in the world, right? You just have to show a photo of a turtle with a straw in its nose,” he said. “Everybody in Brooklyn can then say, ‘I don’t want to harm the ocean.’ But they sure want their Teslas.”
‘Exclusive Benefit of Mankind’
A miniature replica of the British Royal Navy’s H.M.S. Challenger sits near Mr. Lodge’s office at the Seabed Authority headquarters. The famed ship set sail 150 years ago on an expedition that mapped the ocean floor.
A dredge on that voyage scraped “several peculiar black oval bodies” out of the Pacific, the crew reported in 1873. The polymetallic nodules, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, had formed over millions of years and contained high concentrations of valuable metals.
With no mining rules in place, the U.N. intervened and adopted the Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that went into effect in 1994 and now has been ratified by 167 countries and the European Union. The agreement established the Seabed Authority, granting it exclusive jurisdiction over mining in international waters — those not under the territorial rule of individual countries — and charging it with the creation of a regulatory system.
A delegate from Malta had laid out the mission years earlier during a 1967 speech at the U.N. The seabed should be used “for the exclusive benefit of mankind as a whole,” said the delegate, Arvid Pardo, adding that poorer nations should get “preferential consideration in the event of financial benefits” and that mining should not cause “serious impairment of the marine environment.”
The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, refused to ratify the treaty, insisting, among other things, that it gave too much authority to developing nations and put American businesses at a disadvantage. But the country agreed to act generally in accordance with its provisions, which extend to other activities like shipping, fishing and navigation.
As the rules stand, any nation can seek permission to conduct surveys to identify mining sites, and China, France, India and South Korea, among other richer nations, have done just that. When they find worthy locations, they must hand over half of them to the Seabed Authority, which sets them aside as “reserved areas” where less developed countries can initiate their own projects.
Starting two decades ago, the Seabed Authority began keeping track of the reserved areas with the highest concentration of nodules, based on countries’ proprietary surveys. Some of the data was used for a modeling project that charted the geology of the ocean floor, and its potential for mining, though the public version of that project aggregated the data and did not disclose anything proprietary.
As the agency clarified in a public statement in 2000, detailed sample station data was not to be shared outside the organization. “Data and information ‘of commercial value’ given to the authority by a seabed contractor shall be considered confidential,” it said.
‘Mother Nature’s Gift’
Around the same time, executives at Nautilus Minerals were keenly interested in the reserved areas and turned to the Seabed Authority for help in deciding where to focus their attention, the documents show.
Agency officials held a series of meetings in New York and Jamaica with David Heydon, a geologist who later became Nautilus’s chief executive, and his son Robert, who also worked there, to discuss seabed mining.
Neither Mr. Heydon nor his son, who is now an executive at the Metals Company, responded to requests for comment. A company spokesman also did not respond to questions about them.
In one meeting in 2007, emails and other documents show, the agency’s secretary general at the time, Satya N. Nandan, shared agency records about the reserved areas with the company.
Mr. Heydon went on to ask that three of the four most promising locations in the reserved areas be set aside for Nautilus while it sought a nation to sponsor its mining ambitions. “Nautilus looks forward to submitting its full application to the I.S.A. early next year once State Sponsorship has been obtained,” he wrote.
Nauru, one of the world’s smallest nations, quickly emerged as a leading candidate for the Heydons, who are from Australia, which previously turned to the island to house its refugees and to mine a mineral used in fertilizer. The country, with just 11,000 people, had only a tiny environmental agency. It also did not demand much in exchange for sponsorship, having no ability of its own to pursue such an undertaking.
Mr. Barron, the Metals Company chief executive, would not say how much money Nauru was on tap to receive. A community leader in Tonga, another island partner, said in an interview that the company had agreed to pay it $2 per ton as a “mining production fee.” That payment would amount to less than half of one percent of the firm’s total estimated value of the mined material. The Metals Company would not confirm this fee.
Separately, the Metals Company would pay an undetermined royalty fee to the Seabed Authority once commercial mining began.
“It’s just Mother Nature’s gift to us,” Mr. Barron, who was paid $14.2 million in salary and stock options last year, said as he relaxed on a ship that had just returned to San Diego from an exploratory expedition.
‘Sit Down, Shut Up’
The information given to Nautilus, according to an email written by Robert Heydon, included an “Excel spreadsheet supplied by the authority that shows the grade and abundance recorded at specific sample stations.”
Follow-up correspondence from Mr. Heydon and others made clear that they knew they should not be given certain data until they had a contract to partner with a developing nation. But Nautilus requested more information to speed things along.
“As you would be aware it takes quite a few months to put together a large scale exploration campaign,” Mr. Heydon wrote in 2011 to Mr. Lodge, then the agency’s legal counsel.
In his draft reply, Mr. Lodge noted that the Seabed Authority was subject to “certain restrictions on the disclosure of such data to anyone external to the authority.” But in a separate email to colleagues, he suggested there was a path that would allow them to accommodate Mr. Heydon: the public release of summaries of survey data.
Since it had made the summaries public, he reasoned, the agency could share at least some of the data Mr. Heydon had requested.
“Here is the entire reserved area data,” Vijay Kodagali, a senior scientific officer, now deceased, wrote in 2012 after a Nautilus consultant asked for another copy of the data provided earlier. “This is supposed to be classified data and not to be disclosed to others.”
Three former senior staff members at the agency and a current member of the Seabed Authority Council, the agency’s governing body, said in interviews that they believed the data sharing in some cases violated agency rules. There was no suggestion that the Metals Company acted improperly in requesting the information.
“There were times that you were just told to sit down, shut up and do what you’re told,” said Mr. McFarlane, who resigned from his post as the authority’s top environmental official in August 2011, several months after questions about the data sharing emerged.
In its statement, Withers Bergman said that the Seabed Authority staff routinely interacted with contractors pursuing mining sites, but reiterated that the agency had always honored data confidentiality rules.
“It is not unusual and is entirely proper and normal practice for the I.S.A. secretariat to engage with contractors to discuss proposals which those contractors have regarding potential applications,” the statement said, “including — as in the case of Nautilus — the contractor providing a confidential indication of the areas under consideration.”
‘Smell the Desperation’
Even with the prized information in hand, the Metals Company has faced concerns among some agency officials that it is dominating a resource not intended for wealthy countries or international mining companies with nominal partners.
The Metals Company has rights to three of the seven exploratory contracts issued by the Seabed Authority in areas reserved for developing nations.
The rules require that the sponsoring nations, in this case Nauru and Tonga, exercise “effective control” over the mining projects so they are not partners in name only. The Metals Company has met this requirement, in part, by setting up nonprofit foundations to oversee operations, but they are controlled by the company, which has just one permanent employee on each island, according to securities filings. Operations are instead run from Australia, Canada and the United States.
“These venture-capital-backed companies can smell the desperation in these small island economies,” said Maureen Penjueli, coordinator of the Fiji-based Pacific Network on Globalization, a nonprofit that promotes the rights of Pacific island nations.
“The only realistic option for most developing states therefore was to form partnerships with commercial interests that have access to the financial capital and technology necessary to conduct deep-sea exploration,” Mr. Odunton said in a speech at the U.N. in 2011. (He died this year.)
Mr. Barron said the arrangements were good for the islands. “If you look at a nation like Nauru, and if you ask them, ‘Well, what are your other economic development opportunities?’ there’s not a long list,” he said.
Squire Jeremiah, a member of Nauru’s parliament in 2015 when legislation was approved related to the Metals Company, said the firm’s presence in the country was nominal. “They have so far funded a few scholarships and small projects, trying to buy their way in to get us on board,” he said. “But it has not amounted to much.”
A spokesman for the company said it donated a total of $140,600 last year to support community and social programs in Nauru and Tonga. The spokesman added that the contracts left the islands in “effective control” because their environmental agencies have regulatory oversight.
Klaas Willaert, an international maritime lawyer who has served as a Belgian delegate to the Seabed Authority, denounced the arrangements.
“They are relying on a legal loophole here,” Mr. Willaert said. “They have chosen tiny islands to gain access to the reserved areas. It is exactly the opposite of what the law of the sea intended.”
Charles Morgan, an environmental scientist, was retained by the authority to study data collected by early explorers of the proposed mining areas. Later, he was hired by a firm whose assets are now controlled by the Metals Company to secure a piece of that data for business purposes.
Nathan Eastwood, a mining industry lawyer at London-based Clifford Chance, took a sabbatical from his law firm last year to help the Seabed Authority draft mining regulations even as he continued to solicit future seabed-mining clients for his firm, the I.S.A. documents and other records show. He did not respond to requests for comment.
In interviews, some staff members said that close industry ties permeated the agency and contributed to a poisonous work environment. Internal emails and surveys also document the discontent.
“The current culture/organizational dynamics have resulted in frustration, resentment, and made the workplace an unpleasant (and often toxic) place to be,” said an email in 2018 that was based on a survey of 31 staff members.
“Breakdowns in communication, lack of transparency, fear of retaliation, not feeling valued, nepotism, clashing personalities, inconsistent application of policies, and often uncertainty around direction and vision (among other things) have contributed to the current state,” it said.
A survey in 2019 reached the “disheartening” conclusion that “many, if not all, of the issues and frustrations you faced a year ago are still present today.”
Employees said they had no way to seek redress. “There is no internal hotline,” Andrew Webster, then a senior executive helping oversee the agency’s budget, wrote in an email in 2019. “No whistleblower hotline.”
In the statement to The Times, the law firm for the authority said that “continuous efforts are being made to ensure the consistent application of policies across the organization.” Since Mr. Lodge took over the agency in 2017, the statement said, he has revamped personnel rules, “successfully and radically improving the working lives and the morale of the I.S.A.’s valued and dedicated employees.”
Mr. Lodge has been a flash point for some. Employees cited the acquisition last year of an Audi SUV to drive him around Kingston even though he had warned months earlier that budget cuts were likely to “seriously impact the Authority’s ability to carry out its operations.”
He also expensed airfare and related bills totaling as much as $50,000 per trip for him and his family to travel on vacations over the last decade as part of authorized home leaves to locations in Asia, according to an agency document.
In the statement, the law firm said that Mr. Lodge’s agency-funded travel and the purchase of the new agency car had all been properly approved and were “fully in line with U.N. standards.”
Some current and former employees said the workplace dysfunction signaled an inability to fulfill the agency’s core mission of benefiting “the common heritage of mankind.”
“The organization simply does not have the capacity necessary to perform such functions,” Van Khanh Nguyen, a finance officer between 2018 and 2020, said in an interview, during which she detailed a series of financial misdeeds she said she observed while at the agency. She was among several former employees who recently filed personnel complaints with the U.N. “What they care about is their own benefit, and corruption is everywhere.”
‘Dollar Signs in Their Eyes’
Scientists say that more is known about the surface of the moon than about the floor of the ocean, with much of it still unmapped, and estimate that perhaps 90 percent of the species at the bottom of the Pacific remain unclassified.
Worries about that knowledge gap emerged publicly last year when the Metals Company submitted plans to test a new mining machine.
The company had teamed up with Allseas, the offshore oil contractor, to equip a former drill ship with a device resembling a bulldozer that vacuums up nodules. The machine has been tested in the North Sea, but the Metals Company wants a separate trial in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone so it can demonstrate what, it predicts, will be limited consequences for aquatic life as it collects about 3,600 tons of nodules. Ultimately, once commercial mining starts, it intends to extract 1.3 million tons of these rocks a year at its first site.
The Metals Company has pushed ahead with its plans even as the company has shown signs of financial challenges, with its stock price falling from a high of $15.39 last year to a low of 81 cents on Friday.
These questions echo larger concerns about the harm some scientists fear large-scale seabed mining may cause. The most prominent opponent may be Craig Smith, an oceanographer and former mining industry contractor now at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He spent nearly five years at sea and in Antarctica studying marine life, and his research has singled out the Clarion-Clipperton Zone as something worth preserving.
“It’s just not possible to do this without essentially destroying one of the largest wilderness areas left,” said Dr. Smith, citing the potential impact of 17 different mining projects in the area, including the three contracts held by the Metals Company. Dr. Smith was hired to evaluate the environmental effects of seabed mining by the South Korean government and Lockheed Martin, the American contractor, which are considering projects of their own.
“These are some of the most pristine, biodiverse habitats on a planet where we already have a biodiversity crisis because of destruction on land,” he said.