Last Week Tonight With John Oliver recently did an episode on deep sea mining that is worth watching to get an overview of the subject. Reuters also has a good graphical summary of the process. While there are numerous legal and political issues associated with deep sea mining, my concern is with the ethics of the matter.

One appealing moral argument in favor of deep-sea mining is that it, as the name states, takes place in the deep sea. This means that mining is done far from human settlements. As the deep ocean is often seen as an underwater desert, it might be believed that mining would not do any meaningful damage to living creatures or an important ecosystem. Proponents of such mining often describe it as analogous to scooping up golf balls as it gathers up nodules of metal from the sea floor.

While humans do not live in the deep sea, these nodules are in a thriving ecosystem that contains a range of life. There are even things that live on the surface of the nodules. The mining of this ecosystem would obviously harm these creatures as the mining robot scooped up the nodules. As such, this harm needs to be considered when assessing the ethics of deep-sea mining.

In addition to the direct damage to the ecosystem, a major environmental concern is the plumes of sediment generated by the mining process. Somewhat like running a lawnmower over dirt, the mining robot will stir up the sediment on the ocean bottom. The sediment scooped up by the robot will be discharged back into the sea, spreading a large plume of sediment (and metal fragments) across a wide area. While the impact of such large-scale plumes is not yet known, the potential harms must be considered when making an evaluation of the ethics of deep-sea mining.

Proponents of deep-sea mining also advance the stock arguments made for any potentially profitable economic venture: deep-sea mining will make money and create jobs. Some point to the fact that even countries that lack the resources to engage in deep-sea mining can sell their rights.

The usual and obvious moral concern is that the exploitation of such natural resources tends to be profitable only for those who are already wealthy rather than yielding shared benefits. There is also the concern that the countries that sell their rights will be exploited. This is not a special concern for deep-sea mining, as this occurs with every exploitation of natural resources. For those who favor an economic system that hyper concentrates wealth, this would be a moral benefit of deep-sea mining. For those who favor a more equitable distribution, this would be a major moral negative. But this could, in theory, be addressed. In practice, this is unlikely.

On the surface, perhaps the most appealing moral argument for deep-sea mining is that it is essential to “saving the planet.” The argument is that the metals in the nodules are needed to make the batteries required for the transition away from fossil fuels. For example, the batteries used in electric vehicles.

Looked at from a utilitarian moral perspective, a moral case can be made fin favor of mining by arguing that this benefit (saving the planet) outweighs the alleged harms, such as environmental damage. While it might seem ironic or paradoxical to argue that something that will damage the environment should be done to “save the planet”, this is a calculation worth considering.

Consider, for example, the general arguments that we should shift from fossil fuels to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power. While it is true that solar panels do not, for example, spew smoke while operating, they must still be manufactured. At the end of their life, they also often end up in landfills. Also, you obviously cannot just stick a solar panel on a house and get power you can use. You’ll also need wiring, charge controllers, inverters and probably batteries. All of these must be manufactured and often end up in land fills at the end of their life. There is an environmental cost for their manufacture and disposal. Even if they are recycled, that still comes with a cost. Those who favor clean energy and recognize these costs argue that the environmental harm done by these energy sources in total is still significantly less than that caused by fossil fuels. The same sort of calculation could be applied to deep-sea mining: while there is an environmental cost for mining the nodules, their use “to save the planet” will provide environmental benefits that outweigh the damage done. While this reasoning should be given due consideration, there are some concerns that must also be addressed.

The first concern is that there might be better alternatives to deep-sea mining. For example, it could be argued that better recycling of metals could eliminate the need for such environmentally damaging mining. This could be countered by arguing that recycling would be either impractical or more costly than mining.

The second concern is that there are already alternative energy storage technologies, such as sodium batteries, that do not require the metals acquired by deep-sea mining. While the environmental impact of these technologies would also need to be considered, they do show considerable promise. Obviously, if deep-sea mining does more environmental damage than a viable alternative, then the “save the planet” moral argument would fail. Interestingly, the fossil fuel industry has an interest in opposing deep sea mining because of their interest in opposing electric vehicles and alternative energy sources in general. This is not a matter of ethics, but a matter of profits.

My view is that the best ethical choice would be to forgo deep-sea mining in favor of pursuing alternative storage technologies. That said, if it can be shown that deep-sea mining would create significantly more environmental benefits than harm, then it would be the right thing to do.