Deep Sea Mining & Externalities – a favorite

Several years ago, I came on the news that deep-sea mining for nodules of nickel, cobalt, and other rare minerals was about to commence. I found a video from MIT discussing the issues surrounding this practice, Mining the Deep Sea, (link opens YouTube video)

The ocean’s deep-sea bed is scattered with ancient, potato-sized rocks called “polymetallic nodules” that contain nickel and cobalt — minerals that are in high demand for the manufacturing of batteries, such as for powering electric vehicles and storing renewable energy, and in response to factors such as increasing urbanization. The deep ocean contains vast quantities of mineral-laden nodules, but the impact of mining the ocean floor is both unknown and highly contested.1

There is talk of sediment plumes that will damage life in the oceans very far from the areas on the ocean floor directly impacted by mining operations.

The potential effects of mining-generated sediment plumes and noise on pelagic taxa. Organisms and plume impacts are not to scale……. Connections between seafloor vehicles and surface ships are only shown for nodule mining. Image by Drazen, et al. (2020).

(graphic source2)

There is a UN agency, The International Seabed Authority, that is in charge of writing regulations for these operations. No surprise, given the vast sums of money nearly at hand for this industry, there is already controversy about this authority and the extent to which it has already become a captured regulatory body.3

External Costs

This benign, somewhat strange phrase is a central operational feature of capitalism. Economists talk about external costs as costs borne by entities (people, communities, the earth, others…) outside of the company. I think of it as  “get somebody else to pay for as much of my cost of production as possible” or “I don’t give a shit what happens once I sell my product or service”. Pollution, in its many varieties, comes right to mind. Injuries to workers are just a cost of doing business. “We pay our workers’ compensation insurance fees.”In the gig economy of today, companies force workers to dance to their scheduling tune without regard to the disruption and harm caused to personal and family life when regular schedules of childcare, education, and sleep can’t be bothered with.

You might think that capitalists are just nasty, evil people. This might be so, but in fact, the relentless application of externalities in running a business is a competitive requirement. This strategy is baked into the capitalist framework.  If your competitors have lower costs of production because they exploit externalities better than you, your profit margins will be lower. Over the medium and long term, this means that your firm will be valued less and threatened by bankruptcy.

Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for the oceans.

Here are some earlier posts about externalities:


  1. Jennifer Chu, “Ocean Scientists Measure Sediment Plume Stirred up by Deep-Sea-Mining Vehicle,” MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 21, 2022,