Dutch court orders Greenpeace off deep-sea mining vessel amid disputed ocean study

Activists with Greenpeace International have been ordered to vacate a research vessel charted by The Metals Company (NASDAQ: TMC), a pioneer in seafloor polymetallic nodule exploration in the central-eastern Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico.The Nov. 30 ruling also imposes a €50,000 fine on the environmental organization for each day it defies the order, up to a maximum of €500,000. It does, however, allow Greenpeace to continue its protest, as long as it’s at a distance of at least 500 metres.

The vessel, engaged by TMC’s subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources (NORI) for environmental assessments, faced a week of disruptions from Nov. 23 by Greenpeace activities, which a Dutch court deemed unsafe and unlawful. NORI is obligated under an International Seabed Authority (ISA) contract to evaluate the deep ocean’s health after a nodule collection test last year.

“We respect the right to protest, but the safety of our legally sanctioned studies comes first,” stated TMC CEO Gerard Barron in an email to The Northern Miner. “Greenpeace’s compliance with the order is welcomed, as we continue our vital research for informed global decision-making.” A Dutch court held jurisdiction over the dispute because Greenpeace is headquartered in Amsterdam.

The confrontation brings to the fore the tension between environmental activism and the advancement of deep-sea exploration technology. With 168 ISA member states plus the EU emphasizing evidence-based decisions, TMC’s work exemplifies the delicate balance that must be found between economic interests and environmental protection in this emerging sector of mining.

The Greenpeace incident came to a head when, after five days of non-stop kayaking activity around the vessel, five activists boarded the MV Coco on Nov. 25 and disabled its A-frame hoist/crane. That caused delays to TMC’s research and NORI claims the protest has been costing it $1.5 million per day.

Despite being ordered to leave the vessel, Greenpeace hailed the court’s announcement as a victory for its right to protest and as a blow to the deep sea mining industry. “The Metals Company has never been interested in scrutiny, and they can’t stand that Greenpeace is watching and opposing them at every turn,” said Mads Christensen, executive director of Greenpeace International.

As a result of Greenpeace’s actions, TMC and NORI are considering seeking compensation for financial losses incurred. 

Greenpeace has openly criticized TMC’s work as “anti-scientific.” TMC counters that Greenpeace’s anti-science charge is hypocritical, citing its engagement of top marine scientists and collaborative data sharing with public institutions to transparently assess and potentially minimize the environmental footprint of nodule collection compared to traditional mining.

“Our work could redefine how we source battery metals, with potentially lesser impacts compared to traditional mining,” Barron said. “It’s vital that we base our environmental stewardship on solid evidence.”

Scientific research interrupted

Greenpeace has vowed to continue its protests every time TMC attempts to advance its mining application, aligning with the political calls for a moratorium from 24 countries.

TMC’s current work aims to assess ecosystem function and recovery on the seafloor one year after test mining. It’s been active at the project for 12 years.

NORI conducted a successful test last fall, collecting over 3,000 tonnes of polymetallic nodules. However, the company has been criticized for its environmental risk management practices after a leaked video late last year showed waste sediment being dumped into the ocean. An ISA investigation found no rule breach but criticized NORI’s ‘risk awareness,’ citing the company’s failure to follow its risk management procedures.

Environmental groups and some countries call for a halt or ban on deep-sea mining, warning of unacceptable risks to marine life and ecosystems. A recent report also suggests that the environmental costs of seabed mining could outweigh the benefits.

Using an array of equipment like remotely operated vehicles and marine sampling tools called box/multicores, academics from various marine research institutions aim to collect biological samples to assess whether there has been a significant change in the makeup of seafloor communities and how much they’ve been affected by the mining.

“Last year’s studies on the seafloor sediment plume have already highlighted that concerns by various non-governmental organizations grossly overstate how far this mud would spread from the direct mining area,” Barron said.

“This latest campaign will help determine if conjecture on the impacts on seafloor organisms is similarly overblown. I can only imagine that our putting to bed of this conjecture is why Greenpeace would seek to disrupt further scientific research.”

This research is not only a legal requirement by the ISA but also a collective effort to enrich the global repository of marine knowledge, the company argues.

Focus on transparency

In response to the boarding incident, TMC has reiterated its commitment to the safety of its crew and the activists involved. The company said it adheres to strict operational protocols, ensuring no harm came from Greenpeace’s unauthorized presence.

Barron said TMC’s exploration efforts, grounded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea principles, aim to pave a path for responsible resource use, promising a future where the environmental impacts are minimized and developing states benefit from oceanic resources.

The incident also highlights the broader conversation about the ocean’s role in the future of mining. As demand for battery metals soars, driven by the global push towards green energy, the industry must navigate the fine line between resource extraction and environmental conservation. Barron hopes that TMC’s approach, emphasizing open-source data and collaborative research, could set a new standard for responsible deep-sea mining.

The CEO says the company is aware that the world’s eyes are on them. “We are focused on a resource belonging to all humanity. Our approach emphasizes transparency, partnerships, and stakeholder engagement,” he said.

“We believe nodules could be a better alternative to land mining and are working across academia and industry to gather the data to assess whether this hypothesis holds true and sharing this and our plans with the world.”