John Oliver on deep-sea mining: ‘Time that we stop treating the deep ocean as something to exploit’ | John Oliver

John Oliver dove into the controversial topic of deep-sea mining on Last Week Tonight, particularly in the environment known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a Europe-sized area 3 miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii. There is virtually no light in the CCZ and water temperatures in the CCZ can reach zero degrees celsius, “and yet, for such a seemingly inhospitable place, there is still an incredible amount of life down there”, said Oliver.

Scientists estimate that the CCZ contains over 8,000 largely unidentified species of fantastical deep-sea creatures, including a fluorescent sea cucumber dubbed a “gummy squirrel”, which Oliver delighted in. “Oh, I like that a lot,” he enthused. “In fact, I love that gummy squirrel so much, I want to cover it in sour dust and eat a bag of them while watching Nicole Kidman talk about the magic of the movies.”

The CCZ also contains small solid nodules containing precious metals such as cobalt and nickel, accumulated over millions of years. Given their contents, companies are fighting to obtain what some call a “battery in a rock”, for their potential use in electric cars. Chief among them is Gerard Barron, the Australian founder and CEO of The Metals Company, who is pursuing what Oliver called “commercial-scale plunder” of the CCZ.

Barron prefers to describe the process of mining these nodules as simply picking up golf balls, as on a driving range. “That sounds easy, until you remember they’re 15,000 feet [4,500 metres] underwater,” Oliver argued. “The difficulty of picking up golf balls really does depend on where they are. If they’re on a driving range, sure, it’s no big deal. If they’re resting on a grizzly bear’s dick, then you know what? Maybe take a mulligan.”

But Barron’s pitch “massively undersells the damage this could do”, starting with the fact that researchers estimate that 30-40% of species in the CCZ live on the nodules.

“Just because creatures are small doesn’t mean they aren’t important to the ecosystem around them,” Oliver explained. Deep-sea mining, he continued, “could have irreversible impacts for everything, from microbes to gummy squirrels, and I literally only just learned they existed! I don’t want them to be destroyed unless I’m absolutely housing a family-sized bag of them.”

For one, giant harvesting vehicles would create plumes of sediment that could do immense damage – burying fields of nodules, choking the filters of anemones and sponges living outside the mining zone, and obscuring bioluminescence used by fish and squid to hunt and mate. “Basically, it could fuck everyone’s shit up,” said Oliver. “Think less ‘gently lifting golf balls off the driving range’ and more ‘a scene from Dune 3: Even More Sand.’”

The Metals Company insists that research it commissioned shows the damage will be minimal, but “even more research that it didn’t commission suggests otherwise”, Oliver countered. One study found that even 26 years following extraction, the deep-sea ecosystem had not returned to its previous state.

And that ecosystem is important: deep-sea creatures help expand scientists’ understanding of medicine and the development of new drugs, and its microbes are an essential part of Earth’s carbon cycle. “So you want to be absolutely sure that that is not jeopardized by deep-sea mining, and we are not sure about that at all,” said Oliver.

Oliver lamented that, given the risks, there are few regulations protecting the deep sea from private mining. The UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA), established in 1982, technically manages most of the sea floor, though the US under Reagan refused to ratify it. And there are concerns the agency may be comprised – its secretary general, Michael Lodge, appeared in a video for Barron’s mining company, and the board has never rejected a mining application. “It’s not ideal that a body responsible for something as important as protecting the deep sea has lower standards than the University of Phoenix,” Oliver noted.

The ISA has a complicated jurisdiction over the sea floor, and is supposed to preserve half of it for the interests of smaller nations – which is how The Metals Company is involved, as it struck a deal with Nauru. Under the terms, Oliver explained, the tiny Pacific island nation devastated by phosphorous mining will receive 0.5% of profits. While Barron has insisted that “Nauru is no one’s puppet,” said Oliver, “there is a clear power disparity between an international mining firm hoping to make billions of dollars, and an environmentally ravaged island with a population of just 12,000 people.”

Nauru triggered a mechanism whereby the ISA must start accepting deep-sea mining applications, even if mining regulations aren’t set. Barron has told investors that he expects to begin production by the first quarter of 2026.

Oliver was skeptical of the costs versus payoff of deep-sea mining: “If these nodules really could provide nearly unlimited energy for billions of people, I’d say maybe it’s worth thinking about, but the truth is, they may not be as critical for our clean-energy future as Barron insists,” as new battery technology does not use nickel or cobalt at all.

Instead, Oliver argued that the US should join other countries in calling for a precautionary moratorium on deep-sea mining, and finally join the ISA. “Ultimately, it’s going to take us having the patience to wait for the science on this and the discipline to actually listen to what it has to say,” he said. “And I know that that’s hard to do, because it’s so much easier to just pull out a rock and call it the savior of humanity.”

Nevertheless, “it is beyond time that we stop treating the deep ocean as something to exploit,” he concluded, “and start treating it for what it really is: a mind-blowingly vast, virtually unknown world within our world.”

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Adrian Horton