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Pulitzer Center Update February 19, 2024

Behind the Story: Grantee Clare Fieseler on Deep-Sea Mining


This project highlights South Carolina's environmental and economic connections to the ocean.

While reporting on fisheries for the Charleston, South Carolina-based newspaper The Post and Courier, Pulitzer Center grantee Clare Fieseler came across a small piece of information hidden in a press release: Scientists were returning to the site of the world’s first attempt to mine the deep sea. 

Fieseler is a scientist-turned-journalist with a doctorate in marine ecology, so she knew this was significant and was surprised the discovery wasn’t getting more attention.

In July 1970, an American deep-sea mining company ran a successful test of its equipment 130 miles off the coast of Charleston. The company, Deepsea Ventures Inc., touted an imminent era of mass deep-sea mining that could supply the needs of the U.S. military. Instead, the company went out of business 20 years later and the mission was largely forgotten.

That is, until Jason Chaytor, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, found a mention of the mission among government archives in 2016. He knew he wanted to return to the site. In 2022, he did. 

“It looked like they were there yesterday,” Chaytor told Fieseler. The tracks the company’s vehicle created had not been overgrown with new geological nodules or living organisms. Instead, the tracks remained barren, indicating the potential for extensive harm of the seabeds if large-scale mining were allowed.

What Chaytor found could influence international debates about deep-sea mining, as some countries are pushing for permits that could commence mining in international waters by the end of 2024. The minerals that these deep-sea rocks contain—including cobalt and nickel—power smartphone batteries and electric vehicles. With EVs becoming a popular alternative to gas-powered cars, Fieseler’s reporting explores the negative effects of some environmentally-friendly technologies.

Fieseler was careful to show the complexity of the issue—interviewing experts and even the mining company’s CEO to understand how decisions on deep-sea mining could influence resource extraction and environmental degradation for decades to come. Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne spoke with Fieseler about how she brought her audience along on this scientific mystery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alexandra Byrne: How did you find this story and why do you think it’s important to cover now?

Clare Fieseler: I found this story completely by accident. I was on a U.S. government website reporting on fisheries, and a little link for another press release showed at the bottom. It said something like, “Historic Deep Sea Mining in the Atlantic.” I know a little bit about deep-sea mining because I have a background in marine science, and I didn't think there was any deep-sea mining in the Atlantic. I clicked on it and it was this very short press release about a group of scientists who went back to where humanity first tested a device to mine the deep sea. It was 130 miles off the coast of Charleston, where our newspaper is based. It was right in our backyard. I was just like, this sounds like a big deal, so why is it hidden in this little press release?

First, I saw it as a story showing a really interesting part of maritime history. But then, after I talked to the scientist in May of last year, I realized that it was so much bigger. This discovery was coming at a time when the world was finally deciding once and for all to exploit the deep sea for the first time ever. This very humble scientist sitting in a government office had this really important information that can make a difference. So I wanted to follow his journey of trying to show it to the world and whether or not this historic discovery crossed the divide from science into policy, or whether it became again a footnote in history.

It started as a very short press release. The more I dug into it, I realized that it was this historic discovery that had the potential to impact global diplomacy, and also the mining of 60% of our planet.

AB: How do you make stories like this relevant to readers in Charleston?

CF: Our readership is broad and encompasses a large swath of the South beyond Charleston. The connection between that region and deep-sea mining is actually close, because the drive to mine the deep sea right now is being fueled by the manufacturing of electric vehicles. You need minerals from the deep sea—nickel, cobalt, and manganese—to make the batteries inside electric vehicles. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia have become the hub where most of America's electric vehicles are being made.

It's still hotly debated about whether the electric-vehicle sector needs deep-sea minerals, or whether we can innovate our way to making batteries that just have less of these things like cobalt, nickel, and manganese—whether we can just get it from land-based sources. But that's the tie [with the South]—that connection, that tension.

AB: I wanted to ask about electric vehicles, which are often seen as a step in the right direction in addressing pollution and climate change. Why do you think it’s important to examine the negative effects of these technological advancements? And how do you balance those with the benefits?

CF: Anything that's manufactured will have a hidden toll. I did this in-depth look last year at mining lithium in the Southeast, and how that is a hidden toll to this electric-vehicle story. It was important to show that, yes, we need these cars to make the green energy transition. But we should be very transparent that there always are environmental trade-offs, no matter what. No matter how noble, well-intentioned, good, and necessary these green technologies are, they come with some price.

The Washington Post also did a great series last year on the hidden toll of electric vehicles around the globe. We thought it'd be good to focus, after the lithium story, on the deep-sea tie. I want to make clear, though, that all the interest in mining the deep sea today is actually in the Pacific, in international waters. That's where the rocks—the nodules—are the most profitable based on their concentrations of critical minerals. No one is like proposing to have an all-out mining operation off the coast of South Carolina, it's just that it's a useful place in our backyard to test the equipment. The actual mining that the companies want to do, that the U.N. will approve (or not), will be in international waters in the Pacific.

AB: When you were researching the article, did you see any legal parallels with other sectors that aren’t deep-sea mining?

CF: One of the interesting things that I came across in my reporting in talking to experts is that deep-sea mining is very unique. We've been exploring and developing technology and assessing human impact for 50 years, even though deep-sea mining as a commercial enterprise has never existed. That has never happened in human history where we've spent 50 years trying to develop technology and understand our human impact before going into commercial operation.

Usually, it's like, you find oil in Pennsylvania, you take it out of the ground as much as you can, and 30 years later, you realize all the harm you did afterward. Whereas this is quite different. We are very well aware of all the harms that we could do. The decision whether or not to mine the deep sea is drawing from a lot of great science. And it's an opportunity to do it right.

Whatever decision is made about mining the deep sea, it will likely set a precedent. Deep-sea mining seems like a very niche sector, or very niche thing to write about, but it will set the precedent for extracting resources in other areas beyond national jurisdiction, in other areas beyond nations’ borders—the oceans, Mars, asteroids. So whatever decision we make about the deep sea will probably follow us for centuries to come.

AB: In the story, you mention that companies like Volvo and BMW vowed not to participate in deep-sea mining for their electric vehicles, at least for now. Based on your reporting, do you think that will last?

CF: I don't know. It's hard to say. I do think that companies and countries want to make sure that we're taking the right approach—taking more time to gather information instead of rushing to do it now. A country triggered this obscure clause in a global treaty that gave the global community just two years to develop environmental guidelines for how to mine the deep sea and that is why there's this rush to do it now.

Most people, and even some mining companies, would rather everyone pump the brakes and give it another five or 10 years. Maybe we won't need cobalt in 10 years to power our batteries. It's a Pandora's box—once you open the seabed to mining, it's a gold rush. So the precautionary pause is very popular. At the same time, you have very powerful entities like China and some private companies that are pushing to open up seabed mining as early as later this year.

AB: How do you write about scientific research and historical records in a way that engages your audience and helps them understand?

CF: I have a background in science—I have a Ph.D. in ecology and environment. I did that for 10 years—scientific research of the oceans. So I am naturally inclined to write about science. I made the leap into journalism because I wanted my writing to reach a broader, general audience. I take a lot of time thinking about how to faithfully translate the science into stories that people want to read. I have to give my editor [Glenn Smith] a lot of credit, because he's really good at showing this as a story, a mystery. I think that grabs the reader.

AB: When talking to sources, how did you follow these characters and weave them into your story?

CF: The main character in this story is a government scientist, and he gave us a lot of his time to sit and talk about how he made this discovery—what his thought process was and so forth. Then I had someone that I did graduate school with who was a deep-sea biologist, who was like me, a scientist turned journalist. He helped me find sources for this story. This world is very small, everyone knows each other. It's like 300 people who work on this thing that involves 58% of the planet. I was able to interview the CEO of a mining company, and that is unheard of. They don't like to talk to the press. Just because I knew this friend from graduate school, I was able to get access and trust. I tried to respect all those voices—the different sides of the debate.

AB: Can you talk a little bit more about that interview with the CEO and why it’s important to do?

CF: This is a really important issue, and allowing readers to understand what the arguments are on both sides is really important. I put my own views on this subject aside and try to show what everyone wants out of this in a way that is faithful to the science of evidence and why it has become so political.

AB: Is there anything that surprised you in this reporting? Anything you would want readers to know?

CF: Usually, the Pulitzer Center funds stories that take you all over the world—this is a story that took us through history. It required traveling to different labs and archives across the United States to tease out that history. It's just as important to look back for guidance on how to manage the ocean and its resources. I hope readers appreciate that part. I'm glad that the Pulitzer Center saw the value in that too—that it's so important to access hard-to-reach places of the world. It's also important to take the time to reach into these previously forgotten parts of history, bring them to bay, and understand how history helps us decide the future—to unearth the future.

AB: What’s next for you? Do you see this being an issue you’ll continue to report on?

CF: I would love to keep on reporting on these big narrative journeys that we can bring readers on. I would love to do it again. Deep-sea mining and our connection to the deep sea is a fascinating space and people are interested. The reason I know people are interested is from when people went missing exploring the Titanic. I mean, it was the biggest news for weeks. Part of it was the fascination of the Titanic, but I think it's part of the public's fascination with this otherworldly place that we read about but we don't get to see. It's filled with so many secrets and unknowns and is endlessly fascinating.


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