Deep sea mining could power a clean energy future – but it comes at a cost

As companies race to expand renewable energy and the batteries to store it, finding sufficient quantities of rare earths to build the technology is no mean feat. It is prompting mining companies to take a closer look at a largely unexplored frontier – the deep seabed.

A wealth of these metals can be found in manganese nodules that look like cobblestones scattered over large areas of the deep seabed. But the fragile ecosystems deep in the oceans are poorly understood, and the mining codes for sustainable extraction of these areas are in their infancy.

A heated debate is now unfolding as a Canadian company plans to start the first commercial deep-sea mining operation in the Pacific Ocean.

A newly discovered species called Relicanthus daphneae which was found in the Clarion-Clipperton fault zone.Image courtesy of Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project

Metals Company completed an exploration project in the Pacific in the fall of 2022. Under a treaty governing the deep seabed, the international agency that oversees those areas could be forced to approve provisional mining there as soon as spring 2023, but several countries and companies are calling for a delay until more research can be done. France and New Zealand have called for a ban on deep-sea mining.

As researchers who have long focused on the economic, political and legal challenges of deep-sea mining, we have all studied and written on this economic frontier with concern for the regulatory and ecological challenges it poses.

What’s down there and why should we care?

Manganese can be found over large areas of the ocean floor around the world.Shutterstock

A strange journey began in the summer of 1974. A revolutionary ship financed by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes set sail from Long Beach, California, and headed for the Pacific Ocean to open a new frontier – deep sea mining.

Widespread media coverage of the expedition helped focus the attention of companies and policymakers on the promise of deep-sea mining, which is remarkable given that the expedition was actually an elaborate cover for a CIA operation.

The real target was a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk in 1968 with all hands and what was believed to be a treasure trove of Soviet state secrets and technology on board.

The expedition, dubbed Project Azorian by the CIA, recovered at least part of the submarine — and it also brought up several manganese nodules from the seabed.

Manganese nodules are about the size of potatoes and can be found over large areas of the seabed in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the deep abyssal plains of the Atlantic Ocean. They are valuable because they are exceptionally rich in 37 metals, including nickel, cobalt and copper, which are essential for most large-scale batteries and several renewable energy technologies.

These nodules form over millennia when metals nucleate around shells or broken nodules. The Clarion-Clipperton zone, between Mexico and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, where the mining test took place, has been estimated to have over 21 billion tons of nodules that could yield twice as much nickel and three times as much cobalt as all the reserves. on land.

Mining in the Clarion-Clipperton zone can be around 10 times richer than comparable mineral deposits on land. All told, estimates put the value of this new industry at around $30 billion annually by 2030. It could help feed growing global demand for the cobalt at the heart of lithium-ion batteries.

Yet, as several scientists have noted, we still know more about the surface of the Moon than what lies at the bottom of the deep ocean floor.

Ecology on the deep seabed

Video from MIT shows the sediment plume created by a nodule collection machine during an experiment.

Less than 10 percent of the deep seabed has been mapped thoroughly enough to understand even the basic features of the structure and content of the seabed, let alone the life and ecosystems there.

Even the most thoroughly studied region, the Clarion-Clipperton zone, is still best characterized by the persistent novelty of what is found there.

Between 70 and 90 percent of living things collected in the Clarion-Clipperton zone have never been seen before, allowing scientists to speculate what percentage of all living species in the region have never been seen or collected. Exploratory expeditions regularly return with images or samples of creatures that richly animate science fiction stories, such as a 6-foot-long luminescent shark.

Also unknown is the impact that deep sea mining would have on these creatures.

A 2021 experiment in water about 3 miles (5 kilometers) deep off Mexico found that mining equipment on the seafloor created sediment plumes up to about 6.5 feet (2 meters) high. But the project authors emphasized that they did not study the ecological impact. A similar previous experiment was carried out in Peru in 1989. When the researchers returned to this site in 2015, they found that some species still had not fully recovered.

Environmentalists have questioned whether seabed creatures could be suffocated by sediment plumes and whether the sediment in the water column could affect island communities that depend on healthy oceanic ecosystems. The Metals Company has argued that its impact is less than surface mining.

Given humanity’s lack of knowledge about the ocean, it is currently not possible to set environmental baselines for ocean health that can be used to weigh the economic benefits against the environmental damage of seabed mining.

Scarcity and the economic case for mining

The Democratic Republic of Congo produces 60 percent of the global supply of cobalt.JUNIOR KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

The economic arguments for deep sea mining reflect both opportunity and uncertainty.

On the plus side, it could displace some highly destructive terrestrial mining and increase the global supply of minerals used in clean energy sources such as wind turbines, solar cells and electric vehicles.

Terrestrial mining causes significant environmental damage and costs to human health both to the miners themselves and to the surrounding communities. In addition, mines are sometimes located in politically unstable regions. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, produces 60 percent of the global supply of cobalt, and China owns or finances 80 percent of the industrial mines in that country. China also accounts for 60 percent of the global supply of rare earth production and much of the processing. Having one nation able to exercise such control over a critical resource has raised concerns.

However, deep seabed mining has significant uncertainties, especially given the relatively early state of the technology.

First is the risk associated with the commercialization of new technology. Until deep-sea mining technology is demonstrated, discoveries cannot be listed as “reserves” in companies’ valuations. Without this value defined, it can be difficult to line up the significant financing needed to build mining infrastructure, reducing the first-mover advantage and incentivizing companies to wait for someone else to take the lead.

Commodity prices are also difficult to predict. Technological innovation can reduce or even eliminate the projected demand for a mineral. New mineral deposits on land can also increase supply: Sweden announced in January 2023 that it had just discovered the largest deposit of rare earth oxides in Europe.

All in all, embarking on deep seabed mining involves lowering significant costs in new technology for uncertain returns, while at the same time posing a risk to a natural environment that is likely to rise in value.

Who will decide the future of seabed mining?

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in the early 1990s, provides the basic rules for marine resources.

It allows countries to control economic activities, including all mining, within 200 miles of their coastlines, making up about 35 percent of the ocean. Outside national waters, countries around the world established the International Seabed Authority, or ISA, based in Jamaica, to regulate deep-sea mining.

Critically, the ISA framework requires that some of the profits from commercial mining be shared with the international community. In this way, even countries that did not have the resources to mine the deep seabed could share in the benefits. This part of the ISA’s mandate was controversial, and it was one reason why the US did not join the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

With little public attention, the ISA worked slowly for decades to develop regulations for the exploration of undersea minerals, and these rules are still not complete. More than a dozen companies and countries have received exploration contracts, including The Metals Company’s work under the sponsorship of the island nation of Nauru.

The ISA’s work has begun to draw criticism as companies have attempted to launch commercial mining operations. A recent one New York Times examination of internal ISA documents suggested that the agency’s management downplayed environmental concerns and shared confidential information with some of the companies that would be involved in seabed mining. ISA has not finalized environmental rules for mining.

Much of the coverage of deep seabed mining is framed to highlight the climate benefits. But this overlooks the dangers this activity can pose to Earth’s largest pristine ecology – the deep sea. We think it would be wise to better understand this existing, fragile ecosystem better before we rush to extract it.

This article was originally published on The conversation of Scott Shackelford, Christiana Ochoa, David Bosco, and Kerry Krutilla at Indiana University. Read the original article here.

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