Deep sea mining could power a clean energy future – but there’s a cost

Deep sea mining could power a clean energy future – but there’s a cost

Deep sea mining could power a clean energy future – but there’s a cost

As companies race to develop renewable energy and the batteries to store it, finding sufficient quantities of rare earth metals to build the technology is no small feat. This is causing mining companies to take a closer look at a largely unexplored frontier – the deep seabed.

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

A fierce debate is currently unfolding as a Canadian company plans to launch 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 Fracture Zone.Image courtesy of Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project

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

As scholars who have long focused on the economic, political and legal challenges posed by deep seabed mining, we have each studied and written about this economic frontier with concern for the regulatory and ecological challenges it poses. laid.

What’s out there, and why should we care?

Manganese can be found in large areas of the seabed around the world.Shutterstock

A curious journey began in the summer of 1974. Departing from Long Beach, California, a revolutionary ship financed by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes set sail for the Pacific to open a new frontier: the mining of seabeds. sailors.

Extensive media coverage of the expedition helped draw the attention of corporations and policy makers to the promise of seabed mining, which is remarkable given that the expedition was actually elaborate coverage for a CIA operation.

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

The expedition, called Project Azorian by the CIA, recovered at least part of the submarine – and also brought back several manganese nodules from the seabed.

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

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

Mining in the Clarion-Clipperton area could be about 10 times richer than comparable mineral deposits on earth. In total, estimates put the value of this new industry at some US$30 billion per year by 2030. It could help fuel the growing global demand for cobalt that is at the heart of lithium-ion batteries.

Yet, as several scientists have noted, we still know more about the Moon’s surface than what lies beneath the deep seabed.

Deep Sea Ecology

A video from MIT shows the sediment plume created by a nodule-collecting machine during an experiment.

Less than 10% of the deep seabed has been mapped thoroughly enough to understand even the basic features of the structure and contents of the ocean floor, let alone the life and ecosystems therein.

Even the most studied region, the Clarion-Clipperton zone, is best characterized by the enduring novelty of what is there.

Between 70 and 90 percent of living things collected from the Clarion-Clipperton area have never been seen before, leaving scientists to speculate on the percentage of all living species in the area that have never been seen or collected. Exploratory expeditions return regularly with images or samples of creatures that would richly enliven sci-fi stories, like a 6-foot-long bioluminescent shark.

The impact deep sea mining would have on these creatures is also unknown.

A 2021 experiment in water about 3 miles (5 kilometers) deep off Mexico found that seabed mining equipment created sediment plumes up to about 6.5 feet (2 meters) deep. high. But the authors of the project stressed that they had not studied the ecological impact. A similar earlier experiment was conducted in Peru in 1989. When scientists returned to that site in 2015, they found that some species had not yet fully recovered.

Ecologists have wondered if seafloor creatures could be smothered by the sediment plumes and if sediment in the water column could affect island communities that depend on healthy ocean ecosystems. The Metals Company argued that its impact is less than land mining.

Given humanity’s lack of knowledge about the ocean, it is currently not possible to establish environmental benchmarks for ocean health that could be used to weigh the economic benefits against the environmental damages of exploitation. seabed mining.

Scarcity and the Economic Case for Mining

The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 60% of the world’s cobalt supply.JUNIOR KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

The economic case for deep seabed mining reflects both possibilities and uncertainties.

On the positive side, it could displace some of the highly destructive land-based mining and increase the global supply of minerals used in clean energy sources such as wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and electric vehicles.

Land-based mining imposes significant environmental damage and costs to human health on the miners themselves and surrounding communities. In addition, mines are sometimes located in politically unstable regions. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 60% of the world’s cobalt supply, for example, and China owns or finances 80% of the country’s industrial mines. China also accounts for 60% of the world’s supply of rare earth element production and much of its processing. Having a nation able to exercise such control over a critical resource has raised concerns.

Deep seabed mining, however, comes with significant uncertainties, especially given the relatively early state of the technology.

First, the risks associated with the commercialization of new technologies. Until deep sea mining technology is demonstrated, discoveries cannot be listed as “reserves” in corporate asset valuations. Without this defined value, it can be difficult to line up the significant funding needed to build mining infrastructure, reducing first-mover advantage and causing companies to wait for someone else to step up.

Commodity prices are also difficult to predict. Technological innovation can reduce or even eliminate the predicted demand for a mineral. New deposits of onshore minerals can also boost supply: Sweden announced in January 2023 that it had just discovered Europe’s largest rare earth oxide deposit.

All in all, embarking on deep seabed mining involves incurring significant costs in new technologies with uncertain returns, while posing risks to a natural environment whose value is likely to appreciate.

Who decides the future of seabed mining?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in the early 1990s, sets the ground rules for ocean resources.

It allows countries to control economic activities, including any mining, within 200 miles of their coasts, representing about 35% of the ocean. Beyond national waters, countries around the world have established the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority, or ISA, to regulate seabed mining.

Importantly, the ISA framework provides for some of the benefits derived from commercial mining to be shared with the international community. In this way, even countries that did not have the resources to exploit the deep seabed could benefit from its advantages. This part of the ISA’s mandate was controversial and is one of the reasons the United States did not join the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

With little public attention, the ISA worked slowly for several decades to develop regulations for underwater mineral exploration, and those rules are still not complete. More than a dozen companies and countries have received exploration contracts, including work by The Metals Company under sponsorship from the island nation of Nauru.

The ISA’s work began to draw criticism as companies sought to launch commercial mining. A recent New York Times an investigation of internal ISA documents suggested that the agency’s management downplayed environmental concerns and shared confidential information with some of the companies believed to be involved in seabed mining. The ISA has not finalized environmental rules for mining.

Much of the coverage of deep seabed mining has been designed to highlight climate benefits. But that ignores the dangers this activity could pose to Earth’s largest pristine ecology – the deep sea. We think it would be wise to better understand this existing and fragile ecosystem before rushing to exploit it.

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

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