Balancing the Demand for Minerals and the Preservation of Ocean Ecosystems

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by | Dec 20, 2023

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In an era marked by a fervent push toward clean energy and sustainability, the race for critical minerals has led to a contentious debate over the future of deep-sea mining.

As nations and industries grapple with the need for minerals essential to the global energy transition, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) finds itself at the epicenter of efforts to regulate this burgeoning industry. Against the backdrop of the United Nations’ COP28 climate summit, where clean energy transition was a central focus, the promise and risks of deep-sea mining come under scrutiny.

A Giant Robot Descends to Earth’s Last Frontier

The most prominent among the three proposed types of deep-sea mining involves a colossal robot, dispatched from a support vessel, descending to the ocean floor. This intrepid robot delves to depths of approximately 5,000 meters, reaching the ocean’s least explored frontier — the seafloor.

Beneath the waves lies a treasure trove: polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped rocks scattered across the ocean floor, particularly in parts of the Pacific Ocean. These nodules are veritable mineral storehouses, housing metals vital for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries — the lifeblood of electric vehicles and renewable energy systems. Key components include manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, and trace minerals.

The Crucial Role of Deep-Sea Minerals in the Energy Transition

These polymetallic nodules hold the key to the energy transition, with their metals serving as building blocks for electric vehicle batteries, cell phones, solar panels, and various electronic devices. It’s important to note that these minerals are distinct from rare earths, another critical group of metals integral to EV production.

As the world grapples with the urgent need to combat climate change, governments face mounting pressure to curb emissions, particularly from the transportation sector, which accounted for approximately 20% of global emissions in 2022.

According to the International Energy Agency, to meet global energy transition targets by 2040, the world will need twice the amount of these critical minerals as it currently consumes. Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions will necessitate at least four times the present quantity.

Minerals essential for clean energy technologies are becoming scarcer on land, driving up mining costs and, consequently, the prices of EVs and electronics. This situation stands in stark contrast to the falling prices witnessed up to 2020. Notably, an EV requires six times more minerals than a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle.

The hunger for minerals from electronics manufacturers threatens to outstrip existing supplies. For instance, copper demand is projected to double by 2050 to 53 million metric tons annually. However, the supply is expected to fall short by around 2.7 million metric tons unless new sources are unlocked, as estimated by S&P Global consultancy.

Deep-Sea Mining: A Controversial Solution to Mineral Shortages

Faced with rising demand and dwindling on-land resources, governments and companies are increasingly drawn to the idea of allowing mining in the vast expanses of our oceans, which cover over 70% of the planet’s surface.

Deep-sea mining encompasses three primary types of mineral deposits: polymetallic nodules, ferromanganese crusts found on seamounts, and vent sulfides near deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Although the processes for extracting these minerals share similarities with land-based mining, underwater mining presents unique challenges.

The mining industry has faced criticism on land for contributing to deforestation, generating toxic waste, and even exacerbating child labor issues in certain regions. A tragic tailings dam collapse at a Brazilian iron ore mine in 2019, which claimed hundreds of lives, served as a stark reminder of the industry’s environmental and social impacts.

The declining average grade of on-land mines over the past decade has forced miners to dig deeper to extract the same mineral quantities, compounding these issues. In response, proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it presents a more environmentally friendly alternative.

The allure of deep-sea mining has prompted some nations, including Norway, Japan, and the Cook Islands, to consider allowing mining in their territorial waters. However, for international waters, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), backed by the United Nations, holds jurisdiction over deep-sea mining activities. A recent bureaucratic oversight within the ISA led to a missed deadline for setting standards concerning sediment disturbance, noise, and other factors related to deep-sea mining, inadvertently opening the door for commercial mining permit applications.

A Complex Ethical Dilemma

The debate surrounding deep-sea mining is complex, with ethical considerations at its core. On one hand, proponents argue that without accessing oceanic mineral deposits, land mining will inevitably continue, potentially encroaching upon sensitive ecosystems like rainforests.

On the other hand, environmentalists assert that deep-sea mining is not a true alternative, as land-based mining will persist regardless of its viability. They raise concerns about the potentially irreversible harm to deep-sea ecosystems, particularly around the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which hosts extensive reserves of nickel, cobalt, manganese, and copper.

Deep-sea mining raises a slew of environmental concerns. Sediment plumes stirred up by robotic mining operations can disrupt marine migrations, potentially endangering marine life. The significance of polymetallic nodules within the ocean ecosystem remains poorly understood, and their regeneration process spans millions of years.

Nodules serve as habitats for various marine life, including anemones, barnacles, and corals, while the ocean floor hosts thriving bacterial and invertebrate communities.

Balancing the need for critical minerals with environmental preservation remains a monumental challenge. While the urgency of transitioning to cleaner energy sources is undeniable, the ethical, environmental, and regulatory intricacies surrounding deep-sea mining demand thoughtful consideration and responsible practices.

As the world races against time to combat climate change and accelerate the energy transition, the deep sea stands as both a treasure trove and a battleground, where the quest for minerals and the preservation of oceans’ delicate ecosystems converge.

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