As reported by the DW,; Deep sea mining is vital for climate action, deadly for the oceans, we share the interesting article related to mining and marine Biodiversity in areas beyond jurisdiction.
Mining companies are looking to the bottom of the ocean to extract rare earths and metals that are in high demand but in short supply. How will it work and what are the risks?
In the mid-19th century, science fiction author Jules Verne wrote about precious metals lying thousands of feet under water.
“In the depths of the ocean there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold that would be very easy to exploit,” says Captain Nemo in Verne’s classic adventure tale, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
The author was right about the possible raw materials. However, he was wrong in assuming that the minerals could be easily mined.
There is currently no internationally agreed code for mining under the ocean. However, after two weeks of negotiations that ended on March 31, the International Seabed Authority has now decided that companies can apply from July to exploit the ocean floor. But activists and even corporations are backing down due to fears of the massive environmental impact.
“The deep sea is a treasure trove of biodiversity, rich in living resources used in medicines and critical to regulating the climate and providing spawning and feeding grounds for fish,” said Diva Amon, a Caribbean marine biologist and advisor to the Benioff Ocean Initiative on the University of California. “The planet would not be the same without him.”
Demand is growing rapidly for the metals driving the energy transition
Whether it’s copper or nickel for batteries, cobalt for electric cars, or manganese for steel production: rare-earth minerals and metals are critical to the renewable energy technologies driving the global energy transition.
But while demand is increasing rapidly, resources are also becoming more scarce globally.
According to estimates, in just three years the world will need twice as much lithium and 70% more cobalt.
And this despite the slow progress of the energy transition. According to the International Energy Agency, if climate goals were adequately pursued through the massive expansion of renewable energy, around five times as much lithium and four times as much cobalt would be needed by 2030.
Projected production volumes for these raw materials are well below demand. To close this gap, some countries and companies now want to extract the resources in the deep sea.
The seabed contains valuable manganese nodules
So-called polymetallic nodules, also known as manganese nodules, are driving the race to the seabed. These potato-sized lumps contain high proportions of nickel, copper, manganese, rare earths, and other valuable metals.
The best-studied area currently is the seafloor between 3,500 and 5,500 meters [11,500 feet and 18,000 feet] in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the eastern Pacific Ocean near the US state of Hawaii. Stretching for thousands of kilometers, the area contains more nickel, manganese and cobalt than any known land area.
The basin in the central Indian Ocean and the seabed off the Cook Islands, Kiribati atolls, and French Polynesia in the South Pacific are also of interest for potential extraction.
“The composition of the nodules is remarkably well aligned with the needs of EV manufacturers,” said Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company. “Automakers will need much more of these metals to make battery cathodes and electrical connectors for an electric vehicle fleet of about a billion cars and trucks by mid-century.”
The Canadian-based company specializes in medium- and long-term development of mineral resources in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
Although manganese nodules are not yet mined anywhere in the world, that could change soon as they are virtually directly on the seabed and can be easily mined without breaking through rock layers or eroding the seabed.
Automated mining endangers marine life
Seabed mining is made easier when a huge vacuum can simply travel over the ocean floor to suck up the nodules, which are then hosed to the surface.
But the living part of the seafloor is destroyed along with the nodules, said Matthias Haeckel, a scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.
“That means that all the organisms, bacteria and higher organisms that live in and on the sediment and the nodules are completely absorbed,” he said.
These organisms also require manganese nodules to survive, which means “they won’t come back for millions of years,” said Sabine Gollner, a senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Marine Research.
Rapid regeneration is impossible because it can take a million years for a nodule to grow a few millimeters.
Scientists and opponents of deep-sea mining also fear that clouds of sediment from the suction could cause enormous damage to ecosystems within a radius of several hundred kilometers.
Potential victims would include plants, creatures in the mid-water depths, and microorganisms whose airways might be blocked by sediment.
Achieve a better environmental balance
The Metals Company aims to mine the nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, and makes no secret of the potential damage to marine biodiversity.
However, the company has argued that deep-sea mining could be less damaging to the environment than onshore extraction, noting that it would emit 80% less greenhouse gases.
The company claims that deep-sea mining would have little impact on carbon stores like forests and soils, would not displace people, use less fresh water, and release fewer toxins.
The Metals Company has also claimed that deep-sea mining would be largely automated, preventing the exploitation of cobalt miners, including children, in the Congo, where most of the world’s cobalt is mined today.
Could underwater mining start in July?
The potential exploitation of deep-sea deposits is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, which was established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has awarded 31 exploration contracts so far around the world. , but none for commercial mining activities.
These permits allow companies to explore the resources and the potential for future extraction, but also require them to collect data for environmental analysis.
The Jamaica-based authority has been working on rules on if, how and where deep-sea mining might be possible. At the recent two-week conference, the 167 member states of the International Seabed Authority continued 10 years of negotiations for a global mining code. The hope is to adopt the code in July so that deep-sea mining applications can be awarded around strong rules that protect the environment.
The Pacific island state of Nauru has been collaborating with The Metals Company to force through a code by 2023 so applications can be decided. But other island nations have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“Deep-sea mining would go beyond damaging the seabed and have a broader impact on fish populations, marine mammals and the essential role of deep-sea ecosystems in regulating climate,” said the Vanuatu representative. , Sylvain Kalsakau, during negotiations.
For marine biologist Gollner, there is still a lack of sufficient data to support environmentally friendly deep-sea mining. “Based on the current state of the data, deep sea mining cannot be managed in a way that is not harmful to the environment,” he said.
She has called for a moratorium based on the data, saying “now would be too soon.”
Corporations including BMW, Volkswagen, Google, Philips and Samsung SDI have joined a call for a moratorium launched by wildlife conservation organization WWF, pledging not to use raw materials from the deep seabed or fund mining in deep seas. deep for now.
“It’s great to see how the depths of the ocean have inspired the support of people and voices from around the world,” said marine biologist Amon. “Hopefully this momentum for a pause continues to grow.”