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Analysis

Deep Sea Mining: Green Solution or Potential Disaster?

By Paloma Duran | Wed, 10/27/2021 - 12:43

Plans are advancing to extract minerals from the ocean, which are key to accelerating the world's transition to a greener future. However, some groups have highlighted our limited knowledge about the sea and mining’s potential to damage entire ecosystems. As a result, deep sea mining is being further studied and a code is being developed to prevent catastrophic damage.

“We desperately need substantial amounts of manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper to build electric cars and power plants.  We cannot increase land supplies of these metals without having a significant environmental impact. The only alternative lies in the ocean,” said Hans Smit, Chief Executive of Florida’s Oceans Minerals.

The existence of mineral in the deepest part of the ocean is not news; this has been known since the 1860s. However, more studies are now underway to begin extracting these minerals. The sea floor contains the same minerals found on land, as well minerals that are unique to the ocean such as ferromanganese crusts, polymetallic nodules and sulfide. Reserves are estimated to be worth between US$8 trillion and more than US$16 trillion, reported Prospector.

The richest area for marine mining is the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which is located in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Mexico. Mineral reserves have been estimated to contain 21 billion tons of polymetallic nodules, which contain about 6 billion tons of manganese, 226 million tons of copper, 94 tons of cobalt (six times more than those found on land) and 270 million tons of nickel, which is 100 times the 2019 global production. Currently around 20 companies have contracts to explore the region, which covers around 5,000km, reported Prospector.

Growing demand for metals to power electric vehicles (EVs) and wind and solar energy converters has increased prices and has brought more attention to sea mining. According to an article from the Journal of Cleaner Production, Life cycle climate change impacts of producing battery metals from land ores versus deep-sea polymetallic nodules by Diana Paulikas, nodules could reduce CO2 emissions by 70-75 percent, decrease land use by 94 percent, eliminate 100 percent of solid waste and substantially reduce mining-related human injuries and deaths.

In addition, ocean mining has a development time of one to two years, an exploration cost of around US$20 million, a development time of four to six years from discovery, a development cost of US$1 billion and a cost of less than US$1 billion for mining extraction per year, which can last between 20-30 years. Meanwhile, land mining has a prospecting time between two and eight years, an exploration cost of US$10 million, a development time of more than 10 years from discovery and its development costs are up to billions of dollars per year, which can last for more than 50 years, reported Prospector.

Hesitation Around Sea Mining

One of the most important differences between land and sea mining is that the former can rehabilitate and re-vegetate the land to try to recover it as it was before operations. Meanwhile, research continues regarding how to ensure a good mine closure and compensate for the displacement of marine life, reported Prospector.

Marine mining has raised concerns among scientists and environmentalists, as its impact has not been fully determined. A report by Fauna and Flora International stated that “deep seabed mining will result in large-scale habitat removal. It will also produce sediment plumes which will disrupt ecological function and behavioral ecology of deep-ocean species, smothering fundamental ecological processes over vast areas.”

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body based in Jamaica, has worked to draft regulations on exploration. However, it has not yet developed rules for development, exploitation and closure. “If mining was to go ahead with the current state of knowledge, species and functions could be lost before they are known and understood,” a report commissioned by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) said.

Mining companies interested in sea mining have stressed they are not rushing their plans. “We are still gathering in the science and I would say commercial operations are unlikely to start until the end of the decade. I am confident we will be able to show that extracting polymetallic nodules will have a lower impact on the environment than with the opening of new mines on land or the expansion of existing ones,” said Chris Williams, Managing Director of UK Seabed Resources.

DeepGreen, a Canadian developer of lower-impact battery metals from seafloor polymetallic nodules, said ocean mining would cause less environmental impact than land mining as it does not require deforestation, road-building or tailings ponds and has a lower carbon footprint. In addition, the company has explained that the area where mining would take place is not abundant in sea life.

“These are like deserts under the ocean. There is not a lot living down there. From an environmental or ecological perspective, we are not naïve to say there is not going to be some sort of impact because of course there will be. However, like anything in life, we have got to consider trade-offs,” Paes-Braga, who is part of DeepGreen’s board of directors, told BIV News.

Currently, ISA is conducting scientific research at the CCZ to identify the best measures necessary to protect the marine environment and sea life. ISA is creating the first deep sea mining code, which could be adopted by its 168 members. ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge said that even though the annual meeting could not be held this year due to the pandemic, regulations could be adopted next year. “The sea mining code will incorporate specific provisions to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment and conservation of marine biodiversity, human health and safety and equitable sharing of financial and other economic benefits,” said Lodge.

Mexico was one of the first countries to ratify the ISA Convention in 1983. Currently, ISA has a permanent mission in Mexico. The country participates in the annual sessions and is part of the Council and the Legal-Technical Commission, which are the main organs of ISA.

While Mexico does not carry out marine mining yet, the country has an important opportunity. The country is ranked 12th in the largest marine area, in addition to being next to the most prolific region for marine mining. The country still does not have a sea mining law. However, Art. 27 of the Constitution and Art. 1, 2 and 10 of the Mining Law regulate maritime-land activities. In addition, it has the National Policy on Oceans and Coasts of Mexico (PNMC), which is a review of the state and trends in the country's marine and coastal areas. The policy primarily seeks to promote economic activities and address identified threats, reported ISA. Mexico also has the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (GLEBEP) that states that protected natural areas are subject to the rules outlined in the law and other applicable regulations. Art. 51 of GLEBEP establishes that activities will be allowed, restricted or prohibited according to GLEBEP, the Fisheries Law, the Federal Law of the Sea and the international agreements signed by Mexico.

An initiative was recently sent to Congress to not allow concessions for the exploitation of minerals in the sea because it is feared that it would put marine species at risk. However, Mexico has given some companies permission to explore the CCZ, reported INCYTU.

“Areas near active hydrothermal vents on mid-ocean ridges have been approved for future exploration for ore deposits, but mining has not yet started. We still have an opportunity to put into place effective environment management plans. If not, instead of being a solution, it will bring more problems,” said Daniel C. Dunn, Assistant Research Professor at the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environmen

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
Comments Prospector, Journal of Cleaner Production, Fauna and Flora, ISA, BIV News, Duke Nicholas School, INCYTU, UN, Scientific American, Gobierno
Photo by:   Zachary Theodore
Paloma Duran Paloma Duran Journalist and Industry Analyst