Deep-sea mining is emerging as a new industry, fundamental to the green-energy transition. However, the retrieval of minerals from the ocean floor may be disruptive to local ecosystems and communities.
What to know about deep-sea mining:
Deep-sea mining (DSM) is the process of extracting polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor. These nodules are potato-size rock concretions that form on the seabed during thousands to millions of years and are very rich in critical minerals, which are deemed fundamental for the current technological transition towards a zero-emission economy. Among them are lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper, which are the main components of green-energy technologies such as electric cars, photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, therefore highly sought for by current businesses.
Large-scale mining operations on the ocean seabed have not been implemented yet. However, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and whose purpose is to regulated seabed mining activities, has been granting exploration permits to both governmental institutions and private firms, mainly in central Pacific Ocean. Up to February 2022, thirty-one contracts were officially stipulated, amounting to about 1.5 million square kilometres of the seabed explored. The ISA is now working on a set of regulations that will define the framework of the next exploitation phase.
Deep-sea mining operations would work as follows. A robotic machine would navigate the bottom of the ocean, cutting and collecting polymetallic nodules which will be pumped up inside a riser pipe to the main ship. Meantime, debris and fine sediments would accumulate in the return pipe and sent back to the ocean as a waste product. In the process, plumes and noises would be released in the surrounding area, both at the surface, where the nodules are shipped, and at deeper layers, where water is discharged.
A possible cure to the climate crisis:
Human-induced climate change is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which releases large amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, thus trapping incoming solar radiations and heating up the earth. The need for alternative and clean sources of energy like wind turbines and solar panels is therefore deemed urgent. At the forefront of the green revolution are electric energy technologies, which require large reserves of critical metals to build batteries and solar cells.
Land reserves of critical metals are not endless and the seabed hosts a vast amount of these minerals. This is why more and more researchers and private enterprises are now investigating the advantages of seabed exploitation. According to mining supporters, the hidden treasures that are found at the bottom of the sea will help societies decarbonise their economies and fight climate change. Moreover, as the Ukraine-Russia war disrupts the mineral supply chain and Europe is left vulnerable to current market price fluctuations, DSM lobbyists call for urgent alternatives.
The risks of deep-sea mining:
Although deep-sea mining is economically attractive to the current market, a future of intensive and extensive mining operations is not without reservations. Environmentally, these activities will likely be disruptive to local ecosystems for various reasons. Firstly, scratching the seabed will disturb and pose a life threat to those species that have made the ocean floor their home. This will involve not only fish but also coral and sponge ecosystems that have been dwelling in the area for millennia. Moreover, noise, light pollution and sediment plumes will likely propagate far from the mining sites, therefore affecting the balance and habitat of other animals. Lastly, the water released after the collection of the nodules might create cloudiness during hunt or mating phases.
Other than having environmental risks, deep-sea mining also affects the livelihood of the local populations where such activities take place. Small-state islands and coastal nations in the Pacific have been advocating against its development since the first exploration permits were granted. They argue that, as of now, too little is known about the consequences on public health and on the natural systems, and that more scientific research is needed before large-scale implementation. The civil society and governments from Palau, Fiji, Samoa and Micronesia are among the forty-four countries who called for a moratorium until more robust data has been collected. On the other hand, however, deep-sea mining represents a profitable source of income for coastal nations.
Recently, the small-state Pacific island of Nauru has surprised the public by officially sponsoring deep-sea miner The Metals Company, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm. According to local organisations and communities, this strategic move lacked transparency by the government and the population was completely excluded from the decision-making process. This episode has raised concern over power abuses, as politicians may seek economic interest and disregard the wellbeing of their societies and environments.
More broadly, the ISA is being accused of allowing detrimental activities to take place in regions where vast marine ecosystems are already being threatened by human activities and global warming. According to analysts and mining opponents, the UN organisation has been accused of not fitting the purpose that initially brought to its inception. Moreover, Greenpeace criticised the ISA for not being able to regulate private corporations and firms, whose only driving factor is financial profit. Eventually, the question is asked of whether the seabed mining industry is even necessary to the current market and, if yes, at what price.