In recent decades, humanity has managed to develop astonishing technologies and discover unforeseen places that it never did from the beginning of its existence. We have conquered the air, traveled to space, and started building bases on Mars. We have revolutionized everyday life with smartphones, telecommunications, and the internet, and we have started understanding nanotechnology and created promising innovations in terms of medicine, pharmaceuticals, and implants. Despite all this progress, one place on planet Earth remains almost completely unknown to humankind: the deep sea waters.
As it is commonly known, the sea covers up to 71% of the Earth’s surface. Out of this large percentage, we have managed to explore only a shocking 5%. The information gathered by researchers, experts and oceanographers is very limited and mostly concerns the surface, the crust, and a small portion of the marine ecosystem. Given the depths of all the oceans that can reach up to 12 km into the sea (the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the planet), the exploration of this magical but hostile world is a far more difficult project than imagined.
However, the efforts of the scientific community in recent years have started to be more active and consistent towards the research of deep-sea waters. Their interest is mainly focused on a specific discovery that looks increasingly promising for the future of all of humanity. The so-called “deep sea mining” of important minerals that are found in incredibly large quantities on rocks that lay at the bottom of the oceans, in depths more than 3000 meters below the sea level.
So, what are these rocks and what makes them that interesting? Within millions of years, tiny pieces of sea debris laid down on the bottom of the vast oceans and got slowly layered by different types of minerals. They slowly transformed into potato-sized polymetallic nodules, scientifically known as polymetallic sulfides, and today they contain significant amounts of valuable metals such as copper, manganese, cobalt, nickel, zinc, silver, and gold. They can be found on underwater mountains, hydrothermal vents and metal-rich crusts. Depending on their underwater altitude and the level of oxygenation they have suffered through the years, the analogies between minerals differ.
Due to their small size and large quantities, they can be easily extracted from the ocean, without the special needs of an underwater drill that oil and gas reserves demand. For their extraction, special mining vehicles, designed by the oil industry, are descended below the sea surface and landed in the deep sea abyss, up to 6.5 km underwater. This vehicle is connected via a flexible pipeline with the ship that transfers and remotely controls it, from the sea surface. Then, just like a tractor plowing a field to harvest it, the machine pulls the minerals from the seabed and pumps them to the ship through the pipe, just like a vacuum. The process is simple, fast and far more economic than a land mine, that requires a lot of effort, employees and equipment.
There are several points on every large ocean that those valuable rocks can be detected. The most famous and vast of them is the so called, “Clarion-Clipperton Zone”, a huge underwater spot in the Pacific Ocean, west of Canada. It has been found that at the bottom of this region more than 54 million tons of these polymetallic nodules are scattered. This fact means that in Clarion-Clipperton Zone, the total value of these rocks can reach up to 20 billion dollars.
Of course, this insane discovery has attracted the attention of nations and private companies that have started to explore both the Clarion-Clipperton Zone and every other underwater deep sea mining spot. But before we examine what is happening on a global scale, concerning those minerals, it is important to ask ourselves: why do we need them?
THE VALUE OF THE POLYMETALLIC NODULES
The answer to the previous question has not to do only with their financial value, but also with the fact that they are a great alternative solution to major problems that our world is suffering from.
First, they are an important source of valuable materials that the global economy desperately needs. Minerals, such as cobalt, manganese and lithium are mainly used in the battery and electric vehicle production industries. They are also necessary materials for the construction of solar panels and wind turbines, inventions that become widely used worldwide. Thus, as our reliance to renewable energy methods gets more fundamental, the demand for this type of metals will grow up from 400% to 600%, according to several scientific reports. The vast decarbonization project within the next few decades requires specific sacrifices and fast decisions. The turn towards the deep sea mining can be a fruitful and quick large-scale solution, as long as it benefits all humankind.
Furthermore, it is important to take into consideration the current environmental damage created by the land mines on a lot of regions of the globe. The largest mines of copper and cobalt can be found in the central African region, and especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right into the heart of essential tropical forests for the planet. The levels of deforestation and freshwater pollution, to set the mining spots, have been so high that are menacing the local communities with total natural devastation. Viable activities, such as fishing and harvesting are shrinking, because of the poisonous toxins that are released into the soil, the river and sea water. The equipment used to drill the areas is also environmentally dangerous, as it produces large amounts of carbon emissions. Deep sea mining is a procedure that touches zero carbon emissions and releases no toxic materials that can contaminate the sea water. It would be the ideal alternative to the mining industry.
Moreover, it is necessary to examine the humanitarian issues that can been confronted with this method of mining. It is widely known into this business, that the conditions of labor for the employees of the land mining industry are not appropriate. Given the severity and difficulty of this type of job, there is a special need for safety, health and security against workplace accidents and exhaustion. According to the United Nations, it has been found that, especially into the mining core of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a lot of human rights violations and labor abuse have been detected. There have also been witnesses of child labor, under extreme working conditions. Deep sea mining is a totally different method of mining that requires specialized and limited personnel and specific equipment. It is operated under the jurisdiction of certified companies and not ambiguous governments. Therefore, if it thrives, it can contribute to the elimination of this kind of human rights violations.
Besides, the recycle of these valuable materials is a concept that may be more consistent in the future. However, at the moment we cannot rely on recycled metals such as copper and cobalt. Therefore, mining them in a large scale would be crucial.
So, what is the current status regarding the deep sea mining?
THE INTERNATIONAL SEABED AUTHORITY (ISA)
In 1994, under the umbrella of the Article 156 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the member states of the UN signed a treaty and established the International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental organization that regulates the exploration and exploitation of the minerals into specific areas, based in Kingston, Jamaica. According to the current legislation of the international law, the sea that expands beyond 200 nautical miles from every coast is determined as international waters. That means that any activity of financial exploitation, such as mining for oil or minerals, from any state is against the international law.
Since most of the areas, where the polymetallic nodules are concentrated, are under international jurisdiction, the ISA is responsible to establish the ground rules for their use. The goals that this organization is meant to achieve are three: the extraction of the polymetallic modules should a) benefit all humankind, b) consider the special needs of developing countries and c) ensure the protection of the marine ecosystem.
Every country that has signed the laws of the sea is a member of the ISA. Today, the member states reach the number of 168. Every year, 36 of them form a Council, that has the responsibility to review the applications that any member state can submit, in order get a permit to explore. After the validation of the exploration application, the member state can ask for a permit to mine.
If the Council approves the mining application, it offers a portion of the mining area to the applicant. To keep things fair, the ISA offers a part of this specific portion to a developing country, that does not have the resources to explore the area by itself. Imagine a piece of a pie that is cut in the middle, in order for two people to share it.
However, the truth is that this little piece is rarely claimed or exploited by a developing country itself. In 2012, a Canadian mining company, named “The Metals Company” (TMC), signed a bilateral treaty with the small, developing, island nation of Nauru, which is located in the Pacific Ocean. It was mutually agreed that The Metals Company, would use Nauru as a sponsor to proceed to the exploration and eventually the exploitation of its portion at the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. In 2020, the company used the same tactic to two other tiny, pacific countries, Kiribati, and Tonga. Common methods were also implemented by other mining companies.
Until today, none of those has proceeded to an extended mining operation at the zone. Moreover, even though the ISA has approved 31 different exploration applications, it has not approved a single mining permit. There were no official applications for mining from any country, until 2021, when TMC and Nauru decided to go public and to reveal their intentions to begin the deep sea mining operations.
However, there has been a major issue that pulls back the procedures: the ISA has not set any regulations regarding the deep sea mining, but only for the exploration. Nauru and TMC, in 2021, set a 2-year deadline to the ISA to decide and legislate the regulations, before they officially apply for a mining permit. In July 2023, the organization began debates and constant meetings to solve the issue as soon as possible. Unfortunately, none of those was fruitful enough to complete this task.
But why does it seem so difficult to set the regulations and begin mining?
THE RISKS OF DEEP SEA MINING
Despite its useful benefits for the future of green energy and humanity, mining the deepest points of the oceans is neither an easy and economic, nor a completely eco-friendly option.
First, even though land mining is extremely destructive for the environment, we cannot deny that deep sea mining can also be quite damaging for the underwater marine ecosystem. The vacuum-alike vehicle that is descended to the seabed under the sea level, causes turbulence to the ground and shuffles the sand of the seabed in every direction. As it “vacuums” the minerals up to the surface, it may crush rare types of marine life, such as corals, starfish and octopuses. In general, even though it produces zero CO2 emissions, this machine produces light, noise, and intense activity that massively disturbs the flora and fauna of the underwater environment. If its activity is widely implemented by all countries, imagine the total devastation that might happened in an ecosystem that we barely know…
Similar damage can appear on the populations of plankton in the sea surface. As the metals are pumped to the vessel that remotely controls the underwater machine, the remains of water and sand are thrown out of the sea in large quantities. This method also completely disrupts the surface temperature and acidity, and, therefore, it affects the plankton concentrations, that are a crucial part of the marine food chain.
Furthermore, several scientists as well as Greenpeace and the WWF alert that deep sea mining, other than the massive extinction of rare or even unknown marine species, would provoke an absolute disturbance on global coastal fisheries. How exactly? The studies show that the marine ecosystems are highly connected to each other and even a small change of the biodiversity can cause radical alterations to all marine animals. Therefore, the food chain would be modified, and the population of valuable fish would reduce, because of their limited food supply. Then, all the coastal human regions that rely on tuna and many other fish as main source of protein, (which include more than 200 million people), would suffer an unprecedented crisis.
Besides, the ISA finds itself in a very challenging position. Until this day, it does not seem clear that there is a fair way to distribute the financial profits of the polymetallic nodules, in a manner that would benefit all humankind. The Metals Company has announced that it would officially apply for a mine in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in July 2024. This announcement has set again the clock for the organization to lead to a consensus for the issue, till that date.
THE CURRENT POSITION OF THE COUNTRIES
Today, a lot of states stand against any form of legalization of the extended deep sea mining operations. Recently, Fiji and Papua New Guinea joined a moratorium signed by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), that denounces this method. Many other African, American, European and Asian states publicly support a moratorium or a complete ban of any form of deep sea mining. Even several multinational technology and car manufacturing companies, such as Google, Samsung, BMW, and Volvo, have announced their opposition to the use of polymetallic nodules, until a more precise evaluation of the probable damage is conducted.
Therefore, a new “war” has started: the war of the exploration of the deep sea seabed. States like China, Russia, France, and the UK have started intensive research of the bottom of the sea in order to extract valuable data and accelerate the procedures. The more we know about this environment, the faster we can benefit from it.
In conclusion, deep sea mining seems to be an option that has both advantages and disadvantages. The scientific reports seem to be very promising, but also very alerting. We know so little about the marine ecosystem, that any irrational attempt could cause irreparable damage. At least, we have to know what we are about to lose, in order to accelerate the transition to the green energy.
Author: Γιώργος Λυμπέρης
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