In the depths of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, trillions of potato-shaped rocks scattered on the sea floor contain minerals such as nickel, cobalt and manganese that are essential for the world’s green energy transition technology.
In this region – the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) – an abundance of rocks, known as polymetallic nodules, has fueled the debate about the mining of metals needed to produce technology such as batteries for de -electric car.
Environmentalists say deep-sea mining could cause critical damage to ecosystems that scientists know little about, but mining companies argue it’s better for the environment than taking land. .
More than a dozen countries have promoted small-scale exploration projects, but commercial mining in international waters is not allowed. The ban will be debated at a UN meeting in Jamaica starting this week.
Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company, which is leading efforts to scoop holes thousands of meters under water, said that mining in the ocean is less harmful to the environment than mining in places like the rainforest. in Indonesia.
“Our oceans are full of metals,” Barron said in an interview.
“They come with a whole host of lower environmental impacts than land-based alternatives.”
Many scientists and conservationists – and even some countries – disagree and call for a halt or moratorium on plans for undersea mining.
Many experts and activists – from the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, an association of national science academies in Europe, to more than 100 NGOs – argue that not enough is understood about life in the sunless depths from of exotic fish to sea cucumber open them to mining.
“There is no such thing as low-impact deep-sea mining,” said Jonny Hughes, a policy adviser at the Blue Marine Foundation, an environmental charity. “This is the most destructive idea you can think of when it comes to the deep sea.”
The debate is expected to come to a head in Kingston, Jamaica, at a three-week meeting of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body responsible for regulating the oceans. Those are the areas outside the jurisdiction of national governments where most deep sea minerals are found.
Governments are racing to secure a secure supply of critical minerals for low-carbon technologies but are also making major commitments to protect the environment, including a historic agreement in March to protect marine biodiversity in the ocean.
For example, the Norwegian government last month announced a proposal to open its national waters to deep-sea mining while France banned the practice in its waters in January.
However, it was the small Pacific island nation of Nauru that sparked controversy and concern in mid-2021 when it announced to ISA plans to begin deep-sea mining, triggering a two-year deadline for of the body to adopt an industry rule book.
To do so, Nauru – which promotes Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company – requires the ISA to complete the rulebook within two years or approve mining plans under of any regulations in force at the time.
That deadline expired on Sunday, putting pressure on the ISA meeting to decide a way forward. Analysts say countries are still far from agreeing on a set of mining rules and the ISA is unlikely to give a green light for the start of the industry.
Is sea mining better than land mining?
Proponents of deep-sea mining say it is a more sustainable way of extracting the minerals needed for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The International Energy Agency projects that achieving net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions will see mineral demand quadruple for clean energy technologies.
An assessment of Nauru’s proposed CCZ project by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence said it would have a lower environmental impact than land mining in areas such as the rainforest.
But conservationists say comparing land-based and deep-sea mining is difficult, because so little is known about the deep sea.
“[Countries] there is not even the beginning of the amount of information needed to make this kind of decision,” said Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer and advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
Marine scientists are highlighting issues including light pollution in a dark ecosystem, sediment plumes stirred up by ships and noise pollution, which research published this year suggests could disrupt communication in whales.
A recent report published by the non-profit Planet Tracker states that deep-sea mining can cause several times more damage to biodiversity than terrestrial mining due to factors such as the large surface area that affected compared to digging underground.
Currie said that despite the global rush for minerals – with countries seeking to secure diverse supplies due to China’s dominance of the precious metals – deep-sea mining should not take over. in existing land mines.
“Even if deep-sea mining is opened, no one is suggesting that land-based mines will be closed,” he said. “It’s not that it’s one or the other.”
Growing calls for a deep-sea mining moratorium
In recent months, the campaign for a moratorium has gained momentum with 17 governments publicly supporting a freeze or moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“More and more states are taking this view that there’s really no need to rush out and create a bunch of regulations just so a private mining company can get going,” said Pradeep Singh, a lead researcher. in a specialist group on deep-sea mining of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental network.
Singh said a legal moratorium would be difficult to agree to in Jamaica but there could be a “de facto” stop, such as through a policy position adopted by the assembly.
Barron disagrees that there is insufficient information available to continue deep-sea mining, saying that his company has added more data to public biodiversity records, increasing those in the CCZ to about 150 % of the previous month.
“A vote for a moratorium is a vote against science. It’s that simple,” he said.
However, Paul Lusty, director of the UK Critical Minerals Intelligence Center at the British Geological Survey, said that assessments comparing deep-sea mining projects and land mining “are only as good as the data they are based on, which is limited for deep mining. sea environment”.
Lusty, who is leading a British government-commissioned review of deep-sea mining to be published in 2021, said companies also face challenges in making a business case.
Some would-be buyers such as technology and car companies such as Google, Samsung and BMW are calling for a temporary ban, and likely more costs compared to land mining.
“Naturally, the economics of mining some minerals on land is better than doing that in the deep sea,” Lusty said.