Climate change, environmental impact and dwindling resources on land have forced countries and international regulatory bodies to promote conservative uses of resources and look for sustainable energy solutions. And pushing the boundaries from beyond the earth surface are companies looking for feasible colonization of space and planets, and to the sea bed for minerals and metals.
Seabed mining is seen as the answer to the scarcity facing the energy sector. Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the ocean below 200 metres, which covers about 65% of the Earth’s surface.
Metals and minerals were discovered on the sea bed almost a century ago. Since then concerted efforts have been on to find a feasible technology, an international consensus based on rules, codes and an apparent commitment to not disturb the deep-sea ecology, to allow deeps sea mining.
“On land, we are already exploiting mineral resources to the full,” says Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, of Stockholm University. “At the same time, the need for rare elements and metals is becoming increasingly important to supply green technologies such as wind and solar power plants."
Some companies have already launched underwater mining. West Africa, Papua New Guinea and Japan and Korea are combing their territorial waters in search of precious metals and minerals. The De Beers Group is using specialized machinery attached to ships to drag the seabed for diamonds. In 2018, they managed to extract 1.4 million carats along the waters off the coast of West Africa. Nautilus Minerals, another mining company, is working in Papua New Guinea.
Moreover, countries are fighting to gain mining permits in international waters to be prepared for the next gigantic venture, when all permits and rules are in place.
A world body under the aegis of the United Nations has been formed known as the International Seabed Authority (ASI)--an autonomous body with 168 members states. Their agenda is not to stop mining but to mitigate the damage that will occur from such an undertaking and to give permits to companies and nations to drill in certain areas. The body will also draft technical and environmental rules and form an International Mining Code. It is believed that the legal code will be ready sometime in 2020 when the full explosion of commercial undersea mining is expected to take place.
The ISA has already granted 30 and counting licenses to mining contractors to sweep regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
A contract granted in the Atlantic Ocean adjoining a heritage site and an ecologically important place called the Lost City is already raising hackles in the conservation circles. The area is a giant hydrothermal field and an oasis of ecosystems of rare fauna and flora. A whole world separate from the Earth’s surface was found thriving here in 2000, in an environment feeding on metals and materials on the seabed.
Companies have already started investing in the technology of extraction and dredging waiting for the code to be finalized.
DeepGreen, a start-up based in Vancouver, Canada, has raised US$150 million already to begin exploring mineral wealth in part of the Pacific Ocean.
The methodology will be to dredge and scrape the ocean bed, similar to ploughing on the land, and suck up the mineral nodules called polymetallic nodules, separate them from the sea sand and flush the unwanted matter back.
The nodules contain nickel, cobalt and magnesium, which is needed to fuel the lithium batteries and smart tech revolution taking place on the surface.
The ISA has given maximum mining licenses for one stretch of land called the CCZ or Clarion-Clipperton Zone some 4.5 million square kilometres stretching from Hawaii to Mexico.
Once the mining code is in place, companies will start industrial-scale dredging of the deep sea through vacuum dredging, ploughing and then depositing of slurry.
Major concerns of such a method are:
The dredging will lead to a lot of sediments being disturbed and dispersed around a large area of the ocean and because of the pressure present in the deep sea, the sedimenting process will smother a large number of creatures of the sea.
Not enough studies and experiments have been done to find out the amount of damage that will be done to the numerous ecosystems in the deep sea.
A small experiment was done in the late 1980s by a marine ecologist and scientist, Hjalmar Thiel, called the DISCOL method, where some 2 square kilometre of the seabed was ploughed. It was found that the area raked up a large amount of sand which dispersed for miles affecting creatures and flora much beyond that area. Also a followup 30 years later found the place desolate with no traces of new life.
A recent mining trial by a Belgian company to test a robotic nodule harvester was called off due to technical difficulties.
A recent survey of academic research compiled by Greenpeace concluded that mining waste “could travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers.”
The ISA has responded to some of these concerns, reports Nature, by saying that “an extremely important aspect of ISA’s mandate is ensuring appropriate environmental assessments and safeguards in the activities that it regulates.
It added, “Its decisions are made by consensus among the 168 countries that make up its membership, all countries having one vote”. So far, the membership has approved only exploration activities.
Along with the nodules, the other places that are attracting the attention of potential miners are the seamounts. They rise thousands of feet above the plains of the deepest sea and are coated wit metals and minerals like cobalt, platinum and molybdenum. Corals, sponges, tuna, sharks, dolphins and sea turtles find their abode here.
The third mining attraction in the deep sea are the mineral deposits rich in copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver, which are formed around vents of superheated water called hydrothermal vents. These vents support creatures such as the small, blind yeti crab (Kiwa tyleri) and the scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum), which has an iron shell armor. This armor is being studied by the defence forces to understand its industrial-strength composition. It is the first deep-sea animal to be declared endangered because of threat from mining.
Without any serious research or data, neither the miners, the contractors, nor the international body is aware of what are the risks and what will be the repercussions.
The final touches to the mining code covering regulations, finances and environmental are being put together. “This is the most preparation that we’ve ever done for any industrial activity,” says Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general.
"Once you have mining, you have monitoring, then you can develop standards and you can progressively tighten those standards once you have a feedback loop from monitoring your activity,” says Lodge.
The ISA feels that the industry beginnings are being handled better than the nuclear and oil exploration industries where the pioneers were allowed to go blindly and explore without any rules to govern the exploitation, initially.
Scientists and ecologists say that there is still time to gather data and research on the mining front. Even with the code in place, it will be some years before the mining companies are able to raise capital and put together the right equipment to undertake large mining enterprises.
A BBC research puts the global market for deep-sea mining at $650.0 million in 2020, which is expected to grow to $15.3 billion by 2030 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 37.1%.