A battle is brewing over the future of the ocean floor that pits the fate of this little-known ecosystem against humanity’s demand for essential minerals – and a Vancouver company is leading the charge.
The metal company (TMC), formerly known as DeepGreen Metalswants to mine potato-sized rocks known as polymetallic nodules, which contain metals sought after for electric vehicles, solar panels and more.
These nodules were on the sea floor, about four to six kilometers below the surface and outside the jurisdiction of any country, where the regulatory body, the International Seabed Authority (IS A), issued exploration permits but never authorized commercial mining.
Despite more than a decade of discussions, the ISA has yet to create regulations to allow deep sea mining.
But last year, the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, in partnership with TMC, sparked a UN treaty provision called the two year rule which will require the ISA to make regulations or “tentatively” allow mining anyway in less than a year – by July 9, 2023.
While TMC and other companies keen on mining say deep sea metals are urgently needed for the clean energy transition, those who oppose it, including environmental groups and one trio of Pacific nations – say moving too quickly risks jeopardizing a seabed ecosystem that has taken millennia to develop.
A new “era of metals”
The pitch behind deep sea mining is to meet the demand for what the World Economic Forum calls a new era, where “the era of oil is coming to an end and a new ‘era of metals’ is about to dawn”.
Indeed, the International Energy Agency says there will be a “huge increase” in need of minerals like cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel. They are all found in polymetallic nodules.
By 2024, TMC wants to mine the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an abyssal plain between Hawaii and Mexico with the highest known concentration of nodules.
According to company documents, a remotely operated vehicle would suck up a slurry of nodules and sediment from the seabed, separate the nodules to transport them to the surface, and release fine clay sediments into the water column.
TMC calls the nodules a “battery in a rock.”
“When you start adding up the metal intensity of moving away from fossil fuels…we need to make land mining more efficient, but we also need to explore new frontiers,” CEO Gerard Barron said in a statement. recent interview with Radio-Canada.
“We don’t have the luxury of saying ‘No’ to the ocean.”
However, there is disagreement on the necessity of deep sea mining.
A analysis by the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney, Australia, looked at various decarbonization scenarios and found that demand could be met with known land-based sources and increased recycling.
“The bottom line is always the same: we actually don’t need deep sea mining,” said Sven Teske, associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney and director of research at the institute.
He thinks the effort and the money would be better spent improving the environmental and human rights record of operations on land than to look to the sea.
“We [would] destroy the last intact environment on our planet for no good reason.”
What’s down there?
This environment – cold, dark and very high pressure – seems quite alien. There’s not a lot of biomass there, leading some, including Barron, to compare it to an arid desert.
But those who have studied it, like Craig Smith, a deep-sea ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, say the CCZ is one of the most biodiverse places in the abyssal ocean.
“Most species, 90% of them, are new to science. Every time we drop a sample, we conjure up species that scientists have never seen before,” Smith said.
Remove the nodules, which take a million years grow just a few millimeters, would destroy the habitat of any creature that depends on that part of the seabed. Water-obscuring sediment plumes and noise pollution are also concerns.
A recent article in Science by Smith and colleagues estimate that mining would produce noise at levels known to disturb whales about five kilometers away and exceed ambient noise levels up to 500 km away.
While Barron says it’s a “fairy tale” to expect zero-impact mining, he maintains that deep-sea operations could be more sustainable than those on land.
The ISA has established mining-free protected areas in the CCZ, which Smith says will help maintain biodiversity in the area. However, he worries about what would happen if the 17 companies with permit to explore in the area were cleared to operate immediately – with noise traveling long distances and reaching fish and migrating whales.
Calls for the moratorium
Citing these concerns, environmental groups including MiningWatch Canada have petitioned the Canadian government to support a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“We absolutely have to stop climate change and global warming. But we have to think about doing it in a way that doesn’t take us from the frying pan to the fire,” said Catherine Coumans of the Asia-Pacific program. coordinator of Mining Watch Canada.
In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said the government was working with the ISA on negotiating “robust seabed mining regulations that will ensure effective protection of the marine environment and continued monitoring of environmental impacts”.
If mining is permitted, Smith would prefer to see a single operation at first, and for scientists to “study it thoroughly” to understand the impact on the CCZ of chronic disturbances over the years.
“I think it’s important for humans to maintain biodiversity in these remarkable habitats,” even though few people experience it, Smith said.
“Most people will never see a whale in their lifetime, but they like the idea that these remarkable organisms exist in the ocean.”