Deep sea mining - a background

12 March, 2024

In a world that quickly needs to change from fossil to renewable, there is a growing need for rare minerals such as cobalt and manganese. When we find them above ground, it is often in small quantities, but now it is believed that there is large deposits four thousand meters below the surface, in the deep sea. And the hunt for the bottom has begun.

Cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper, the valuable minerals, and metals we need to continue driving electric cars and acquiring solar cells, are found deep down in the world’s oceans. It can look enticingly simple when you see animations of giant “vacuum cleaners” sucking up small “balls” of minerals from seabed’s on videos spread on social media. The water is bright and clear, and the plants and animals burst with color. Where in fact, the minerals are found at a depth of over 4000 meters where not the slightest light seeps down and where most of the creatures that live there are unknown to science.

No one owns the world’s ocean

The scientists warn that the consequences could be serious if we destroy hitherto untouched ecosystems. The “green” transition could cost us dearly, they say. The world community has listened, and for the time being has agreed to stop all further exploration – so that we have time to find out more about the consequences.

So, what is it all about?

First, it must be said that no one owns the world’s oceans. Outside the countries’ economic zones, no one rules, no one decides, and that is part of the problem. For there to still be rules to adhere to, the countries try to come to an agreement in various treaties. ISA, the International Seabed Authority, is an independent UN body that control activities in the deep sea that have to do with mineral resources. ISA is set to protect the marine environment from harmful effects from e.g. deep-sea mines, but it is at the same time composed of the countries of the world and they do not always agree.

After pressure from a small island nation in the Pacific, ISA was forced last year to produce a decision on a moratorium. The countries agreed to hold off on mineral exploration – until we know more about what the consequences will be.

Greenpeace protests against deep sea mining in the pacific ocean. Photo: Greenpeace

Irreversible damage to nature

Without being completely certain, the researchers are more or less agreed about the risks of deep-sea mining. And they warn that we will do irreversible damage to nature for generations to come. If you break up the deep seabed’s, the loss of biological diversity is inevitable, they say. Large machines that either dig up the top layer to collect “balls” of minerals, or even larger machines that scrape off “crusts” from rock walls at depths between 200 and 8000 meters, will inevitably destroy unique ecosystems – they say.

We don’t know what animals live down there or what the ecosystems look like. And we don’t know how dependent the ocean in general is on those ecosystems, the fact that they exist and that they function.

Corporate giants say no to deep-sea minerals

The Planet Tracker think tank has calculated the costs of restoring damaged bottoms and concluded that the bill would be so high that no one will be able to afford to pay.

– There are many bad solutions to the climate crisis, says François Mosnier, director of the Oceans program at Planet Tracker, but deep-sea mining is one that we can still stop.

Several international and highly battery-dependent company giants such as Volvo and Google have also chosen to stand behind a moratorium.

Negotiations within ISA on how and if we should start picking up the valuable minerals began back in 2016. Since then, it has been delayed, made difficult and stopped by countries that could not agree. There have been conflicts of interest, around biology, ecosystems, and economics, which also did not go hand in hand with what the researchers know or rather do not know.

As recently as last year, more than 5,000 new species were discovered in the deep sea in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, an area between Hawaii and Mexico that is of particular interest to mining companies.

ISA nevertheless issued a moratorium last November. A majority of the member states supported it, but it is not a total moratorium and there are loopholes that can be exploited. And Norway is trying hard to exploit these. That is where we stand now. In January of this year, the Norwegian Parliament decided to proceed with the exploration of which metals are available and, if so, where they are found. The area to be investigated is as large as the whole of Norway. And it is said that an environmental analysis must be done before someone gets the go-ahead to start mining… to be continued

The International Seaboat Authority (ISA), established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is an independent organization based in Kingston, Jamaica. Unlike the majority of UN bodies, it is classified as “autonomous” and falls under the leadership of its own Secretary-General who convenes delegates from the 168 member states annually.
It is tasked with drawing up technical and environmental standards that are governed by the Mining Act. The Mining Code is the set of rules, regulations and procedures that will govern all aspects of deep-sea mining – exploration, prospecting and exploitation – on the international seabed.

The deep sea is areas with a depth greater than 200 meters. It covers about half of the earth’s surface.
The minerals you want to eat on the seabed are especially copper, cobalt, zinc, manganese, silver, gold, lithium, and nickel.
Mining can take place in three different ways:
Cobalt-rich crusts formed on slopes and mountain peaks in the sea at depths between 800 and 2,500 meters can be “scraped” off rock walls.
Massive sulfides have formed at so-called hydrothermal vents, cracks in the earth’s crust, at depths between 1000 and 4000 meters. These are “scraped” up from the hard bottom.
So-called nodules of metals, they are potato-shaped manganese and iron nodules that are up to 10 cm in circumference. They lie on the soft bottoms at a depth of between 4,000 and 8,000 meters and they must be “vacuumed” up and taken to the surface through giant pipes.

The international energy agency IEA writes in a report published last year that to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, six times more of certain minerals will be required by 2040 than what is mined today.

The metals found in the deep sea, many believe, are crucial for clean energy technology such as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicle batteries.

The World Bank estimates that more than three billion tons of these metals will be needed to power the wind, solar and energy storage technologies required to keep global warming below 2°C.

Text: Lena Scherman
Foto: Greenpeace

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