SEABED-MINING FOES PRESS U.N. TO WEIGH CLIMATE IMPACTS
Mining interests are racing to extract minerals from the ocean bottom that would be used in batteries for electric vehicles.
Deep seabed mining could begin by 2025 or earlier, depending on the pace of international negotiations that resume this week in Kingston, Jamaica.
Environmentalists, who want to slow down the race to the seafloor, will be present in force at the 25th round of the U.N. International Seabed Authority (ISA), pressing for firm protections for the international seabed.
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Greenpeace—which initially emphasized risks to biodiversity and the potential for permanent damage wrought to sensitive ecosystems—are now more closely scrutinizing the climate implications of allowing private companies to dig cobalt and other sought-after minerals used to make lithium-ion batteries.
“By impacting on natural processes that store carbon, deep sea mining could even make climate change worse by releasing carbon stored in deep sea sediments or disrupting the processes which help scavenge carbon and deliver it to those sediments,” Greenpeace argued in a report issued ahead of the talks.
Heightened worries over climate change and efforts to decarbonize transportation are a main driver of the revival of interest in seabed mining. An earlier push to speed things along at the authority abruptly ended with the 2008-09 global financial meltdown.
Cobalt is among the seabed resources prized by mining interests. Last year, the International Energy Agency warned that a rise in electric-vehicle battery manufacturing could lead to critical shortages of cobalt around 2025—around the time that experts are predicting that seabed mining will be mainstream.
Ancient geologic features that formed on the ocean bottom over millions of years are rich in cobalt, as well as copper, zinc, nickel, gold, manganese and rare earth minerals, resources that accumulated in higher concentrations within ocean floor deposits than what can be found in terrestrial mining.
Ocean Minerals LLC discusses cobalt demand for electric vehicle manufacturing in its pitches to potential investors. That company has a plan to mine for cobalt in waters near the South Pacific’s Cook Islands and presented its business plan at the most recent Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in San Diego, according to the company’s website.
Climate change will be a focus of side discussions at the ISA this week.
Scientists aligned with the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) recently held talks on the climate implications of seabed mining and published a policy brief to be presented to ISA’s member governments. Among the authors of the policy brief are researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, the Natural History Museum of London, and Philadelphia’s Temple University.
They concluded that seabed mining will exacerbate changes already occurring to the oceans and ocean floor as a result of global warming. They also agree that the mining activity itself could add to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by disturbing carbon stores, though they see too much uncertainty regarding the potential scale of impact.
“Disturbance of microbes and removal of animals, combined with changing temperature and oxygen depletion by sediment plumes, could alter midwater carbon transport and sediment sinks, important deep-sea ecosystem services that remove carbon from the biosphere,” they wrote. “However, the magnitude of these effects are theoretical at this stage and need to be further assessed and considered.”
FAR FROM A DONE DEAL
Sessions held last summer to discuss ocean mining drew the highest number of participants ever and were livestreamed over the internet in five languages, underscoring the rising interest in exploiting the seabed as the electric vehicle market expands globally (Greenwire, Aug. 7, 2018).
ISA governments have given themselves a deadline of 2020 to finalize a mining code, but they also need to organize environmental controls and financial regulations, including a system for disbursing some of the proceeds of ocean mining activity to authority members, especially to developing nations.
And the company once seen as furthest ahead in developing and deploying deep-sea mining technology is now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy after going all-in on a plan to exploit sulfides near hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea.
“I would say it’s possible but not likely that the ISA will approve regulations on exploitation contracts this month. Next year is a better bet,” said Conn Nugent, director of the seabed mining project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “And we shouldn’t forget that the contract regulations are just one part—though a very important part—of an overall ISA Mining Code.”
Governments are nonetheless determined to make the 2020 deadline, and the ISA passed a recent milestone when its legal and technical commission approved draft regulations in March, a move the U.N. body hailed as a “major step forward towards the delivery of a comprehensive legal regime for deep-seabed mining beyond national jurisdiction.”
Three features are the prime targets of seabed mining interests: polymetallic sulfides occurring near hydrothermal vents, ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic nodules.
Ultra-hot liquids spewing from hydrothermal vents feed energy to ecosystems that have evolved forms of life found nowhere else, but they also have deposited large volumes of copper, iron, lead and gold, according to ISA’s own studies. Such polymetallic sulfides as those found in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge are candidates for resource extraction.
The Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals Inc. has developed the technology to exploit polymetallic sulfides, but the business case is much shakier. Nautilus’ very survival is now in question after the company’s precarious financial situation forced it into court-supervised creditor protection and a delisting from the Toronto Stock Exchange. In April, four of the company’s five directors and its CEO resigned. Nautilus is now working with PricewaterhouseCoopers to either organize a restructuring or find a buyer.
Ferromanganese crusts are also a candidate for seabed mining. These relatively thin layers of mineral deposits form over the hard surfaces of seamounts, some of the most biodiverse features in the deep ocean. Getting at the cobalt, nickel, iron and other metals contained in these crusts would mean cutting and scraping the bottom.
Some believe exploitation is most likely to begin with polymetallic nodules. These potato-sized nuggets of manganese, cobalt and copper can be found throughout the oceans’ deep abyssal plains, but governments are particularly interested in a high concentration of nodules located in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a feature spanning some 3,000 kilometers of international waters in the Pacific.
Polymetallic nodules are the easiest to extract, as machines need only pick them up from the ocean bottom, disturbing loose sediment as they do. That’s Ocean Minerals LLC’s plan.
But even this activity can threaten deep-sea carbon stores, Greenpeace warns.
“Deep sea sediments are known to be an important long-term store for blue carbon, the carbon that is naturally absorbed by marine life, a portion of which is carried down to the sea floor as those creatures die,” the group argued.
QUESTIONS ABOUT CLIMATE IMPACTS
Not all experts are convinced that ocean mining could further stress the climate.
The sediment churned up and organic carbon released by seabed mining will have “almost no effect” on climate, argued Dorrik Stow, a geoscientist from Scotland now on assignment at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan.
“The amount of disturbance that could be caused to sequestered carbon dioxide in the sediment is almost terribly minimal in scale” compared with other factors that could lead to ocean mass carbon releases, Stow said in an interview.
“There are places where organism live that we really have only just discovered and we don’t understand very much, and the deep-sea habitats there could be irreparably damaged in terms of habitat destruction, but that’s not such an implication for CO2,” Stow said.
DOSI scientists say the uncertainty over the climate implications of seabed mining is no reason for complacency. The group says the ISA currently doesn’t address climate change in any of its existing or pending regulations. They will push for the U.N. agency to incorporate climate change when drafting formal regional environment management plans.
Environmental groups attempting to influence the ISA process are pushing for the establishment of mining no-go zones in areas identified for concessions. They want as much as 50% of the areas of interest deemed off-limits to miners, with strict environmental protocols enforced in the remaining portions.
Climate change forecasting and modeling must also play a role in companies’ environmental impact assessments, DOSI insisted.
“Environmental impact assessments, monitoring, and regional environmental planning can address how changing oceans enhance risks of harmful effects to the marine environment,” the group stated. “Fundamental is the evaluation of expected changes, using the best available scientific information, including detailed ocean climate modelling.”
The DOSI scientists added, “Climate change considerations can improve environmental management and reduce the risk to the common heritage of humankind.”
ISA council discussions kick off today. The 25th session of the full U.N. International Seabed Authority Assembly convenes on July 22.