A clean energy future may depend on mining on the seabed

This week, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous organization within the United Nations, meets in Kingston, Jamaica to decide the fate of the Earth’s oceans.

The 168 members of ISA ultimately hold regulatory responsibilities and governance for the protection of the marine environment for all mineral activities on the seabed.

There is a geopolitical shift against land mining because of the social and environmental costs. That’s why ISA debates the environmental challenges and risks associated with deep-sea mining.

Seafloor mining enables the commercial exploitation of marine minerals for a variety of everyday uses, such as powering laptops, phones and electric vehicles and to secure a low-carbon future. Unlike land-based mining, which often involves extreme destruction and pollution of thousands of acres, seafloor mining is simply about sucking up mineral-rich nodules, which are not attached to the ocean floor.

Despite last month’s landmark UN Ocean Treaty aimed at conserving marine biodiversity, both private and public interest in the exploitation of these minerals has now thrust ISA into the global spotlight.

More than 21 governments and numerous non-governmental organizations, including the US, are calling for a ban or moratorium on seabed mining. There is resistance to this because the world is puzzled over how best to meet the global demand for cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese – elements that are essential for the production of batteries used in electric vehicles and for clean energy storage.

This week’s gathering in Jamaica was prompted by a 2021 announcement by the central Pacific island nation of Nauru. The decision to begin mining deep-sea minerals under a controversial two-year rule requires preliminary approval from ISA. This, in turn, has forced ISA to finalize and adopt regulations for deep-sea mining in the future.

The question is more complex than whether such an activity is desirable. In an ideal world, we might not search for undersea minerals, but leaders have already made crucial commitments to limit global temperature rise under the Paris Agreement. And these obligations are unlikely to be met without mining on the seabed.

If the future of American vehicles is electric, then the Chinese government is already poised to dominate the battery supply chain. In fact, a massive new supply of key minerals will be needed to meet California’s state goal of near-all-electric road transportation by 2035, let alone larger national or international goals involving extensive use of battery technology.

This has not gone unnoticed by Washington. With proactive policies to make deep-sea mining easier, the federal government could strengthen national security and increase economic output. But two weeks ago, Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) HR 4537, a ban on mining activities on the deep sea floor.

The International Energy Agency expects the demand for cobalt, copper, nickel and rare earth metals to double or even triple in the next twenty years. Land-based primary processing and refining of these valuable minerals from the seabed relatively close to the U.S. mainland will allow the U.S. to secure supplies and gain independence from minerals in four battery metals while supporting domestic businesses and jobs.

But the deeper driver is the need to reduce the extremely negative environmental and social impact of geopolitically complex supply chains of materials controlled by China, which can be seen in places like the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo.

The negative environmental impacts of land mining are well documented. They include toxic wastewater, deforestation, soil contamination and even, in some parts of the world, child labor. Many believe that deep-sea mining can achieve the same goals without these dire consequences.

The exploration of deep-sea floor claims is expensive. A Canadian company has spent more than $300 million since 2012 to demonstrate the concept. It has collected more than 3,000 tons of potato-sized nodules from the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a 1.7-million-square-mile area located in the ocean region between Hawaii and the west coast, which lies up to 3.4 miles below the ocean’s surface.

These mineral-rich nodules can play a valuable role in the U.S. economy, contributing to industries such as transportation, defense, aerospace, electronics, energy, construction and healthcare.

America is suffering from a mineral deficiency. The US can no longer rely on China to supply the minerals needed for sensitive military hardware or the battery technologies needed for an environmentally sustainable future. This action is especially urgent as China has five of its 31 ISA contracts for deep sea mineral exploration and the productivity of environmentally destructive land mining is declining.

Unfortunately, the US is not a member of the International Seabed Authority, which is mandated under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Some suggest that the US lost its way after the US Congress passed the Marine Resources and Engineering Act of 1966, which aimed to promote ocean research, resource development, and meteorological forecasting.

Under President Nixon, a committee was appointed to create a national action plan to mine ocean minerals, but it never gained any traction due to the high cost and lack of technology.

Now U.S. companies are hesitant to make that seabed investment because of the risk that their mining operations won’t survive a legal challenge since the U.S. is not a party to the treaty. Conversely, foreign companies, including China, that are members of UNCLOS have access to the international bodies that grant legal claims to operate in the deep sea floor.

While the US Congress is concerned with this national security interest, it could also consider ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as the treaty considers that all deep-sea minerals collected in areas outside national jurisdictions are available for everyone’s use and benefit. The US has never accepted that provision.

While the opposition of environmentalists has called on science to halt or hit the pause button on seafloor research, it is essential to close the gaps in available knowledge about the impact of mining on marine biology and the environment. An MIT exploratory study has shown that there may be less damage to marine ecosystems from the sediment plumes generated by the collector vacuums, but more modeling efforts may be needed to analyze the results after the dust settles.

While some questions remain about the costs and environmental impacts of seeking new sources of metals, the many opportunities for a green future are unlikely to be met without seabed mining. Without access to the minerals needed to meet electric car demand and reduce carbon emissions, our green energy hopes are in jeopardy.

James Borton is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.

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