Brisbane: While the hype surrounding deep-sea mining is real, there can be unintended consequences.
An often overlooked element of our global energy transition is that all low-carbon energy technologies require a range of minerals and metals that can only be obtained through mining.
Some of these – cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel – are found in large quantities deep in international waters in the Pacific Ocean.
Commercial deep-sea mining is likely to begin there once the International Seabed Authority — the governing body under the UN Law of the Sea treaty — finalizes deep-sea mining regulations in July.
We’re debunking some myths about deep-sea mining to better anticipate what’s to come.
There are not enough resources on land to support the energy transition. A recent study has shown that a full transition to electric vehicles by 2050 would increase the demand for lithium by 75 times, nickel by 54 times, cobalt by 27 times and manganese by 28 times. could increase.
However, the availability of these resources on land does not appear to be a problem as several studies have shown that demand does not exceed geological reserves.
And doomsday scenarios of insufficient resources to cover the minerals needed for our energy transition have so far been debunked.
If availability isn’t an issue, access may be the real problem.
Mining and processing of minerals are concentrated in a few countries and it will be challenging to access large amounts of minerals to meet net zero targets in time.
Although it appears that decision makers are making progress to mitigate this supply risk.
Manufacturers minimize their exposure to risk by finding substitutes for some of the most critical minerals.
Cobalt is being replaced in new generations of batteries.
This year, Tesla announced that it will move away from rare earth metals.
Governments are also taking measures to minimize risks. The US and UK governments and the EU are making strategic moves towards onshore production, or “ally-shore”, and to diversify supply.
In general, while there is a risk of supply disruption, it appears that both governments and manufacturers are taking strong action to mitigate it.
Deep-sea mining will improve energy security Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it can contribute to energy security by diversifying supply and providing much-needed metals at a lower cost.
Polymetallic nodules that will be mined in the deep sea contain only high concentrations of manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper, supplying only four of the more than 30 minerals identified as critical or strategic.
Manganese is the most abundant metal in the deep sea. But manganese is also an abundant resource on land.
Proponents have also argued that deep-sea mining would reduce dependence on countries such as China, which currently have too strong a supply influence, or in some cases close to a monopoly.
This ignores the fact that China is already a leader in deep-sea mining exploration, while European countries have so far refused to go into this space.
Deep-sea mining will be less harmful than conventional mining Deep-sea mining has been argued to be less harmful than conventional mining, citing human rights violations in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and deforestation from nickel mining in Indonesia as two examples of how mining can be exploitative.
But many of the risks of deep-sea mining are still unknown, unlike conventional land mining, which has benefited from decades of research into its social and environmental impacts and how to mitigate them.
There is another issue that has so far been overlooked: the negative effects that deep-sea mining would have on those who depend on the terrestrial mining sector.
Experts interviewed by the World Economic Forum predict that deep-sea mining could lead to lower revenues from land-based mines as they become less commercially viable – particularly cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel operations.
So far we know that these effects are highly uncertain and unpredictable. But if the supply from the deep sea led to lower commodity prices, this would translate directly into lower mining revenues and benefit distribution.
There are many developing countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil and the Philippines where mining contributes greatly to economic development through job creation, business development, increasing tax revenues and better infrastructure.
In times of economic downturn, the industry is likely to try to maintain profits and minimize financial risks. This can translate into mine abandonment and periods of care and maintenance.
Abandoned mines jeopardize site rehabilitation, transfer environmental legacy to the state and leave local communities in limbo. Social and environmental programs are also often cut during care and maintenance periods.
A healthy and financially stable mining sector can generate value and limit the negative impact of its activities.
Progress The mining sector must prepare for the indirect effects that an increase in deep-sea mining may have on terrestrial activities.
To minimize risks, it can assess its exposure by assessing the vulnerability of its cobalt, manganese, copper and nickel assets.
Industry and government must also consider the vulnerability of the communities in which these assets reside.
Investing in innovation will help them stay competitive. This includes social and environmental innovation, which is often overlooked. Miners could invest in recycling to take advantage of the primary and secondary supply of critical minerals.
There are great opportunities to extract cobalt from mining tailings rather than from the deep sea.
Importantly, the industry needs to make careful decisions about where to invest in new mining projects.
Understanding the land and communities targeted for projects is crucial for better environmental and social outcomes. (360info.org)