Deep Water Mining – What’s really going on in our Oceans?
“The world is too tragic for naive optimism” – Cornel West
The coronavirus has spurred a number of recovery plans including from the World Bank and the Democrats, and the European Union all of which keep the climate and sustainability at the forefront. Threaded through all of them is the idea of a green revolution that “Builds Back Better”, meaning that the world will once again hit all of its economic markers without the fossil fuel pollution that’s always accompanied it.
That may be easier said than done, however. The green revolution will require massive solar fields and wind farms as well as fields of batteries to store and manage the energy that is captured. The materials required for sustainable tech – primarily lithium, cobalt, copper, and the rare earth metal neodymium among others – are increasingly hard to come by and are mostly found in China, parts of SE Asia, Australia, sub-Saharan African countries, and along the Ring of Fire that runs from the southern tip of Chile to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Demand is driving fresh exploration in Eastern Europe and across the United States but the biggest cache of minerals exists underwater.
4000-6000 ft under the Pacific Ocean exist large hydrothermal vents that belch out constant streams of minerals that form clusters of gold, silver, copper, cobalt and an array of rare earth metals. It’s the new frontier of mining according to a 60 Minutes feature from 2019 that asked why the US hasn’t yet capitalized on this emerging market. And that is a question to ask. The underwater deposits are estimated to be worth upwards of $17 trillion and whoever gets there first could have a veritable monopoly over the much coveted metals. From this vantage point it is fairly mysterious that the United States has not committed more money towards this endeavor especially considering the 2 million sq/mi minefield, called the Clarion Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, is situated between Hawaii and Mexico.
There are no reliable deep sea mining operations yet because of the extreme complexities involved in the process. Yet is the operative word here. There’s a mad dash by groups around the globe trying to be the first ones to crack this nut and that’s a very scary thing because no one really knows what the environmental impacts would be in any direction. To date, roughly 1% of the deepwater ocean floor has been mapped and little is known about what ecosystems exist down there. What is known is that the hydrothermal vents that produce the bounty of metals more importantly play host to one of the most curious and alien biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. They are wonderfully complex and shrouded in mystery not only to questions of how they evolved but how they integrate into the oceans ecosystem at large.
The United Nations recently released a resolution calling for the suspension of deep sea mining until better and comprehensive environmental impact studies are done. The resolution came out of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) which is a consortium of 168 nations formed in 1982 to study and provide regulations for activities in the sea. Though under the umbrella of the United Nations, they are relatively autonomous and have their own governance structure. They have put forward hard fought agreements such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea and The Mining Code which are meant to provide a semblance of guidelines and regulations to those wanting extract resources from the ocean. As agreed to by the 168 nations in the ISA, all the minerals in the deep seabed are considered the shared heritage of all mankind, which is one way to say that it’s open season for whoever can get them.
In 2018, De Beers Corporation scraped the sea floor for 1.4 million carats of diamonds off the coast of Namibia and is working on a new boat that can scrape at twice the speed. There’s no telling what it’s done or will do to those ecosystems going forward because there’s no requirement to learn what those impacts might be. It’s a disturbing precedent that’s being set and it’s only just beginning. There are mining operations underway in New Guinea to break apart underwater geysers to access the mineral deposits built up around them, and both Japan and South Korea are starting their own deep water operations. There isn’t a policing body for much of any of this. Countries own the waters 12 miles off their coastlines but beyond that invisible line it becomes international waters where regulations and oversight fade away. It’s the perfect place for corporations and countries to extract with relative immunity and little to no recourse, except for whatever the Earth doles out.
We should have been descaling carbon production decades ago but we didn’t and now we’re looking for an exit where one might not exist. The green revolution that the world so desperately needs might come with costs that we do not begin to know how to measure. In our desperation to avoid the worst of fossil fuels we must not let our hope in a green revolution allow us to rely upon the processes and ideologies that got us here in the first place.