Sometimes referred to as “21st century petroleum,” metals such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese are used to make the batteries that power electric cars and cell phones. Although largely mined from landmines, demand for the precious metals that fuel the energy transition is growing even though many are relatively scarce. As a potential supply crisis looms, attention is shifting increasingly to the seabed, which is believed to contain large amounts of these metals.
“Mining companies are working hard to convince politicians of the potential benefits of deep-sea mining,” says Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), founded in 2004. But as said Greenpeace UK activist Louisa Casson Equal times, mining in the depths of the ocean would encroach on the “virtually unknown ecosystems” there.
While current deposits come in different forms, mining companies are particularly interested in fields of polymetallic nodules located in several abyssal plains. Billions of these nodules, each about the size of a potato, lie on the ocean floor between 4 and 5 kilometers below the ocean surface. And most of the attention is focused on one particular geographic area: the Clarion-Clipperton (CCZ) area in the Pacific Ocean, which according to a 2019 study published in the scientific journal Nature, contains 274 million tonnes of nickel and 226 million tonnes of copper.
With several exploration operations already underway, many fear that unique ecosystems could be destroyed. According to the article published in Nature: “These regions are among the quietest and most remote ecosystems on the planet, where fine sediments will rain at a rate of about one centimeter every 1,000 years. This low-energy environment is home to polychaete worms, crustaceans, sponges, sea cucumbers, starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins and various deep-sea fish, as well as countless microbial species and tiny creatures. living in sediments.
Seamounts are home to shark species that can live for hundreds of years and are particularly vulnerable to external disturbance, while 85 percent of the species found in some hydrothermal vents are only known from this ecosystem. According to a report released in May 2020 by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada: “Accumulated scientific evidence indicates that the impacts of nodule mining in the Pacific Ocean would be widespread, severe and last for generations, causing damage. essentially irreversible.
In addition to causing noise and light nuisance, nodule bots could also raise clouds of sediment that would rise to the surface via water columns and could impact fish populations, a source of concern. for the fishing industry.
In 2019, the Long-Distance Fisheries Advisory Council (LDAC), an EU body representing industry stakeholders, adopted a resolution supporting a moratorium on deep-sea mining, in which it stressed the need to comply with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 on the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans.
Finally, deep-sea mining could potentially exacerbate climate change by disrupting the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide by plants and animals on the high seas, a process known as “blue carbon”.
While new technologies make underwater mining viable in the near future, the costs remain high. The tools needed to exploit the seabed are very different from those already used in offshore oil stations, which are exclusively designed for drilling. Extracting metals from the deep sea requires different processes, from sucking up nodules to fracturing the oceanic crust.
“The viability of these investments remains a huge question mark,” says Andrew Friedman, associate director of the Pew Charitable Trust mining project. “We’ve been discussing the potential of deep-sea mining for almost 20 years, but there hasn’t been a commercial scale test yet. “
In the meantime, prospecting operations are increasing. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), founded in 1994 under the aegis of the United Nations, currently issues permits. The ISA, which is made up of 167 member countries and the European Union, has so far granted 21 exploration licenses, including 18 for areas within the CCZ.
These licenses were issued to companies such as UK Seabed Resources (a subsidiary of the American company Lockheed Martin) and DeepGreen (The Metals Company) of Canada, as well as to research institutes such as Ifremer.
The ISA is required to publish a mining code to regulate mining activities and negotiations were scheduled for 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, forced the ISA to cancel its 26th session, delaying the drafting of a crucial text for protection of the seabed. , which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) affirmed in 1994 as being a common heritage of humanity. The provision implies that the ocean belongs to no one and prevents countries from claiming territories on the high seas.
The authority of the ISA itself has also been called into question. In his report Deep Trouble: The troubled world of deep-sea mining, Greenpeace criticizes the organization responsible for protecting the deep sea. “The Authority acts on the premise that deep-sea mining is already a given,” laments Casson of Greenpeace. “He issued a mining exploration contract for every request he received. The DSCC also criticized the ISA for its opaque decision-making process and called for its overhaul.
But as it stands, things could accelerate quickly. Last July, the island state of Nauru used a controversial UNCLOS provision to speed up mining negotiations, citing DeepGreen’s claim that recovering metals from the deep sea is the “cleanest route to vehicles. electrics ”, an analysis widely disputed by scientists.
Nauru’s request triggered the “two-year rule,” which states that the ISA must allow DeepGreen to mine the seabed in an area of the CCZ in 2023 with the legislation in effect at that time. This only gives the ISA 24 months to regulate these activities. “This two-year rule is crucial,” says Casson. “If the ISA fails to put in place effective legislation, we will not be able to properly regulate this activity in the future. Gianni fears that “If Nauru and DeepGreen get a provisional license, others could similarly trigger the two-year rule and turn the licensing process into a complete mess.
The difficulty of regulating the high seas
Scientists are all the more concerned about the lack of regulatory framework as major powers like the United States and Australia seek to break their dependence on China for the supply of precious metals. China controls a large part of the world’s reserves, as well as its production channels.
At the same time, activities on the high seas are difficult to control. International waters, which represent over 60% of the world’s seas and oceans, are governed by UNCLOS. Signed in 1982, the agreement governs seabed mining but is silent on the management of water columns and the preservation of biodiversity. While the international community has yet to agree on a new treaty for the protection of the high seas, the current legal ambiguity in this area makes it difficult to draw up a mining code, especially since the major world powers are struggling. already to regulate activities such as illegal exploitation, fishing (IUU) and illegal trafficking.
Some call for the creation of protected reserves and the development of low-impact technological tools if deep-sea mining becomes inevitable. But according to researcher Pierre-Marie Sarradin from Ifremer: “We cannot protect what we do not know, or not enough. What areas need to be protected, what are the reproductive cycles of these organisms? We must answer these questions in order to come up with effective solutions.
Faced with these unknowns, several scientists and NGOs are calling for a moratorium on underwater mining. The same is true of companies such as Samsung, BMW, Google and Volvo, which have issued a statement to the same effect. And with other tech companies such as US company Tesla and BYD from China that have already decided to dispense with these materials to build batteries for their electric cars, another path seems possible. “We are taking action [towards deep-sea mining] even before wondering if we could do without these resources, ”says Sarradin. For now, the thousand-year-old tranquility of the depths of the ocean remains intact, but for how long?