The International Seabed Authority (ISA) will begin issuing commercial licenses for deep seabed mining starting in 2025-2026 timeframe. With deep seabed mining being seen as a necessary short-term solution to meeting our global demands for low-carbon technologies, and environmentalists continue cautioning that deep sea mining is a rising challenge for our oceans in addition to the calamities caused by climate change, how can we ensure a sustainable approach to this environmental conundrum? 

Why is the World Discussing Deep Seabed Mining? 

In efforts to decarbonise our grid and to electrify our modes of transportation, the world is seeing a surge in the deployment of clean energy solutions that require a battery in the loop. To meet the net-zero commitments for 2050, the projected demand for battery metals like nickel, cobalt, and manganese is set to increase by 500% by 2050.

deep seabed miningGrowing demand for minerals in low-carbon technologies. Source: World Bank, 2019

To meet this projected demand and anticipated source limitations from land-based mining techniques, several companies have focused their efforts on mining the deep seabed where these source metals are scattered across the seafloor in the form of polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulfides and cobalt-rich manganese crusts. A recent report commissioned by a deep-seabed mining company with two exploration contracts in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a fracture zone in the Pacific Ocean roughly half the size of continental United States, suggests that extracting half of the CCZ nodules would provide the manganese, nickel, cobalt, and  copper needed to electrify one billion cars, while releasing only 30% of the greenhouse gases of land mining.

Drawbacks of Deep Sea Mining

Land-based mining techniques involve damage to our environment by increased greenhouse gas emissions, displacement of communities, deforestation, contamination of potable water and unfavourable labour practices. Deep Sea mining, however, also presents its own unique set of challenges

Alarms have been raised by several environmental organisations concerning the exploitation of this fragile and largely unknown ecosystem. The most direct impact is the loss of biodiversity due to the removal of the source material serving as a substrate for deep sea fauna. The other major stressors from deep sea mining includes light and noise pollution. The process of returning wastewater and sediments back to the source represents a significant threat to midwater ecosystems where sediment plumes can threaten aquatic life. Climate change is already threatening the ocean chemistry and temperature, altering biodiversity and its ecosystem services. Additional stress from mining will only worsen the situation. Furthermore, it is challenging to predict the full scale impacts of these activities due to our lack of understanding of the role of deep sea habitats on the wider global functions. 

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It’s Possible to Electrify Sustainably

As we transition towards a carbon-free future, it is imperative that the evolving technologies and policies are circular and environmentally sustainable right from the sourcing of raw materials to disposal methods. Therefore, the same principles have to be extended to deep sea mining. The following systematic approaches are required by policy makers, governments, and corporations to ensure that we do not leave behind a dead deep sea in our mission to electrify our energy sources.

Bridge The Knowledge Gap With Open Data 

In order to protect the marine environment, it is important to research the interactions of the biotic and abiotic components of the deep sea ecosystem. High quality, open scientific data will ensure proper regulatory practices for decision making and environmental management. Studies like in situ carbon fixation on abyssal plains and hydrothermal vent contributions to surface productivity rates have to be amplified to supplement a value proposition of deep sea ecosystem for climate change mitigation.

We need a moratorium on deep sea mining while dedicating funds towards research to further our understanding of the deep sea. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2018 urging its member states to stop sponsoring deep sea mining and to invest in more sustainable consumption of materials. In 2019, the prime minister of Fiji joined these calls with the backing of several other Pacific Island nations. 

Mining Policy Initiatives

Regulations from ISA, like the mining code, will require mining companies to abide by stringent environmental requirements in the international seabed region. However, ISA has a dual and conflicting mandate to promote development of deep sea minerals while protecting the marine environment. ISA should bolster independent research and long term planning with focused Independent Life Cycle Sustainability Analysis (LCSA) in order to optimise the value of deep sea mining. 

True cost of operation is another component of LCSA. Proponents of deep sea mining offer it as a cheaper alternative to land based mining. The reality is that the two industries are likely to compete with one another. However, will the competition properly compare the value of the two processes in the context of a full life cycle? For example, economic analysis of nodule collection must account for the value of other marine ecosystem services like carbon sequestration. 

Prioritise Recycling

About 2 million metric tons of batteries are headed towards their end-of-life by 2030. Currently all this value ends up in landfills, with poor recycling rates of 5%.  Companies like Li-Cycle are now able to recycle lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese to produce battery grade raw materials using a Spoke and Hub technique. This technique is a two-step process wherein batteries are first mechanically transformed from their charged state to an inert product and then subjected to hydrometallurgical processing to re-produce battery grade anode & cathode materials for reuse in lithium-ion battery production.

Recycling has to become a mainstream solution offering competitive and profitable material sourcing for battery production. Recycling will minimise the risk of supply shortage while also reducing the stress of mining on both land and marine environments, effectively closing the loop between end-of-life and manufacturing phases. 

Technology Enablers

Advancements in battery technology include minimising reliance on critical minerals. Lithium-Iron phosphate technology from Tesla is the latest game changer which does not require cobalt or nickel, resulting in lower cost of electric vehicles (EVs) and improved battery life. 

In the context of operations, land based mining sites can be easily accessed and monitored for environmental impacts. The environment at the deep sea floor which is 200m below sea level is exposed to high pressure, low temperature, and dark conditions. Hence, it becomes more important to enforce real time monitoring of mining activities using sensors and underwater drones as part of the operation in order to supervise the deep sea environment. 

Re-assess The Mineral Demand

Finally, it is very important to first assess the true demand for these critical metals. This should be performed using policy mechanisms for increased public transportation infrastructure such as electric buses, ride sharing, and biking with reduced reliance on passenger EV cars. Deep sea mining should find its place in our energy policies following due consideration of value in the context of sustainability of our marine environments, not as just another low cost sourcing solution for unsustainable economic growth.