The ‘deep sea gold rush’ for rare metals could cause irreversible damage | Mining
In a windowless conference room in Canary Wharf, dozens of mining executives, bankers and government officials are promised unique insights on how to profit from ‘the deep sea gold rush’.
The hoped-for gold rush lies thousands of miles away, on the bed of the Pacific Ocean, where billions of potato-sized nodules of rare earth elements vital to power the next generation of electric cars, have been discovered 4,000m below the surface.
Mining companies are hoping global rules allowing industrial-scale deep-sea mining to collect transport could be in place as early as July 2023.
However, environmental activists have warned that mining the metals would be “dangerous”, “reckless” and cause “irreversible damage” to little-known ecosystems. One estimate suggests that 90% of deep-sea species encountered by researchers are new to science.
Louisa Casson, a Greenpeace campaigner, criticized industry for organizing the conference and banks for considering investing in “dangerous and wasteful” projects to “make a quick buck”.
“This destructive new industry wants to destroy an ecosystem that we are only just beginning to understand,” she said. “[They are] aiming to make a quick profit while our oceans and the billions of people who depend on them bear the costs.
Nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico were first discovered by the crew of HMS Challenger in 1875, but only recent developments in underwater robotics have made large-scale extraction possible. metals.
The UN-affiliated organization that oversees the controversial new industry has granted licenses to companies to explore the area, but large-scale mining has yet to begin. That may soon change, however, as the small Pacific island nation of Nauru has triggered a “two-year rule”, giving the International Seabed Authority (ISA) two years to implement regulations governing the industry. This set a deadline for the adoption of a roadmap by July 9, 2023.
‘Deep sea gold rush is a game-changer’, read adverts for the Deep Sea Mining Summit 2022 at the Hilton London hotel in the capital’s Canary Wharf, for which delegates paid £1,195 for the two-day event this week. “After years of negotiations and false starts, deep sea mining is close to a breakthrough.
“As we enter an era of mining the deep ocean floor, the world’s most remote environment, mining companies are scrambling to overcome perceived challenges and developing island nations are watching with interest. As the demand for base metals and minerals increasingly exceeds what our earth is capable of supplying, new technological and technical developments are helping to drive this new industry forward.
Daniel Wilde, economic adviser on oceans for the Commonwealth Secretariat, which represents Nauru and many other small island states keen to start seabed mining, told the conference he expected the ISA agrees to a payment scheme that would grant mining companies a 17.5% post-benefit tax.
However, he warned the audience that “the two-year timeframe seems pretty tight, [and] if it is not agreed, there are questions about what will happen next”.
Ebbe Hartz, a geologist at Aker BP, a Norwegian oil exploration company partly owned by BP, said mining for metals from the seabed could eventually overtake oil drilling. But the problem will be to find [the metals]and we don’t have a lot of data.
Hartz said collecting machine learning data would be key to successful seabed mining and ensure that “we don’t need to make all the mistakes that we’ve made with hydrocarbons.”
Eleanor Martin, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright which advises banks on financing offshore projects, said global banks were “very keen” to invest in deep-sea mining projects as they foresee the cost lithium and cobalt needed for electric car batteries will continue to spiral. “To construct the number of [electric] cars we will need, we will need many more of these metals.
“Banks are sitting on pots of green money,” she said in reference to the money earmarked for projects aimed at tackling the climate crisis. “But they need to know that mining projects are green and sustainable.”
Katherine Reece Thomas, associate professor of law and director of public international law at the City, University of London, has warned industry that it needs to do more to win over public opinion before planning to start mining the oceans.
“There’s an impossible conflict between those who say we can’t do this, and others who say we have to take this stuff to fight climate change on earth,” she said.
Jessica Battle, who leads WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining campaign, said: “Seabed mining is very risky and will cause irreversible damage to the ocean, its life and its ability to help mitigate the climate change. Investing in such an unsustainable industry at a time when we need to reduce our footprint on the natural world is irresponsible.
“Any short-term incentives offered are far outweighed by the long-term benefits of a healthy ocean and so WWF and others are calling for a global moratorium on seabed mining. Alternative solutions already exist – innovation, recycling and repair can satisfy industries’ needs for raw materials without opening the seabed to mining.
Casson of Greenpeace said: “There is absolutely no need to mine the depths of the oceans and cause more damage to our planet. We were delighted to see the biggest players in the electric car and tech industries, including Microsoft, Google, Volvo, BMW and Samsung, speaking out against the greenwashing of deep sea mining companies and pledging not to use deep sea mining minerals in their products.
“This fledgling industry should stop before it even started. We need to move to a more circular economy, where we waste less and reuse more, instead of trying to destroy one of our planet’s last great wildernesses at the bottom of our oceans in the name of profit.