What’s deep sea mining really about?

When Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) obliterated a sacred cave at Juukan Gorge in 2020, the international public was rather stunned. Against stacks of advice, the world’s second-largest miner destroyed forever an ancient site boasting 46,000 years of continuous human history. The apparent toothlessness of the penalties handed out was just as stunning to many.

That the very same company should swear it “has no plans to carry out deep sea mining activities” is perhaps rather telling.

“We believe that not enough is known about the impacts of deep sea mining, and that it should not take place unless comprehensive scientific research refutes currently held evidence that it will create significant environmental and socio-economic implications,” Rio announced at the start of November.

“Responsible land-based mining can supply the materials required for the energy transition as well as meeting other essential minerals and metals needs, and there are proven capabilities and technologies to deliver these supplies. The impacts of land-based mining are far better understood than deep sea mining and we are continuously working to find ways to better mitigate them.”

The mining behemoth joins the likes of Google, BMW (ETR:BMW), Volvo (STO:VOLV.B), Samsung (KRX:005930), retail brands Patagonia and Breitling, and more than 800 marine science and policy experts in calling for a moratorium.

If you haven’t yet heard about deep sea mining, rest assured you soon will. Few industrial debates have caused more scientific, commercial and moral division, and this one is both fierce and far from over.

Welcome to deep sea mining

Deep sea mining, as a process of resource exploitation on the seabed, can be divided into three distinct types. One targets hydrothermal vents known as polymetallic sulphides. Another focuses on cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts formed on hard-rock substrates of volcanic origin.

The most popular method, however, seeks to collect polymetallic nodules — small fist-sized rocks covering millions of square kilometres at depths usually between 4,000m and 6,000m.

Composed primarily of manganese, iron silicates and hydroxides, they grow over hundreds of millions of years through the build-up of metals in the water around a nucleus, like a shark’s tooth or grain of sand. Trace metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earths have made them a target for the green energy transition.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and is beholden to the thanklessly paradoxical task of managing the exploitation of deep sea resources while also protecting deep sea environments.

The ISA has already issued 31 deep sea exploration contracts to 22 contractors: 7 for polymetallic sulphides, 5 for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, and 19 for polymetallic nodules — 17 of which are in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) between Mexico and Hawaii, the global hot-spot for deep sea mining.

The deep sea ‘imperative’

Many of the arguments for deep sea mining hinge on the assertion that terrestrial reserves of metals are fading rapidly. Supporters claim the green energy transition will be impossible without a major injection of new resources, and that deep sea resources are an environmentally-friendly, climate-conscious, and highly profitable alternative.

“The only path to sustainable metals is to build up enough metal stock to shift away from mined to recycled metals,” Dan Porras, head of communications and brand at Vancouver-based The Metals Company (NASDAQ:TMC), told Bloomberg in 2021.

“Our stated objective is to inject enough primary metal stock into the system to enable this shift . . . and exit primary extraction as soon as possible

“Our stated objective is to inject enough primary metal stock into the system to enable this shift . . . and exit primary extraction as soon as possible.”

Based in Vancouver, The Metals Company has — partly for its disorienting public relations campaign, partly for its combative relationship with deep sea mining sceptics — become the poster child for the debate around deep sea mining.

“We have enough metal in our contract areas for 280 million EV batteries,” The Metals Company CEO Gerard Barron told Forbes in August. “That’s enough for the entire US fleet.”

But this deep sea mining ‘imperative’ is proving to be a tough sell. Of course, the volume of metals to be found at the bottom of the sea is unquestionably huge. But to compare that to terrestrial reserves is misleading.

On land, “mining companies are only allowed to classify reserves once they’ve done a certain amount of drilling,” Ben McKeown, a researcher at UNSW Sydney, tells Mining.com.au. “And because that drilling tends to be closely spaced and expensive, they’re not going to drill out all of the resource they have. But those reserves don’t necessarily reflect the total resource.”

Nor do current land-based reserves reflect the impact of entirely new discoveries in entirely new jurisdictions, which could be significant.

That aside, The Metals Company has said it’s primarily looking to cater to the electric vehicle battery market. Barron has called polymetallic nodules an “EV battery in a rock”.

But a report published by the Blue Climate Initiative in October found that recent advances in EV battery technology have led to the replacement of batteries dependent on cobalt, nickel and manganese, thanks in part to the growing popularity of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries.

“As a result, the deep sea mining of these metals is neither necessary, economically advantageous, or environmentally advisable

“As a result, the deep sea mining of these metals is neither necessary, economically advantageous, or environmentally advisable,” the report said.

“In fact, efforts to promote the mining of these metals in the deep ocean now serve neither manufacturers nor consumers, but only enterprises that have been established for the express purpose of deep sea mining.”

A separate report commissioned from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition went even further, arguing the transition to 100% renewable energy — even beyond the EV sector — can take place without deep sea mining.

“Metal demand associated with the dominant renewable technologies evaluated in this report, even assuming very aggressive growth rates under the most ambitious future energy scenarios, do not require deep-sea mining activity. This is combined with the potential to increase recycling rates and sustained research and development into alternative technologies that reduce, or eliminate, the use of supply-constrained metals.”

The environmental conundrum

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that there is a need for deep sea mining. There remains the small matter of the potential for environmental destruction.

Barron has referred to the abyssal plains of the deep sea as a “lifeless desert”. The Metals Company’s chief scientist, Greg Stone, remarked in 2019 that it’s “a very deep, dark, very monotonous kind of place.”

“We’re not talking about vibrant coral reefs, we’re not talking about herds of tuna or whales. The longer-term disruption, if you can even call it that, would settle down certainly within months.”

Even ISA Secretary-General Michael Lodge — a regular subject of criticism for his perceived lack of impartiality — weighed in.

“To say, ‘Don’t harm the ocean’ — it’s the easiest message in the world, right? You just have to show a photo of a turtle with a straw in its nose,” he said in an interview. 

“To say, ‘Don’t harm the ocean’ — it’s the easiest message in the world, right? You just have to show a photo of a turtle with a straw in its nose

“Everybody in Brooklyn can then say, ‘I don’t want to harm the ocean’. But they sure want their Teslas.”

But scientists and academics are finding, more and more, that deep sea environments are not nearly so desolate as we once thought. 

A special 2017 edition of the scientific journal Marine Biodiversity presented a series of papers examining the different facets of biodiversity in the CCZ region, encompassing a wide range of taxonomic groups, size classes and habitats.

“The CCZ encompasses about six million square kilometres of abyssal (>3000 m) seafloor, an area nearly the size of Europe, and the region harbours among the world’s most economically valuable deposits of polymetallic nodules and is, thus, potentially a major source of copper, nickel, cobalt and other minerals,” wrote Stephanie Kaiser and Pedro Martinez Arbizu from the German Centre for Marine Biodiversity Research, together with Craig R. Smith from the University of Hawaii’s Department of Oceanography.

“The CCZ is also of great interest from an ecological point of view. In fact, it displays a spatially very heterogeneous environment characterised by, for example, changes in nodule sizes and densities, large-scale productivity and depth gradients, as well as a high abundance of topographic features, such as seamounts, hills and channels. The variety of habitats has been thought to promote higher diversity of associated benthic communities compared to abyssal areas elsewhere.”

Ultimately, they found — rather bluntly — that the extraction of deep sea minerals will alter the structure and functioning of ecosystems targeted for mining.

“In particular, the removal or burial of nodules by mining activities will erase the biota that depend on nodules for habitat, and will also affect the soft-sediment fauna through sediment compression and disruption of near-surface sediment layers,” they added.

“Due to the slow growth rates of nodules” — roughly one centimetre every million years — “and overall very low sedimentation rates, short-term recovery is unlikely; the nodules and nodule dependent fauna may take millions of years to recover, and even the partial recovery of the motile sediment-dwelling fauna may take hundreds to thousands of years. 

Additionally, mining impacts may be far reaching, beyond the actual mining block, that would affect benthic and pelagic communities largely through the dispersion of sediment plumes, as well as (potentially toxic) discharge water from mine tailings.”

There will also be the need for rigorous environmental rehabilitation activities. Already expensive for land-based operations, such work could be prohibitively expensive for deep sea miners, or simply impossible.

The myth of global benefit

The deep sea mining industry owes a portion of its contentiousness to its complexity, as well as that of the ISA and just how, exactly, the sector will perform in its stated duty to benefit all humankind.

In aid of clarity, the ISA regularly contracts the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to provide estimates on the economics of polymetallic nodule mining. Negotiators at the ISA then use this information to help determine how much corporate tax could be generated for sponsoring states and the royalties that would be left over for the world to enjoy.

“MIT has been producing this information since 2018. Every time the council meets, they have another debate about the royalty payments and MIT comes down and adjusts its figures and so forth and so on,” Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, tells Mining.com.au.

“Basically, what they’ve concluded is that mining could be profitable for a company that’s doing the mining and potentially for a sponsoring state if it’s going to be taxing, say, 25% corporate tax. But it’s not going to provide much income to the ISA overall, to then share the wealth with the rest of the world, with the countries that are members of the ISA.”

So far, 168 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. With the addition of the European Union, it makes 169 member states. 

The assumption among UNCLOS negotiators in the 1970s was that developing countries in particular would benefit financially from deep sea mining’s royalty system. But, as optimistic as MIT’s calculations may be, their conclusion was that much of the proceeds would first go to covering the ISA’s expenses, with the rest set aside for developing nations that may be adversely impacted by the industry.

“If, for example, you have five nodule mining operations producing, let’s say, 6000 tonnes of cobalt per year, that’s 30,000 tonnes across five mining operations. Current terrestrial production is, I think, 190,000 tonnes per year,” Gianni explains. 

“If you put 30,000 tonnes more cobalt on the market, even if the price only dropped by 1% or 2% or 3%, that would still be tens of millions of dollars, if not more, in potential losses to the Democratic Republic of Congo and some of the other developing countries that are mining cobalt.”

Ultimately, royalty payments to each member state under the ‘benefit of all humankind’ mantra are estimated to be in the region of $100,000 per year — not really the monster-boom the industry is currently promising to deliver.

Behold the Great Question

What, then, is deep sea mining all about? It’s not about filling some chasmic resource gap, we know that. It’s not about saving the environment, because deep sea mining would likely have a leading hand in destroying it. Nor is it for the common benefit of humankind.

Indeed, it’s hard to view deep sea mining as anything other than a desperate cash-grab. After all, it’s a play that works. 

The Metals Company ain’t Barron’s first deep sea rodeo. Earlier this year, he appeared in an interview, saying he’d “been involved with another company, where I’d invested and it worked out well.” He failed, rather conspicuously, to clarify precisely for whom it worked out so well.

This, from The Wall Street Journal in 2021: “The first time Gerard Barron tried to mine the sea floor, the company he backed lost a half-billion dollars of investor money, got crosswise with a South Pacific government, destroyed sensitive seabed habitat and ultimately went broke.”

The first time Gerard Barron tried to mine the sea floor, the company he backed lost a half-billion dollars of investor money, got crosswise with a South Pacific government, destroyed sensitive seabed habitat and ultimately went broke

That company was Nautilus Minerals. The South Pacific government was Papua New Guinea, whose support for the Solwara 1 project — described by current PNG prime minister James Marape as “a total failure” — left it $157 million out of pocket. Barron, on the other hand, watched his $226,000 investment in Nautilus balloon to $31 million in 6 years.

When The Metals Company went public in 2021 through the merger of its precursor entity, DeepGreen Metals, with special purpose acquisition company Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp (SOAC), its $2.9 billion valuation marked the priciest listing for a non-revenue-generating mining company in US history.

Rates of executive pay are similarly colossal. That same year, Barron earned $14.2 million in salary and stock options, and though 2022 saw him take home a salary and bonus worth $882,813, it’s a tidy sum for a company yet to make any money.

“Have we learned anything as a society, or as a group of societies, in the 300 years of the Industrial Revolution?” asks Gianni. 

“In other words, why would the nations of the world, collectively, decide to go to a whole new frontier about which we know very little, and start massively large-scale industrial resource extraction, risking all kinds of damage, for no good reason other than a few companies or a few countries want to make some money off this.”

Perhaps the only hope is that scientific thinking — and its mother quality, common sense — will one day prevail.

“We are with @Greenpeace — we must protect the oceans,” DeepGreen wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in 2019. “If the data shows polymetallic nodules are not a safer solution for the planet and humans, @Greenpeace can count on us to stand with you to stop #DeepSeaMining.”

Well then . . .

Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au

Images: The Metals Company & Greenpeace
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Written By Oliver Gray
Originally from Perth, Oliver has a keen interest long-form journalism. He has written for a number of publications and was most recently Contributing Editor of The Market Herald’s opinion section, Art of the Essay.