It is now understood that fossil fuels cause environmental harm. Many consumers are transitioning to electric vehicles (EVs). EVs are an important part of the transition to a green transportation system. A total of 10.5 million new electric vehicles were delivered during 2022, an increase of 55 % compared to 2021.
To reach carbon neutrality by 2050 a transition to green transportation is necessary. However, EV batteries rely on minerals such as cobalt, copper, manganese, and nickel. Current mining practices for these metals come at an environmental cost, health risk, and human rights issues. To support this transition to green transportation, by 2050 the world’s demand for precious metals will rise 500 percent to an astounding three billion tons of graphite, lithium, copper, and cobalt. To stay below a 2-degree Celsius rise, the green transportation transition will be mineral intensive. A typical electric vehicle battery pack requires 8kg lithium, 35kg nickel, 20kg manganese, and 14kg of cobalt.
Additionally, a charging station for EVs (electric vehicles) needs a large amount of copper, and solar panels require excessive amounts of zinc. By 2050, an eightfold increase in renewable energy investments will be needed to replace fossil fuels with low-carbon technologies. At current production rates, terrestrial mining will be 30-40 percent short of the rate of demand in 2050. Today, the mining industry is poised with some large questions regarding sustainable mining, recycling metals, and producing metals at an unprecedented rate. Is there another way we can produce precious metals without destroying the environment?
Deep-sea Mining and the Ocean Floor
Scientists have known about manganese nodules and precious metals being scattered across the ocean floor since the late 1800s. Progress in mining these metals began in the 1970s. Manganese nodules are abundant on the deepest and flattest part of the ocean floor. These plains are between 13,000 ft to 15,000 ft deep. The Clarion- Clipperton Zone is one of the largest areas of the several known economic zones and spans from the west coast of Mexico to the edge of Hawaii, covering an area that is about half the size of Canada.
These metal ores are extremely pure and contain almost 100 percent usable minerals. Metal ores on land rarely have metal yields over 20 percent making the ocean ores far more concentrated. An estimated 21.1 billion dry tons of polymetallic nodules exist in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which eclipses the total of those found on land.
If deep ocean mining follows in the footsteps of petroleum, we can expect 30-45 percent of the demand for critical metals will come from deep ocean mines by 2065. What is holding companies, organizations, and governments back from deep ocean mining? But are the advantages in carbon, pollution, and social justice more important than the ecosystem damage to the ocean floor? How invasive is ocean mining compared to on-land mining?
Is Deep-sea Mining Safe for the Environment?
With a fraction of the carbon footprint, no dependence on child labor, and a potential for large profit margins why aren’t deep sea mining projects more popular? There seems to always be a “catch.” Deep sea mining has the possibility of causing mass habitat destruction and since the science behind deep sea life is limited so are the known effects of the mining process.
One of the largest arguments against deep sea mining is the effects of sediment disruption and the sediment plumes formed by the collection of nodules. Collecting nodules on a commercial level is believed to disrupt CO2 sequestration processes and could negatively impact marine ecosystems.
Currently, deep sea mining proposals are expected to produce two distinct types of sediment plumes in the ocean: “collector plumes” that come from the vehicles on the sea floor and possibly “midwater plumes” that are discharged through pipes that descend 1,000 meters (about 3280.84 ft) or more into the oceans aphotic zone, where sunlight rarely penetrates.
In 2018, a study conducted by MIT students on the impacts of deep-sea nodule mining found that sediment released from midwater plumes mixed rapidly with surrounding ocean water due to the turbulence of the release. These findings are not what scientists originally speculated, it was assumed that the sediment would form large aggregates and settle quickly. In a commercial operation where the nodules are cleaned on a ship and the unwanted sediment is discarded, the natural dilution process of the ocean plays a crucial role in how impactful the sediment plumes can be. Within the same study, they developed a formula to calculate the scale of the impact depending on the ocean’s turbulence. If regulators can agree on a certain concentration of sediment that is deemed detrimental the formula can then be used to calculate a 20-year course of the nodule mining operation.
Currently, there are no regulations related to this issue. The lack of policies regarding this is a risk for mining companies. Deep sea mining is an evolving industry with an extensive range of effects that are not yet fully understood. In response to increased interest, the UN created a governing body responsible for protecting and advocating for the seabed. How will this governing body help advocate for global reductions in carbon, which also means advocating for deep sea mining, while also protecting the marine environment?
The Law of the Sea
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was constructed at the 1982 Law of the Sea UN convention. The ISA’s purpose is to ensure effective protection of the marine environment from any harmful effects that may arise from deep sea related activities. One of the largest responsibilities of the ISA’s council is to approve exploration contracts for private corporations and government entities. Since the birth of the ISA, there have been 31 exploration contracts granted that all have a lifespan of 15 years.
As of 2022, contractors have provided the ISA with valuable data including maps of never-before-seen seabed, and areas of economic interest, and continue to provide the public with data free of charge. The data from these exploration contracts will be pivotal in the decision of whether to approve deep-sea mining. For transitioning to a green transportation sector, this is a critical inflection point.
The first applications for commercial mining will be received in the summer of 2023. There is a belief among ocean conservation groups that this is too soon for commercial contracts to be granted because the effects of deep-sea mining are not well enough understood. Greenpeace goes so far as to say that the “transport transition cannot be green if it requires deep sea mining for EVs.” It is up to the ISA’s board to make the final decision.