A month ago, it seemed to be just another tale of ruthless miners and desperate poor people conspiring to wreck the environment while distant regulators failed to get a grip. But it turns out to be more complicated than that, and rather more hopeful.
The mining company is called DeepGreen, and the poor people are the 11,500 inhabitants of Nauru, a tiny independent island in the Western Pacific. The regulators are the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN agency that governs the seabed in the areas beyond the reach of national laws (i.e. most of the planet).
In principle, the main function of the ISA is to control mining on that seabed, but so far it has only issued exploration permits.
Nobody wanted to do any actual mining, and it hasn’t even finalized the rules that would control deep-sea mining yet.
But new technologies, from mobile phones and computers to batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage, have now created a huge demand for cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earths – all found in vast quantities in potato-sized ‘polymetallic nodules’ on some parts of the deep sea floor.
So DeepGreen partnered with Nauru, which controls 75,000 sq. km. of seabed in the North Pacific (between Hawaii and Mexico), and told the ISA on 30 June that it wants to start mining the area within two years.
The beauty of this strategy is that if the ISA has still not completed its long-delayed ‘Mining Code’ two years after getting the request, the country in question can just go ahead and start mining under the current (almost non-existent) rules.
You have to feel sorry for Nauru. It’s only the size of Manhattan up to 42nd Street, and 80% of its territory was strip-mined for phosphates by colonial powers during the 20th century. Almost half its population has type 2 diabetes, and it has no resources left worth mentioning.
One feels less sorry for Vancouver-based DeepGreen, which just wants to make money, but CEO Gerard Barron can certainly talk the talk: “The world is on a massive push to move away from fossil fuels, and what do we need if we want to do that? We need to build a lot of batteries.”
He calls the polymetallic nodules “batteries in a rock”. They would be sucked up in a seawater-sediment slurry by huge undersea machines, pumped to the surface, then separated from the sediment and seawater (which would be pumped back down to the bottom).
It sounds messy, although Barron says “we expect most of this sediment to resettle within hours-to-days within tens to thousands of metres from origin.” But why is he in such a hurry?
Perhaps because he needed to show some ‘progress’ to potential investors, but the DeepGreen/Nauru initiative has triggered a backlash that means no actual seabed mining is likely to happen for at least five years. If ever.
Major potential customers for deep-sea metals like BMW Group, Volvo Group and Samsung SDI (battery makers) have declared that they will not allow any seabed minerals in their supply chains until it’s clear that they are environmentally defensible.
We may end up having to do deep-sea mining, because we will need those metals. But more recycling will help, and if that’s not enough we still have to weigh the environmental costs of seabed operations vs. mining on land.
A moratorium is definitely the right way to go, and DeepGreen has inadvertently made it more likely.