Renewables were the sole energy source to increase in demand in 2020 and through the pandemic, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in May. The IEA found that wind and solar actually claimed their fastest growth rate in two decades. Electric vehicles (EVs) also saw increased demand, with most markets finding increased registration of such automobiles. This trend is great news for the green economy and the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions, but there are always hiccups to overcome when a new industry scales. For clean energy and transportation, one challenge is the responsible sourcing metals for batteries. Hence there is growing concern over deep sea mining and its long-term impact on the globe’s environment.
Batteries that store renewable energy, including those used for EVs, require rare and expensive materials such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese. These materials are not as readily available as fossil fuels have been. There may be times when supply needs to catch up with demand, as the IEA projected in another May report. That survey recommended that governments stockpile the metals used in batteries so they can weather any supply disruptions.
So far, mining for these metals occurs on land, but deep ocean floors are gaining attention for their polymetallic nodules, stones about two to four inches in diameter and composed mostly of manganese and iron, but also sometimes nickel, copper and cobalt.
Today, deep sea mining remains in the exploratory phase. Where polymetallic nodules are concentrated in international waters, they are in the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority, mandated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to regulate mining activities and give licenses to prospectors. To date, 19 companies and nations have secured such licenses.
Recognizing an economic opportunity in mining, some Pacific island nations, such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati and Nauru, have sponsored companies to explore the mineral-rich Clarion Clipperton Zone that extends west from Mexico. Nauru has sponsored Canadian mining company DeepGreen Metals Inc., expected to be trading on the Nasdaq Global Select Market later this year.
Last month, Nauru President Lionel Aingimea informed the ISA of plans to start mining within two years — a process akin to vacuuming nodules from the sea floor. The nation invoked a “two year rule” in the UNCLOS that puts a deadline on negotiations if a nation feels the process is going too slowly.
While companies are hoping to put their machinery to work, marine scientists and some companies — including Google, BMW, AB Volvo and Samsung — are arguing for a moratorium on mining until we understand more about the high seas. They contend that just because deep sea mining supports the renewable energy transition doesn’t make it sustainable. Supporting battery development doesn’t necessarily result in activity that serves as a net positive for the climate, especially if the ocean’s ability to store carbon is compromised.
We just don’t know the consequences, marine scientists say. A recent statement from marine experts, calling for a pause on deep sea mining, states in part: “There is a paucity of rigorous scientific information available concerning the biology, ecology and connectivity of deep-sea species and ecosystems, as well as the ecosystem services they provide. Without this information, the potential risks of deep-sea mining to deep-ocean biodiversity, ecosystems and functioning, as well as human well-being, cannot be fully understood.” After all, more than 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored.
“The scraping of the sea floor and pollution from mining processes can wipe out entire species – many yet to be discovered,” adds the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Even so, why would companies like Google and Samsung want to put a pause on nodule mining if their products could benefit from potentially new and plentiful materials for batteries? Here's one example: BMW recently told Reuters that sourcing materials from deep sea mining is not a viable option as the automaker would not be able to assess the environmental risks.
Environmental risks in supply chains are increasingly relevant to companies hoping to maintain trust with consumers and keep a social license to operate. One study that focused on consumers in Scotland and Norway showed that the public did not have comprehensive awareness of the deep sea, but those surveyed still recognized a need for sustainable management. Even in the middle of the Pacific, mining companies are not necessarily excluded from the public’s perception and their own need for a social license. Slowing down the push to launch deep sea mining may just ensure the industry lasts in the long run – and push companies to seek new innovations in battery technology.
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