Deep Sea Mining Technology: Historical, Technological and Policy Perspectives

The next 30 years will witness our global population to rise by two billion people putting tremendous pressure on already limiting resources and allocation inefficiencies. The predicted 66% of this population will be residing in our cities simultaneously accommodating our clean energy and transport needs and transitions. The metal intensive nature of the emerging clean technologies, be it wind turbines, electric vehicles or solar panels, requires huge amounts of investment in mining technologies for exploration, research, development and extraction from the metal rich regions. 

The technology requires metals like lithium, cobalt and other rare elements to keep up the pace for the transition and reduce the dependency on fossil fuels. In 2020, the global rare earth reserves stands at 120 million metric tons with China occupying the largest space (60%) not just in terms of reserves but also renewable energy technology research, development and production. Lithium, one of the primary sources for the parts of electric vehicles batteries, stands at 40,000 metric tons in Australia alone in 2020. But the question is, Are these reserves on land enough for our energy transition? The answer is not simple. The topic is a pertinent, realistic and contentious issue for many policymakers operating at both national as well as international levels. Deep Sea mining operates as a double edge sword bouncing on marine conservation on one side and green development on the other. The technology is nascent and most of it is still under essential R&D purely from the perspective of sustainable development in terms of marine resources. Recently, IUCN congress voted in favour of putting a global moratorium on deep sea mining activities while in stark contrast the European Commission favours stepping up exploration and extraction of deep sea minerals. Signed by 621 marine scientists, conservationists, and policy experts calling for a pause/global moratorium due to the paucity of evidence concerning ecology, biology and geology with biodiversity and ecosystem stability in the centre which hampers our understanding on potential risks and impact evaluation of the projects. 

Let’s lay down the historical context of our conversation on deep sea mining. Manganese nodule deposits (Mn, Co, Ni, Cu) played a crucial role in the history of the deep sea mining not only in their relevance in UNCLOS 1982 but also its substantial impact on mining industry and markets. It also depicts how ‘resource’ or becoming of something as ‘resource’ is open ended, incomplete and a reversible process as studied by Zimmermann et al., 1972 in his functional theory of resources. J L Mero’s 1965 Mineral resources of the Sea for the first time lays down the potential of more than one trillion metric ton of manganese nodules lying on the Pacific Ocean floor. This started a plethora of research and exploration expeditions between 1972 to 1982 which historians marked the first phase of deep sea mining investigations. The book infers the possibility of unlimited, inexhaustible, and easy to harvest manganese nodules activating countries like USA, West Germany, Canada, Japan by forming multi national consortia to compensate for high risks and capital involvement. Due to exponential decrease in global funding to these multinational consortia, by mid 1980s most of these organizations working for deep sea mining exploration became inactive with countries like India, Japan and South Korea starting to take interest due to their primary rich coastline. This also increased the prospects for the potential consideration and exploration of other types of deep sea minerals such as seafloor sulphides, ferromanganese crust.  

The kickstart of the prospects has been heavily influenced by the high modernist ideology at the time when we saw rapid progress of space flights/to explore outer space. Ambition grew deeper with predictions of human settlements on oceans floors, food security and military applications. The major role for the advancements of deep-sea mining has been spearheaded through military funding and research (submarine warfare). The launch of Glomar Explorer in 1972 in the cold war times (CIA cover masking under the garb of deep-sea mining) has provided the push for other companies to accelerate their own projects with the Glomar Explorer itself being used in an actual mining exploration in 1978-1979.

The Zimmermann functional theory of resource attributes the function of resource as its nature and not its quantity. The concept was further refined by Richardson and Weszkalnys 2014 to include the factor of potentiality and affordability often influenced by historical, social and material variables. The prospects of deep-sea mining remained ‘neutral stuff’ as per Zimmermann for much of the 19th century and became resources after the 1950s. The resource utilization of manganese nodules throughout the history of deep-sea mining effectively portrays that the creation of ‘resource’ is not a linear irreversible paradigm but a more open, dynamic and incomplete process. The becoming and unbecoming of the ‘resource’ has been very dynamic and evident in case of manganese nodules primarily due to four reasons as stated in Sparenberg 2019. 

  1. International commodity politics and deep divide between global north and south has resulted in financial affordability of different governments since most deep-sea mining is being facilitated through consortia. This is also being spearheaded by the goal of reducing dependency on rare elements imports from politically unstable and hostile states such as Angola and Zambia responsible for cobalt mining. The Chinese dominance over the Renewable energy technology supply chain in the 21st century has also once again raised interest in the resource potential of minerals extracted from deep seas. This has a far reaching impact on internal security, foreign affairs and the rights of the countries in International Waters. 
  2. The legal frameworks at different points of time have made the potentiality of Manganese nodules unattractive and expensive to pursue affecting its resource status primarily for the first world private sector which have the ambition, budget and government support to undertake deep sea mining. This was beneficial for the developing world in order to reduce the overall competition in the race towards exploring the international waters. The game shifted when countries started discovering through their own exploration missions, mineral deposits in the territorial waters (Exclusive Economic Zones) both for the first as well as the third world. 
  3. The tradeoffs between investment, operational cost and commodity prices have resulted in rise and fall of the status of resource given to manganese nodules. High product cost with an unfriendly legal environment made the prospects of mining nodules much weaker by the 1980s with higher operational costs than previously realized/anticipated.
  4. The spearheaded environmental campaign after 70s and 80s has not much affected the prospects of the operations and permissions but had maintain the discourse over political and scientific conversations with currently more than 600 marine expert and policy professional demanding a pause on all the deep-sea mining activities including the halt of current licenses by the International Seabed Authority function under UNCLOS. 

The criteria also begs the question of deep sea mining potential economic viability of its exploration and R&D investments made by the countries and private companies. Initial investments in exploration period is largely made on Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zones in the equatorial region of the North Pacific with later the addition of Central Indian Basin for the predicted estimation of the quantity of the nodules present and the feasibility assessment of its extraction. The late 20th century estimates represent the abundance of high-quality sources of metals from land-based sources along with reduced price. This made the whole endeavour of the viability of deep-sea mining operations to be subsidy free. The major economies between 1960s and 1984 have spent 650 million USD for exploration of nodules and R&D for the technology which is for most firms, a relatively small investment of about 6-7% of their annual budget. 

The UNCLOS 1982 has proposed a number of provisions which were considered to be onerous to private corporations that made the whole deep sea mining prospects unviable. This also resulted in major economies at that time such as the USA, Germany and UK to not sign the UNCLOS treaty. This also led to the entry of third world countries in the prospects of wealth distribution through mining activities. Hence, much of the late 19th century was wasted effort including money due to wrong economic predictions and inefficient business environment due to laws as stated in Glasby 2000. 

Current Policy Environment

The modernist belief had driven the momentum of deep-sea mining exploration and ambition after the 1960s but as we moved in 70s and 80s and in the late 20th century, the conversation started getting the ecological perspective with 80s witnessing different kinds of environment impact studies in an academic atmosphere. The current discourse is primarily dominated not with technology or innovation or economic viability or resource characterization but driven by the outlook of marine conservation, specifically biodiversity. Marine policy and governance have been at the forefront in the last decade or so due to its huge importance in regulating pollution standards, fisheries management, climate change mitigation, maritime mobility and the objectives of foreign policies & international disputes and conflicts. The surrounding discourse is not environmental in nature but is highly socio-political in terms of ownership of the seas along with establishing power structures. Hence, the need for a multinational collaborative effort to produce a framework for sustainable growth of different activities in 60% of the international waters to be synergized. The IUCN has laid down 10 principles primarily associated with marine governance focusing on high seas. By understanding those fundamental principles, a framework for the identification of different kind of social, political, economic and technological challenges and barriers can be developed. These barriers can help us frame particular management solutions and governance mechanisms to deal with increasing human activities which should go beyond protected area-based conservation and management which is the approach for the past few decades. This discourse has also resulted in passing of a UNGA resolution in 2017 convening an intergovernmental conference to negotiate a binding treaty called as ILBI for conservation and sustainable utilization of BBNJ under the UNCLOS 1984.

Currently, 18 exploration contracts have been granted specifically for polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean Basin, Western Pacific Ocean and Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone. The most advanced mining exploration has shown decent economic viability in the least amount of species in diverse regions, apparently with least damage. The ISA has committed to allow only those mining projects which have two distinct reference zones for conservation and mining exploration designated as “No net loss” effect. There are also reports of inadequacies in our impact assessment framework to fully evaluate full range, extent and comprehensive damage mapping from deep sea mining operations. There is a huge technological overlay for avoiding serious and lasting environmental impacts including the loss of biodiversity given the mobile spatial nature of ocean and ocean dynamics. The prioritization of avoiding impacts rather than remedying is very crucial for long term sustainable mining operations for the industries in order to continue the extraction process through improved mining equipment. The operation of ISA is based on a dual mandate for protection and potential development of the deep-sea mining sector. The very challenging and apparently conflicting stance based on the non-availability of baseline data and sustainable technological advancements requires a high degree of international oversight with a strong and legal mandate for the protection of the oceans. The formation of independent authorities and commissions will also go a long way for establishing political and corporate accountability in areas beyond national jurisdictions. The adoption of principles of circular economy specifically in context with technological resources utilized in marine regions will be a crucial path to ensure sustainability and a green economic growth. Due to the strategic nature and importance of the utilization of regions of international waters like the Indian Ocean and parts of South China Sea where a country’s defense strategies are also dependent on their maritime reach, access and exploration which is potential for international conflicts such as wars. 

The techno-economic feasibility assessment as per Sharma 2011 showcases the investment cost of 12 billion dollars and value of metal of 21 billion dollars for mining at the rate of 1.5 million ton/year, the net returns will be relatively low requiring large production output with lowering average cost of production. The technology is still far from operational and doesn’t pay heed to the aspects of sustainability and marine conservation. The utilization of deep-sea mining technology is inevitable so its extraction, production and meeting the future needs of pure metals for our growth in renewable energy. Hence, the utilization needs a robust policy environment in order to develop international governance mechanisms taking into account domestic needs, resources, risks and their individual state’s prospects with adoption of technology from the perspective of sustainability.

Reference:

  1. Sparenberg, O. (2019). A historical perspective on deep-sea mining for manganese nodules, 1965–2019. The Extractive Industries and Society, 6(3), 842-854.
  2. Van Dover, C. L. (2011). Tighten regulations on deep-sea mining. Nature, 470(7332), 31-33.
  3. Glasby, G. P. (2000). Lessons learned from deep-sea mining. Science, 289(5479), 551-553.
  4. Zimmermann, E. W. (1933). World resources and industries.
  5. Sharma, R. (2011). Deep-sea mining: Economic, technical, technological, and environmental considerations for sustainable development. Marine Technology Society Journal, 45(5), 28-41.
  6. Refer hyperlinks
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