Data analytics and consultancy company GlobalData has warned that deep ocean mining faces serious difficulties. In a report it issued recently, it warned that attempts to mine the seabed at such depths were both technically difficult and controversial.
Deep ocean seabeds are thought to be liberally sprinkled with nodules containing cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel. And the foundations for a deep seabed mining economy are already being laid. Seabed mineral activities in international waters are managed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The ISA has now signed 30 contracts for seabed mineral exploration activities. These contracts are with commercial entities, research institutes and governments from countries such as Belgium, China, Germany, Poland and the UK, as well as the Middle East.
The ISA is hoping to release seabed mineral exploitation regulations by July this year, with a meeting in February 2021 to consider and develop further draft rules. Once the draft rules have been agreed, the ISA could issue seabed mining permits in two to three years, allowing operations to start within a further few years.
But such operations will not be easy. “The real riches of the sea floor are to be found in areas such as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a remote part of the Pacific Ocean which is thought to have one of the world’s largest untapped collections of rare-earth elements,” pointed out GlobalData mining technology writer Heidi Vella. “It is teeming with potato-sized deposits loaded with copper, nickel, manganese and other precious ores. However, the nodules in the CCZ are located some 4 000 m below the ocean surface, making mining much harder.”
She cited the example of Nautilus Minerals. This company had been carrying out exploration activities off Papua New Guinea and Tonga, using technologies proven in the offshore oil and gas industry. But, even so, its costs had risen to the point that Nautilus had to ask for bankruptcy protection from its creditors. It is reported that the company has already spent almost $461-million.
And then there is the controversial nature of deep seabed mining from an environmental point of view. It could damage the deep seabed ecosystem and put marine species in danger, before they are even discovered.
“Ecologically, the area is quite different [to] the continental shelf; it [has] a completely different ecosystem, which is potentially more complex in its topography,” explained University of Exeter (UK) ecology lecturer Dr Kirsten Thompson. “To go and mine those areas without knowing what lives there seems really counterproductive to all sorts of activities we might want to do in the future, such as carbon burial, for example.”
She also expressed concern about the ISA. “My understanding of the ISA is that there are certain technical groups which are not allowed to sit in on meetings – meaning there is no scrutiny from any other parties other than those that happily support seabed mining, from a civil service point of view that isn’t right.”
GlobalData covers the consumer, financial, healthcare, professional services, retail and technology sectors. It reports that its services are used by more than 70% of FTSE 100 and 60% of Fortune 100 companies.