Mining the ocean floor for rare minerals could help the world shift away from fossil fuels. But conservationists fear the consequences for a fragile ecosystem.
A Canadian mining startup is hoping to be granted the world’s first commercial licence to start extracting rare minerals from the deep seafloor. The International Seabed Authority, the UN-backed regulator, is due to consider the application later this year. Environmental and conservation groups fear that mining the sea bed could have catastrophic consequences on a fragile ecosystem.
The tiny Pacific island of Nauru is sponsoring the application made by the Vancouver-based The Metals Company (TMC). The firm’s CEO, Gerrard Barron, insists that his company can mine without harming the environment. What’s more, he argues, it could help the world move away from fossil fuels as there is an abundance of metals needed to build electric batteries, wind turbines and solar panels on the deep seafloor.
In a company video from a few years ago the then president of Nauru, Baron Waqa, says his country will benefit greatly from deep sea mining. In the same video, Gerrard Barron describes it as “the new oil”.
At the bottom of the sea there are nodules about the size of potatoes which are rich in minerals. If given the go ahead robotic submersibles will creep across the ocean floor scraping up the top layer. The nodules will be sucked up through pipes to ships on the ocean’s surface, three miles above, while unwanted sediment is flushed out.
Groups opposed to deep sea mining argue not enough is known about the ocean floor to manage the risks. “The mining industry… are still prioritising financial gains and access to resources over environmental protection”, says Emma Wilson from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of NGOs campaigning to protect deep sea ocean environments. She argues no one knows what might happen when creatures at the bottom of the sea which have evolved to live in silence and darkness are confronted by noisy dredging equipment and plumes of sediment. “There are sharks that can live to 400 years. There are corals that can live up to 4,000 years. There’s a type of sponge that can live up to 11,000 years. So, everything takes longer down there”.
One of the arguments those in favour of deep sea mining make is that it could lessen the West’s reliance which currently dominates the supply and refinement of many rare earth minerals.
It’s a reminder that while there have been plenty of conflicts driven by fossil fuels, the age of renewable technology will bring its own conflicts over resources.