Deep-sea mining has been approved for trials in the Pacific Ocean by the International Seabed Authority for the first time since the 1970s. The move was widely condemned by environmental groups, a Greenpeace campaigner claiming that the activity risks destroying an ecosystem “for the rest of human history”.
The Metals Co., a deep-sea mining company, has been cleared to begin testing its deep-sea mining equipment in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) exploration area in the Pacific. This area is approximately 1.7 million square miles of abyssal plain, with depths between 11,500 and 21,500 feet.
The Metals Co. said deep sea mining, especially nickel, is the best course of action in the face of the planet’s growing population. Nickel is a key component in battery manufacturing, which is mostly harvested from land in Indonesia, a process that currently requires massive deforestation to access. Deep-sea mining, the company said, is a less impactful method of accessing more nickel without producing the toxic byproducts seen in traditional mining.
“Of all mining products, nickel is the most vulnerable to biodiversity risks, and large-scale production of battery-grade nickel from laterites is likely to devastate terrestrial ecosystems and human communities, disposing of mining waste deep sea endangering biodiverse coral ecosystems,” the Metals Co. wrote on its website.
However, environmental groups fear that large-scale deep-sea mining in the Pacific could permanently destroy countless seabed ecosystems.
Deep sea mining involves harvesting minerals from the sea floor, at depths less than 650 feet below the surface. There are three main types of deep sea mining, each collecting different minerals and affecting the seabed and its biodiversity in different ways.
“In simple terms, [the concerns about deep sea mining are] on unique biodiversity and extinction potential, as well as major impacts in general,” Gavin Mudd, associate professor of environmental engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, told Pleasemynews.
He continued: “The cause of these impacts varies, from direct mining of habitats (i.e. the nodules themselves) to deposition of sediment over a wide area due to the mining process. mining generating plumes. mining at sea or on land is highly controversial.”
The Metals Co. will initially only test collecting polymetallic nodes in the CCZ, which is one of the least damaging methods of deep sea mineral mining. It works by directing jets of water at the nodules, allowing them to be sucked up to the surface.
Other methods include mining cobalt crusts and massive sulphides from the seabed. These methods require the cutting of hard rock and affect seamounts and hydrothermal vents, both of which are areas that have higher levels of biodiversity than the Abyssal Plane.
However, many activists and conservationists disagree with any form of deep sea mining.
The net gain of the minerals acquired “will absolutely not be worth [the damage done by the process]Arlo Hemphill, an ocean campaigner at Greenpeace, said Pleasemynews.
“Proponents point out that there would potentially be less social injustice if we were to exploit the high seas rather than tropical forests and coasts. However, no one is volunteering to give up land operations in exchange for the opportunity to ‘deep sea mining, and in most cases deep sea mining companies are not the same companies that mine on land,’ he said.
“What we envision is an increased human footprint everywhere – mining on land and in the ocean. The idea that this is a choice or a trade-off is a false narrative” , Hemphill said.
Environmental groups also say that even if seabed communities are not directly destroyed by mining activity, sediment stirred up by machinery will coat filter feeders and photosynthesizing organisms over great distances. Additionally, there is concern that connectivity between different deep-sea communities may be disrupted.
“These ecosystems cannot recover within human timeframes, if at all,” Hemphill said. “If we destroy them, we destroy them for our entire lives and probably for the rest of human history…We are only beginning to understand the connectivity of these ecosystems with shallower systems and back to us. Destroying them is tantamount to start dismantling an aircraft in flight.”
According to the Metals Co., recent MIT studies have shown that the vast majority of seafloor sediments lifted during operations will settle rapidly, mostly within 2.5 miles and within days, and then fall to concentration levels natural backgrounds.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature said deep sea mining should be suspended until thorough assessments, effective regulation and mitigation strategies have been implemented. The Metals Co. said its test period, in August and September, will do just that.
There is currently no information on when the company plans to start mining.
It plans to commission deep-sea research ahead of its operations to study potential impacts. Only after this data has been analyzed and shown to have acceptable levels of impact will mining proceed.