Deep-Sea Mining: why now and how?10 February 2022


Part 1 – the practical implications

Deep sea mining has become a hot topic in recent months.

Part 1 of our article series looks at why now and also what is needed to make it happen in practical terms. Part 2, which will follow shortly, will address the legal and regulatory challenges of deep-sea mining and the many environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) risks it presents.

Why now?

The International Seabed Authority (“ISA”), a United Nations body, held its 26th Council meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, from December 6-10, 2021 and its Assembly meeting from December 13-15. 2021, in order to agree on a path to finalize the regulations. by July 2023, this would allow underwater mining of cobalt, nickel and other metals to continue.

In arranging the meeting, despite protests from a number of countries, the ISA Secretary General claimed that he had to pass the regulations by July 2023 because the Pacific island nation of Nauru had sparked a so -called “two-year rule” in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2021 which obliges the ISA to do so. However, many ISA Council member countries and scientists have warned that biodiversity loss in the deep ocean will be inevitable and irreversible if the ISA allows deep sea mining.

What we know so far

The issues associated with deep sea mining are accurately summarized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) as follows:¹

“Deep-sea mining is the process of extracting mineral deposits from deep seas – the area of ​​the ocean below 200m that covers approximately 65% ​​of the Earth’s surface.

There is growing interest in deep seabed mineral deposits. This is largely due to the depletion of earth’s deposits of metals such as copper, nickel, aluminum, manganese, zinc, lithium and cobalt, coupled with the increasing demand for these metals to produce applications of high technology such as smartphones and green technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric storage batteries.

So far, the focus has been on deep sea exploration – assessing the size and extent of mineral deposits. In May 2018, the [ISA] – which regulates activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction – had issued 29 contracts for the exploration of deep-sea mineral deposits… But exploration may soon give way to exploitation… Mining in international waters is expected to begin in 2025.

As the deep seabed remains understudied and poorly understood, there are many gaps in our understanding of its biodiversity and ecosystems. It is therefore difficult to thoroughly assess the potential impacts of deep sea mining and to put in place adequate safeguards to protect the marine environment…

Based on current knowledge of the deep seabed, the following impacts of mining activities could affect its biodiversity and ecosystems:

Disturbance of the seabed – Scraping of the ocean floor by machinery can alter or destroy deep-sea habitats, leading to loss of species and fragmentation or loss of ecosystem structure and function. Many species living in the deep sea are endemic – meaning they occur nowhere else on the planet – and physical disturbance at a single mine site can eventually wipe out an entire species. This is one of the most significant potential impacts of deep sea mining.

Sediment plumes – Some forms of deep-sea mining stir up fine sediments on the seabed consisting of silt, clay and the remains of microorganisms, creating plumes of suspended particles. It is not known how far these particles can disperse beyond the mining area, how long it would take them to re-settle on the seabed and how they can affect ecosystems and species, for example by smothering animals or harming filter-feeding species that depend on clear, clean water for food, such as krill and whale sharks.

Pollution – Species such as whales, tuna and sharks could be affected by noise, vibration and light pollution from mining equipment and surface vessels, as well as potential fuel and toxic leaks and spills. .

Call for moratorium

The IUCN Congress therefore passed a motion on September 8, 2021 which called on all Member States to support a moratorium on deep sea mining until rigorous and transparent impact assessments are carried out, that social, cultural and economic risks are understood and that the protection of the marine environment ensured. He also called on states to promote ISA reform to ensure transparent and environmentally responsible decision-making and regulation.

The ESG conundrum

This motion is just one example of increased awareness and regulation around ESG issues. Another example is Regulation (EU) 2020/852 of the European Parliament and of the Council of the EU (the “Taxonomy Regulation”).² For our previous article on this subject, see .

At the same time, as the IUCN briefing acknowledges, there is a growing demand for metals such as copper, nickel, aluminium, manganese, zinc, lithium and cobalt to produce applications of high technology such as smartphones and green technologies such as wind turbines. , solar panels and electric accumulators. We also understand that the grades potentially achievable from deep sea mining can be significantly better than those currently achievable from open pit/underground mining, where many projects with higher grades have been mined. and new projects are reaching levels lower than those observed historically. . There may therefore be a balance to be struck in the future between the environmental impact of potentially higher-grade offshore mining projects and that of lower-grade surface or underground mines.

So finding the balance between protecting the environment above and below the water is a conundrum. This conundrum is not going away anytime soon, and a compromise between these competing demands seems inevitable in the long run. The remainder of this article therefore discusses what will be required to establish and implement a deep sea mining project from a practical perspective, recognizing that beyond environmental concerns there are other serious problems that must be overcome if deep sea mining is to become a reality.

Practical challenges

The mining sites currently envisaged are all in waters of significant depth, often greater than 1,000 m, which poses problems, among others, of pressure and temperature to be solved. In contrast, early offshore oil exploration took place in relatively shallow waters and at water depths well below 1,000 m. The process of extracting and recovering minerals from the seabed is not yet fully determined and, unlike the oil exploration sector, deep sea mining will not have the advantage of a substrate under pressure to help bring product to the surface through pipelines. It is envisaged to use a combination of remotely operated vehicles and some form of transportation system. Some have suggested that a “bucket and grapple” type system should be deployed, picking up the extracted product from specified points on the seabed, identified by transponders where remotely operated vehicles are directed to deposit the product once it is stored. on board. the bins have been filled. Alternatively, weighted platforms or (at a more basic level) lifting pads could be used to send the product to the surface provided a cost effective means can be developed to pump in enough compressed gas to provide the initial lift at depth (a considerable volume of gas would be needed in each case to achieve this). Salvage, repair and maintenance of mining equipment and infrastructure should also be addressed.

“There may therefore be a balance to be struck in the future between the environmental impact of potentially higher-grade deep-sea mining projects and that of lower-grade surface or underground mines.”

Mining sites may also be outside the traditional jurisdiction of the coastal state closest to the particular deposits being recovered. This raises some issues as to how the operation would be regulated and what enforcement powers would be available to the nearest coastal state. Laws governing seabed mining rights are not as clear or as uniformly enforced as they are for the water column above. While sovereign states claim fishing rights 200 miles from their baseline, the rights they have to the seabed depend on the extent of the continental shelf off their coasts.

Even when the challenges of extracting and recovering minerals from the seabed have been resolved, there remains the challenge of processing them at the surface of the sea to transport them often many miles to the nearest port. There will be a very limited working area available compared to land mining. Although some of the minerals themselves are not porous, it is hard to imagine that other materials will not be collected as well. The ability to separate the desired metals and minerals from sediments and water will be essential.

Transporting wet bulk or bulk cargo with free water in a hold is often dangerous. The average bulk carrier does not have the capability to handle cargo from additional water, so specialized tonnage would be required. Even with the ability to separate water from cargo, the deadweight of the vessel would be reduced by the amount of water contained, as it would likely be retained on board and not discharged overboard. If these waters were to be discharged at sea, modifications to MARPOL would probably be necessary.

Beyond the question of the practical challenges of deep-sea mining discussed in this article, there are also the questions of financing and who would be willing to finance this type of project as well as that of the complex international legal and regulatory framework. which is currently under development. by the AIS. We will continue the discussion in part 2 of this series which will be published soon.

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