WHAT PREVENTS SEABED MINING FROM BEING FULLY OPERATIONAL

We are living in strange times: on the one hand, the fanciest global trend implies shifting to the ultimately eco-friendly “green” economy where fossil fuels are to be rejected. On the other hand, we keep destroying our planet with the predatory onshore mineral mining to satisfy the needs of the new “green” economy in the so-called energy metals. Such an ambivalence can be accepted as a sign of a certain psychological immaturity along with some excessive enthusiasm of the current generations with regard to the new socio-economic paradigm where we’d prefer to appear as soon as possible. As any other period of a paradigm shift, the present days provide us with numerous examples of the sorrowful mess in the methods we apply to one or another industry which has to be reshaped by some innovative technologies.

In many cases, we are trying to combine incompatible things when the new civilizational pathos backed by our imagination hurries us up to reach some “noble” objectives regardless of the cost we have to pay for it. We are so eager to exchange our old pollution-generating ICE cars for the “clean” electric vehicles to reduce the environmental impact on air. Isn’t that a noble objective? We are struggling against building of the new oil pipelines to make our leaders realize that the coming post-carbon economy should prioritize the renewable sources of energy. Isn’t such an intention commendable? We support our environmental activists in their resistance to the seabed mining which threatens to destroy the ocean biodiversity. Don’t we feel proud of being so ecologically-responsible in this case?

It would be fine unless the reality runs in a complex manner being hardly reformable with the straightforward approaches. And a superficial way in which we deal with many problems makes us be unable to see the forest through the trees.

The booming EV industry is one of the most telling examples of how a seemingly apparent impetus can lead to a highly ambivalent results. The roaring commercial success of Tesla Motors made the world automobile industry reconsider the fundamental car-production technology with which every manufacturer should proceed. It was a clear sign of a postcapitalism when quite a voluntaristic ambition of Tesla to supply the notorious Model S created a huge public demand for EVs which, in its turn, encouraged investors throughout the world to fund a battery industry with billions and billions of dollars to keep up with the skyrocketing EV production. This was followed by a common situation for a classic capitalism — the demand for batteries increased a demand for the so-called battery minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, and copper. That was the turn of the world mining industry to join the race. And exactly at that moment something went wrong.

The mining corporations decided to go an easy path by intensifying their mining activity everywhere they have rare metal deposits. Such a solution can be equated with putting new wine into an old wine skin. Because the continental rare mineral resources have been already explored all over the globe for the most part. And (hand on heart) any mining enterprise can barely increase the supply of cobalt or nickel 10-fold — the approximate increase in demand for rare metals which appeared due to the present battery rush. And even in spite of many brave reports from various mining corporations regarding an increase in their production capacity, the gap between the global demand for cobalt, for example, and the supply of this mineral remains too huge to be ignored.

One of the actual indicators of that gap is the market price of rare minerals which keeps growing despite all media efforts to make us sure that no battery metal shortage is available. Everyone who is not alien to common logic can clearly foresee the depletion of the onshore mineral deposits in a short-term perspective due to the predatory mining we still practice. Even if the world mining industry could satisfy the current industrial needs in battery metals, the situation wouldn’t last long. Hence, the intensification of the continental mineral mining is just a tactical measure capable of providing the global battery industry with the energy metals for 10–15 years from now. What do we do after 2035 then?

Here a dilemma arises: we should either to suspend the “rEVolution” or to find some other sources of battery metals. Since the “go green” movement in the global economy is hardly reversible, the pace we go to a post-carbon world will most probably be kept the same, if not faster. Hence, we need another Earth to extract 10 times more minerals than we have now. Where to find another Earth?

The solution is a lot easier than it seems. Once about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with the oceans, we have two more worlds underwater. The worlds that are almost untouched in terms of mineral deposits. According to preliminary estimates, a piece of the ocean floor which area constitutes less than 2% of the entire seabed — the Clarion-Clipperton Zone can provide us with about 130 million tons of cobalt along with about 760 million tons of nickel in the form of the so-called nodules — the potato-sized pieces of the polymetallic ore. Once again: less than 2% of the ocean floor can provide the entire world battery industry with the energy metals for decades, if not centuries.

If we know where to find more than enough battery minerals, what prevents us from starting the seabed mining? It would seem that the biggest challenge of the industrial seabed mining comes to the depths of 3–5 km where the underwater mineral deposits are located. Indeed, the deepwater vehicles capable of working at the pressure of 300–600 bar are more challenging than spacecrafts in some aspects. But the deepwater vehicle technology is already developed and ready for infield tests. If desired, the world submarine industry can also be involved in the development of the deepwater mineral miners.

The thing is that our human world follows precedents — this is the way we live. We prefer to do what is well-validated and solidly testified. That’s why we used to extracting minerals where we learned to do it best — onshore. In the past 200 years, we achieved good results in continental mining where both the economic feasibility and environmental sustainability met our expectations in general. However, the onshore mineral deposits are finite and non-renewable. Now we face with the question of whether we can find some new global resources of minerals capable of satisfying our constantly evolving economy. Who knows, maybe someday we will be able to reach the very Earth’s mantle to take everything we need directly from magma. But this is the task for succeeding generations.

Meanwhile, the present days make us enhance the explorations of the ocean floor. Our collective challenge implies creating the common rules of seabed mining where relevant regulation and restrictions are to be implemented once and for all — similarly to the way in which the founding fathers created the American Constitution that was amended with almost nothing new since day one. In fact, the movement in such a direction has already started. The first seabed mining pioneers are representing their technologies, the environmental risks are becoming clearer, and the work over the international regulation is going on.

Today it is possible to create various virtual models of what could happen at some certain seabed area if an industrial seabed mineral mining would start there. It’s a normal practice in the contemporary science especially since the available technologies of computer simulation are advanced enough to build a model of almost any complexity. But such a computer simulation can be scientifically relevant only when all necessary data are available. We can find a sufficient data about the biodiversity of some particular seabed area (the area belongs to those 5% of the seabed that have been already explored) where the factors of a biological environment such as the condition and density of the bottom mud and the benthic creatures’ abundance are studied quite well.

But on which particular mining technology should we rely while evaluating the seabed mining impact of the ocean floor biosphere? Do we have any standardized technology which can be recognized as a technological benchmark providing us with a general understanding of the effects of the entire seabed mining activity?

A particular origin of such a technology doesn’t matter actually if the latter meets the requirements of both the economic feasibility and environmental compatibility.

No analogs from the onshore mining industry are relevant in this case because the seabed mining has nothing common with the continental mining in terms of both the applicable machinery and mining methods. Hence, only aggregation of all available scientific information can help us accomplish such a difficult task.

And this is the International Seabed Authority (a special UN-powered entity) is the one who accumulates data from various official contractors in order to evaluate (with the help of environmental experts) all possible effects of the use of one or another seabed mining technology.

But the pace we move in this direction doesn’t depend on some particular technical solution. Moreover, this is not about our inability to figure out the proper ecological conditions for mining. The thing is that the entire world extractive industry doesn’t want to accept a different environment of mining — the seabed. Only several companies together with few seabed-mining enthusiasts spend their time and money on the relative explorations and experiments. This process, however, could run much faster if a dedicated International Agency on the development of seabed mining would be established.

Another seemingly crucial aspect of seabed mining relates to the renewability of the oceanic minerals. The global biochemical laboratory of the Earth’s oceans continuously generates such minerals as cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese in the form of nodules and crusts. That’s why such a complex process running in the mineralized near-bottom waters under high pressure is absolutely natural. People used to recognizing the sun and wind as the only renewable energy sources since their effects can be experienced within one day. Forests can be recovered during a human lifespan. Thus, we prefer to consider anything as renewable if it cannot be regenerated during a human life.

But the regeneration process of seabed minerals requires periods of 100 — 1000 years long. A human life can hardly be a benchmark for it. The oceans care about our future generations: in addition to what is already available at the seabed, 10 billion tons of minerals are generated annually at the World Ocean floor. As long as the relevant natural conditions such as water mineralization, gravity, temperature, and high pressure are available, the Earth’s oceans will always keep generating minerals at the bottom. The process contradicts a typical image of the onshore minerals that can be naturally regenerated under no circumstances.

Our core idea is based on the enormous amount of the available oceanic minerals that cannot be utilized by the humankind over centuries — the very centuries that the Earth’s oceans need for regenerating minerals at the seabed areas which should be left idle after a properly arranged partial seabed mining.

Nevertheless, the main challenge of nowadays for the entire seabed mining sector is to realize how to move forward. In which way can the new precedents be created? Who can help to establish the new original methodologies of the proper evaluation of the oceanic mineral resources? The current situation urges us to transfer the principles of financing of the onshore extractive industry to the seabed mining sector. In fact, a growing community of companies who believe in the emerging seabed mining industry is already available. They keep attracting investments in this sector since even conservative estimates are promising to find the mineral Eldorado at the ocean floor.

The underwater world will bring both wealth and glory to those who are able to recognize the promise of the seabed mining. But the final word belongs to the providers of seabed mining technologies, of course.