Mining for minerals in the oceans is a bad idea

The only active seafloor mining project in the world right now is off the coast of Papua New Guinea, and it is currently stalled because of financial problems.



By Sharon E. Burke

Published: Tue 27 Aug 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 27 Aug 2019, 11:03 PM

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) sits perched above the concrete boardwalk of Jamaica's Kingston Harbor, across the bay from the spot where "Calico Jack" Rackham was once gibbeted as a warning to other eighteenth-century pirates. Today, this small UN agency rules the high seas - or, more precisely, the seafloor some three miles below - and yet it is largely unknown to the general public. But if China decides to retaliate against US import tariffs by restricting its exports of rare-earth elements, that could change fast.
Some 71 per cent of the Earth's surface is actually underwater, and the seafloor (or seabed) is rich in rare-earth elements and other sought-after minerals - especially in deep international waters. The ISA manages the mineral rights of more than 50 per cent of the world's deep ocean floor, and its 168 member states have the right to vie for access to the resources there. But, given the risk of catastrophic environmental consequences, all countries could lose out if this contest proceeds without due care.
The only active seafloor mining project in the world right now is off the coast of Papua New Guinea, and it is currently stalled because of financial problems. That reflects how difficult and expensive it still is to operate in the dark, freezing, and high-pressure deep-sea environment, more than 80 per cent of which remains unmapped and unexplored.
Nonetheless, both commercial organisations and ocean scientists think new technologies will make deep-ocean mining all but inevitable within the next decade. A range of innovations, such as better satellite imaging of the ocean floor and robot submersibles, is improving seabed access. Moreover, digital-age technologies and the global clean-energy transition are driving a sharp increase in demand for materials that are abundant in the deep ocean.
Competition for these increasingly useful materials was heating up even before the recent escalation of Sino-American trade tensions. China has a comparative advantage in critical minerals, owing to its significant domestic resources and extensive processing facilities. It also has longstanding investments in other major producing countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which accounts for about 65 per cent of global cobalt production and half of total reserves.
The US, by contrast, must import many high-tech minerals. Accordingly, the US government recently deemed 35 minerals critical to the country's economic and national security, and announced a new strategy calling for increased domestic mining, among other measures.
In terms of seabed resources, there is no contest between these two geopolitical rivals. China is expected to fare well next year when the ISA issues a new mining code and begins its first-ever permit process for mineral exploitation in international waters. But America will not even be at the table, because it is not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (and thus is not officially represented at the ISA).
The international community should aim to secure the best, least destructive supply of the minerals it needs. We should at least identify and understand the tradeoffs before crucial decisions are made, so as to weigh the possible consequences before they become irrevocable. Clearly, China and the US must play a leading role in this effort.
When the Industrial Revolution began, no one could have known that climate change would be one of its end results. But in the digital age, the world must be much more environmentally aware when tapping the deep-ocean mineral riches.
-Project Syndicate
Sharon E. Burke is the former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy


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