The largely unknown landscape of the deep seabed has thus far not been a deterrent to companies who have set their sights on reaping the benefits of its deposits, with mining operations already staking their claim on sites – predominantly in the Pacific.
UK Seabed Resources is one such company, and while the licences granted to the firm have only just come to light, the project is not a new one – having been initially approved 10 years ago. The announcement has been met with criticism, with issues ranging from the length of time allotted for exploration to the reported failure to provide an environmental impact assessment.
Licence technicalities aside, the question of whether deep sea mining is the golden ticket to a renewable future remains the subject of intense debate. On the one hand, we need to get the materials for our green future from somewhere; on the other, the full impact of operations on the seafloor are still unknown. So who is right?
The report also claims that campaigners have been trying to access details of the licences for over two years through Freedom of Information requests – requests that have been repeatedly denied.
The report concludes with a call for a moratorium on deep sea mining, a stance that has been echoed by other governments. The lack of data on impacts of this type of mining has not gone unnoticed, with the Papua New Guinea Government, Fiji, Vanuatu, and a number of other Pacific island nations announcing a ban on deep sea mining until more is known of its environmental risks and impacts.
Given this uncertainty, the question that arises is how do we manage growing demand for renewable tech without jeopardising marine or terrestrial life?
“The Green Deal requires minerals and metals. Given the increased demand (driven by population growth and living standard increases for example), much of these minerals and metals must be mined. We should increase focus on recycling, but that will not be enough to meet the future demand. Where should you get the minerals and metals from? Onshore? Offshore? Space?”
The team argues that as knowledge from terrestrial mining is not always transferable to the ocean, the latter should be considered and governed as an entirely new industry type – bringing with it the need to investigate further.
Paper co-author Dr Anthony Kung says that such uncertainties are compounded by the fact that there are no commercial deep sea mining projects that could function as a precedent – either in terms of project design, or the impacts of design on environment and people.
“There’s no current commercial extraction, the closest we’ve come is the Solwara One project in Papua New Guinea,” he says. “That was licensed in 2011, and it just never got off the ground.”
“There is a real need to develop a way for companies to navigate what is responsible mining when it comes to deep sea mining,” he says. His paper similarly concluded with the need for regulators to develop a better understanding of the ESG risk landscape before progressing with projects.
For some, the ocean floor seems the only viable option to meet the burgeoning demand for battery technologies, with expansion of terrestrial sites endangering sites of biodiversity risk.
Yet it seems clear that without sufficient understanding of the terrain we’re heading into, we could easily cause more harm than good, and transparency in the regulation process is the only way to ensure best practices are maintained as we forge ahead into the deep. mine.nridigital.com