The Rise of EVs
Recently, electric vehicles have become a symbol of the sustainable transportation movement, promising reduced carbon emissions and a cleaner future. The EV industry has experienced exponential growth thanks to advancements in battery technology, supportive government policies, and increased consumer demand for environmentally-friendly transportation solutions. As more countries and manufacturers pledge to phase out internal combustion engines, the number of EVs on the roads is expected to surge in coming years.
Deep Sea Mining: Extraction of Potential Resources
While EVs offer a more sustainable mode of transportation, the expected demand for critical minerals to produce the required amount of batteries and components is likely to outpace the land-based supply of these minerals. Thus, the prospect of widespread EV ownership has led to a surge of interest in deep sea mining activities.
Deep sea mining involves extracting minerals from the seabed, often found in mineral-rich nodules or hydrothermal vents. These are the two primary mineral rich targets currently being explored.
The former, polymetallic nodules, are rounded lumps that accumulate over thousands of years, containing minerals like manganese, nickel, cobalt, and copper. Mining these nodules requires specialized machinery to carefully collect and transport them to the surface.
The mining of polymetallic nodules begins with a collector vehicle sent down from a ship that travels around 15,000 feet below sea level. Once on the floor, this vehicle picks up the nodules that contain the essential minerals as it goes. The nodules are transported up a pipe connected to a ship on the surface where they are then sorted. The excess sediment collected is sent back down to the bottom of the ocean in another pipe.
Hydrothermal vent mining, on the other hand, targets underwater hot springs that release mineral-rich fluids. These minerals precipitate when their hot fluids mix with cold seawater, forming deposits rich in metals like gold, silver, copper, and zinc. The ocean floor contains vast reserves of these valuable minerals.
Environmental Risks of Mining Deep Sea Vents and Nodules
Deep sea mining strains our environment in the following ways: habitat destruction, contamination, and ocean acidification. Of these, the biggest concern is habitat destruction and its associated biodiversity loss. Deep sea mining disrupts and destroys fragile and unique marine ecosystems on the ocean floor. It obliterates natural features, leaving wildlife without a place to live, ultimately leading to significant biodiversity loss.
Mining Polymetallic Nodules
Consider the process of polymetallic nodule mining: the excess sediment is sent down a pipe back onto the ocean floor. This leads to sediment plumes not only on the ocean floor but also in the mid water column. Disturbance of this sort to an area of earth that has yet to see many, if any, human-caused forces means that much of the area’s sensitive, fragile life could be destroyed.
Mining Hydrothermal Vents
The mining of hydrothermal vents is tricky as hydrothermal vents are oases of life in the deep sea, supporting ecosystems that depend on the unique conditions they provide. These ecosystems host specialized and often undiscovered species, such as tube worms, giant clams, and endless microorganisms.
Habitat destruction is not the only cause of biodiversity loss; contamination is also a very real consequence of deep sea mining. Part of the mining process requires the release of the mining ‘tailings’, which are produced during the ‘dewatering of the ore’. The tailings contain high levels of dissolved metals, which are taken by the ocean’s currents and spread throughout.
Experts are unsure precisely how heavy toxic metals will harm marine organisms but show a strong degree of concern for impacts on water quality, bioaccumulation in the food chain and more. Other pollutants, particularly carbon, lead to ocean acidification which poses a serious threat to marine life, especially those with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons.
The Potential of Untouched Oceans
The importance of the [deep] seafloor’s destruction must be underscored by the potential that many scientists believe it holds. Mining activities directly lead to the loss of these unique and poorly understood marine organisms and microbes that might very well hold the key to unlocking new treatments and medicines. This includes 100 million year old species that have yet to be discovered.
From an environmental perspective, many oppose opening up the ocean floor to mine precious metals, even in the name of obtaining the resources necessary to achieve societal-wide electrification. These same individuals call out the irony: how is one to protect a planet while also furthering its destruction?
For many, the prospect of deep sea mining is an existential threat. Journalist Susan Casey describes how companies want to suck up the complex ecosystems that surround these nodules to extract the nickel and cobalt for EV batteries and solar cells. She comments, “…we will lose things that we never got to know in the first place.”
Beyond the Theoretical: Permits issued in Bismarck Sea
Located in the territorial waters of Papau New Guinea, the Solwara 1 Project was the first approved exploitation permit for a deep sea mining project that was then challenged on an international level; the project was met with widespread condemnation and eventually stopped by Fiji’s leader before extraction could occur; the company behind the project went bankrupt and fell apart as of late 2019.
Led by a Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals Inc., in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, the project aimed to extract high-grade copper and gold from hydrothermal vents located about 1,600 meters below the surface of the Bismarck Sea. This area is known for its unique and diverse marine life, including species of bacteria, vent mussels, yeti crabs, scaly-foot gastropods that are known to rely on the hydrothermal vents for survival.
Weighing the Options
Scientists have long been weighing the amount of reduced emissions caused by widespread EV ownership against the damage done in the process of making the vehicles themselves. Sourcing this material from the ocean will require recalculations, considering the ocean is a precious and essential ally in the fight against climate change absorbing 25% of the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere (a so-called a ‘carbon sink’). While EVs reduce carbon in our atmosphere, this form of mining for EV materials harms our oceans and the life that they contain. To what extent these two activities offset each other is still up for debate, as the far-reaching consequences of deep sea mining are difficult to quantify. Ultimately scientists are looking to answer the age-old question: is it worth it?
There are ways to mitigate the risks deep sea mining puts on our environment: among these mitigation strategies include improved regulations, enforceable corporate responsibility, routine environmental impact assessments, and investment in research for other sources and forms of extraction.
In regard to improved regulations, international cooperation is essential in developing comprehensive best-practices for deep sea mining. Governments, NGOs, and industry stakeholders must collaborate to create a robust framework that considers environmental protection and social well-being first and foremost.
This work is currently being regulated by the UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority council, who recently placed a pause on the start of large-scale commercial ocean mining until 2025 in response to mounting pressure by countries including Chile, Costa Rica, France, and others. Susan Casey describes this attempt by countries to stop the industry before it begins as a ‘plea’ and ‘primal scream’. The same group has granted at least 30 exploration permits to companies looking to explore a particular mineral-rich zone between Hawaii and Mexico. Safe to say, the mining regulators are not anti-mining.
Regulatory bodies aside, many believe that the only way to successfully address the problem is a larger sense of corporate accountability and for mining companies, that begins on land. Mining companies involved in deep sea mining must embrace more sustainable practices and adhere to strict environmental and social standards, even if it means reduced profits. Transparency in their operations is crucial to gaining public trust and ensuring accountability of their actions.
Calls for Impact Assessments
Two more investments that could be made to address the problems caused by deep sea mining are environmental impact assessments and future research. Before approving deep sea mining projects, environmental impact assessments must be conducted. These assessments should consider the long-term effects on marine ecosystems and biodiversity. Further research and development are needed to improve these assessments along with mining technologies and explore alternative sources of critical minerals.
Mitigation of the harm is one thing, but many are asking to stop these projects before they begin (deep sea mining ban set to expire in 2025, once regulations are finalized). Consumers would like to think that they hold the most sway in how this plays out, but we’ve seen this story before. When it comes to the people versus a company looking to exploit resources, it requires a disproportionate amount of intervention on behalf of the people to stop something with so much momentum behind it.
The shift (pun intended) to electric vehicles holds immense promise for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting a more sustainable future. However, with greater demands comes a need for more resources; it is essential to acknowledge the potential risks and challenges associated with using deep-sea mining to obtain these resources. By adopting improved regulations, corporate responsibility, environmental impact assessments, and investment in research just maybe we can create a balance between achieving our environmental goals and protecting the precious ecosystems of the deep sea.