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Deep-sea mining: Climate solution or ecological threat?

San Diego, CaliforniaJune , 2021Andrew K. Sweetman, professor and research leader at the Lyell Centre for Earth, Marine Science, and Technology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland explains how sample are obtained from deep in the ocean as part of the research to see the effects mining will have on the environment in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. He was one of the scientist invited to take part in research by Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO of The Metals Company, who hopes that his company will be able to mine the seafloor for nickel, cobalt, manganese in the Pacific Ocean. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
San Diego, CaliforniaJune , 2021Andrew K. Sweetman, professor and research leader at the Lyell Centre for Earth, Marine Science, and Technology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland explains how sample are obtained from deep in the ocean as part of the research to see the effects mining will have on the environment in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. He was one of the scientist invited to take part in research by Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO of The Metals Company, who hopes that his company will be able to mine the seafloor for nickel, cobalt, manganese in the Pacific Ocean. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The International Seabed Authority is meeting to devise regulations that could allow mining of the deep ocean floor for minerals needed for green energy technology.

But bringing those minerals to the surface could disrupt delicate deep-sea ecosystems.

Nevertheless, a U.N. body is now poised to begin accepting applications for ocean floor mining.

“It’s continuing the story of humanity’s age-old ambition to use up the resources that they’ve go on earth and look for the next one and push into new frontiers,” Helen Scales says. “The deep ocean really is the final frontier we have, it really is the last vast space that we have not fully occupied as humanity.”

Today, On Point: Mining the deep sea.


Gerard Barron, chairman and CEO of TheMetals Company.

Helen Scales, marine biologist, writer. Author of many books, including “The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It” and “Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean, and Everything.”

Andrew Sweetman, deep-sea ecologist. Leader of the Seafloor Ecology and Biogeochemistry research group at the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

Also Featured

Alanna Smith, conservation program manager at Te Ipukarea Society in the Cook Islands.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: About 500 miles south of Hawaii and running more than 3,000 miles to the Mexican coast, lies a massive area of the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ. The zone covers more than 1.7 million square miles of water, and the seabed below that is between roughly 2 ½ to 3 ½ miles deep.

At those depths, the seafloor – and the marine life on it – exist in absolute darkness. We know almost nothing about it. A team of British researchers published a study earlier this month that identified at least 5,500 species living in the CCZ. An astounding 90% of them were unknown to science, discoveries so new, they hadn’t even been named yet. And the researchers say it’s also possible that most of those plants and animals aren’t found anywhere else on Earth.

There’s something else resting on the CCZ seafloor. Rocky nodules that look like blackened potatoes. They’re known as polymetallic nodules. They’re composed of layers of metallic ores that build up around marine debris. It’s not yet fully understood how that happens. But we do know the process takes millions of years. And over that time, the polymetallic nodules have become what some see as the most important untapped resource of the modern world. It’s estimated that they contain six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel, and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land. And it’s all on the bottom of the ocean, amid one of the most pristine, untouched habitats in the world.

Human industry may soon leave its mark there. The tiny island nation of Nauru has partnered with a deep-sea mining firm called the Metals Company. Together, they have triggered a diplomatic cascade at the United Nationals International Seabed Authority. And now, the ISA is poised – after decades of deliberation – to begin accepting applications that could open the international seabed to mining.

In a government video, Nauru’s President Baron Waqa, says pulling the polymetallic nodules from the seafloor is good for the world and for Nauru.

BARON QAQA: We see this new mining of these nodules to be something that will benefit the world of tomorrow. I believe that Nauru will benefit greatly. My government continues to look for other revenue sources for Nauru, not just now, but for the future. This venture will ensure that our revenue will be well diversified for our children and their children well into the future.

CHAKRABARTI: The International Seabed Authority is currently meeting in Jamaica to hash out how it might police seabed mining. An important first step informing regulations around the industry on the seafloor. However, under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Seas, the seabed and its mineral resources are considered the “common heritage of mankind” that must be managed in a way that protects the interests of humanity through the sharing of economic benefits, support for marine scientific research, and protecting marine environments. Can those things, all those things be done, protected with the imminent approval of seabed mining?

We’ll start with Gerard Barron. He’s Chairman and CEO of the Metals Company, the company that’s partnering with the Nation of Nauru, and he joins us from London.

Gerard Barron, welcome to the show.

GERARD BARRON: Hi, Meghna, it’s a pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, tell me you founded, or were one of the founders of the company back in 2011. Do I have that date correct?

BARRON: Yeah, we started the company in 2011, 12 years ago now.

CHAKRABARTI: And what inspired you to launch a company in a field that has been only limited to exploration thus far?

Originally, I was the financial backer of this particular project, and it was only when I really started to dive into the data behind climate change and realized how important getting a lower impact supply of metals, base metals like nickel and copper would be to the energy transition. And of course, the reason for that is that transitioning away from hydrocarbons is going to be very metal intensive.

And as a society, we need to think about where do these metals come from and what’s the environmental and human cost? And so the company was originally set up by a good friend of mine and I was happy to step in and take the reins back in 2017 when I realized it really needed to take a different direction.

And of course, we find ourselves on the doorstep of an industry that I think can make a massive impact towards addressing climate change.

CHAKRABARTI: Because essentially the metals that are to be found on those polymetallic nodules would be essential for electronics, batteries, et cetera, which we currently need and would probably need more of in the future to decarbonize.

So the company has thus far been granted exploratory licenses and so particularly, can you just briefly describe what you have found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone?

BARRON: Yeah, so on two of our license areas, one sponsored by Nauru and the second by Tonga, we have identified 1.6 billion tons of polymetallic nodules.

And to put that into context, those two deposits have been ranked the world’s largest and the world’s second largest undeveloped nickel projects on the planet. It’s enough to electrify the entire USA light passenger fleat. So it’s a very large resource and that’s on two of our license areas.

CHAKRABARTI: Light passenger fleet meaning cars.

BARRONS: Cars, exactly. Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Okay. Interesting. So I guess the big question that everyone’s wondering who hasn’t, had a chance to study deep-sea mining or deep seabed mining before, is how are you going to do it? How do you get those nodules up from three miles down?

BARRON: The engineering challenges were actually largely solved 50 years ago. Because this industry almost got started, there were great names like Shell and BP and Mitsubishi and Sumitomo involved. Who went down and collected these very same rocks and Rio Tinto built a processing plant to convert them into metal. But 50 years ago, the world had not agreed who owned the oceans, and so the United Nations stopped them. And so last year, for six months, we were at sea, testing our nodule collector system.

And it basically involves a production vessel that sits on top of the water and a large pipe, which we call a riser with an umbilical cord that provides the electricity to an electric robot that crawls along the sea floor. And one of the many benefits that this resource offers is that the nodules lie on the seabed a little bit like golf balls lie on a driving range.

And how we collect them is by firing a jet of water from our collector horizontally. It’s an engineering principle known as the Coandă effect, and that essentially lifts the nodules. We then cleanse them from the sediment that might have been with them, leaving most of that sediment, like 95% of it behind on the sea floor.

And then using water as the transport system, we then pump them back to the production vessel, which will when the hull is full, transfer them to a transport vessel that then moves them to shore. And one of the great things about being ocean-based is that you don’t have to go and build a lot of existing fixed infrastructure.

We don’t have to build roads, and rail, and deep-water ports, and power and villages. We have to convert a production vessel, which we’ve already done out first with our partner Allseas, and then we sail it on out there. And of course, by being able to ship them anywhere, we could also ship them to the USA, or we could ship them to Asia or to Europe.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And so how long are the robot, or excuse me, how large are the robots that you just described that would be crawling along the seabed?

BARRON: The pilot collector, think of it as about the size of a small, demountable hut. And the amazing thing about these robots is that out of the water, they’re heavy.

And upwards to a hundred tons. But when you put them into the water, you have to add buoyancy, of course. But they literally glide along the sea floor. And one of our problems is keeping them on the sea floor. And that means you can really minimize the impact that you are making to that environment.

And if you go online and see some of the tread marks that we make on the sea floor. You can see we’re talking about a couple of inches into that bottom. And so it’s an ideal way of collecting these rocks. And of course, not having to drill and dig is such an amazing advantage that this resource offers.

So do you really, you’re really saying that mining these polymetallic nodules off the sea floor comes with a minimized impact? We have about a minute till our first break here, Jared, so I’m just going to let you get started here. Because I don’t fully understand how that is possible given that you’re not selectively picking up the nodules, you’re blasting the water and churning up everything that’s in those first couple centimeters of the seabed.

BARRON: We’re lifting the nodules and I think this is where the resource, as I mentioned, offers advantages that just aren’t available on land. And so, you are given, there are no plants in this part of the sea, of course. There is zero flora, and as far as the fauna goes, there’s not much that sits on the nodules.

Of course, on occasions there are obligate animals that sit on the organisms, but most of the life in this part of the sea floor is in the sediment. It’s bacteria, and if you measure that, it’s around 10 grams of biomass per square meter. We’re talking with Gerard Barron. He’s the CEO of the Metals Company.

It’s a seabed mining company that has partnered with the island nation of Nauru and maybe on the vanguard of opening up the ocean’s sea floors to mining for these very important, potentially important mineral or objects called polymetallic nodules. We’ll have more when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about the fact that a United Nations body is on the cusp of approving applications for seabed mining. Because the floors of our oceans are full of things called polymetallic nodules that contain massive amounts of the minerals and metals that we may need for a decarbonized future.

And I’m speaking today with Gerard Barron. He is the CEO of the Metals Company, and it’s a company that has partnered with the island nation of Nauru and is on the vanguard of leading this effort to open the ocean floors to mining. Now, Gerard, I fully acknowledge that if we’re going to have enough technology, batteries, wind turbines and the like to reduce the carbon impact that humanity is having on our atmosphere, and therefore the world, that we’re going to be hungry for exactly the kind of metals that are on the sea floor right now.

That seems pretty clear. But I must question your assertion that the environmental impact of mining those polymetallic nodules, in the way you’ve described them, that impact would be minimal. Because you’ve described a massive machine that is indiscriminately sucking up the first couple of centimeters of the seabed, and then through another process within the machine, separating the nodules, pumping those back up to the surface three miles up, and then spewing a plume of sediment out behind it.

And when you said it’s mostly bacteria down there, how can we possibly know that? These recent surveys have found that 90% of the organisms that have been collected from the sea floor had never even been named before. And I’m also reading a quote here from Dr. Diva Amon. She’s from Trinidad and Tobago, and she’s a deep-sea biologist.

She’s been attending some of these ISA meetings. And last year she co-authored a paper where she said, “Across all of the areas where mining exploration has started, only 1% of the science required to ascertain the mining’s impact has been done.” And you’re claiming it would be of minimal environmental impact.

How do you stand by that?

BARRON: So, let me unpack some of those comments. Firstly, as I mentioned, the resource itself is what offers so many advantages, and when it comes to the understanding of this part of the sea floor, it’s been studied since the 1970s, so it’s not as though we know nothing about it.

And I think it’s irresponsible when people say we know more about the surface of the moon that we know about the deep ocean. Because when it comes to this one little part of the ocean and we’re talking about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, it’s in total around 4.5 million square kilometers.

Now keep in mind the ocean is 360 million square kilometers. And already about 2 million square kilometers has been set aside to be protected. But we have studied that area intensely for the last decade. And in fact, if you go to the OBIS database, which is an open database available to all, you’ll see that is where all of the data gathered on the CCZ over the last 15 years by other contractors, and we uploaded via the International Seabed Authority our most recent update, which increased the available data.

And leading to the science by 150%. And so we’ve essentially done in the last four to five years, what has previously taken 15 years, and that’s only the beginning. We’re going to be adding significantly more data as this journey continues in the coming years. And of course, one of the things that people talk about is, it’s biodiversity and the undiscovered species. And that is true.

There are species undiscovered in the CCZ, at about the same ratio that they’re undiscovered on land, but the difference about the areas in, and let’s talk about Indonesia, which is where all of the growth in nickel production is coming from. It’s estimated that in Indonesian rainforests alone, there are 300,000 undiscovered species.

300,000. And so that compares to the number you mentioned at the beginning of the program, which is much less than 10,000. So I don’t want to give your listeners the impression that there is no impact. Because such an activity does not exist. But what we have to look at is, how does this set of impact compare against the set of impacts that are not to be speculated about, that are well-documented on land?

But because they’re not happening in our backyard, we don’t pay much attention to them. And Indonesian rainforest nickel, if your listeners care to put that into a Google search, that’s where all of the growth in nickel is coming from. And that’s the material that goes into stainless steel.

It goes into your batteries. And even though they are making batteries without that material, in some cases for the low-end market, the growth in demand is racing ahead. And batteries are one important use. Steel making is another, but so is the ongoing industrialization of the developing world, plus population growth.

So we have many demand drivers. And so we have a responsibility to look at the planet as an integrated system, and we can’t just focus on the CCZ and say we’re worried about destroying some worms and some organisms that depend on our nodules because we’re going to remove them.

Because those set of impacts, all the studies show are going to be a fraction compared to the existing set of impacts, which are now happening at an increased pace. And let’s go to the authorities, the World Bank or the International Energy Agency, that forecasts will need to increase extractive industries by between 500% and 600% per annum by 2040. And so they’re the numbers that we really have to be thinking about. And there will be a cost, of course.

But that cost will be at the lower end of the scale. And of course, our heavy investment in the science, in environmental research is helping to put an end to some of the myths. So for example, many people will talk about the sediment that will generate, for example, think of driving your car down a dirt path.

You’ll kick up some dust. The question is, how much? How far will it travel? What will its impact be? And extreme people were forecasting through pure speculation that this dust might travel for thousands of miles, but instead, what all of the research has shown and as evidenced by three MIT papers that were published last year, all peer reviewed, of course, is that the sediment only rises around two meters above the sea floor and up to 98% of it, between 92% and 98% of it, stays in the test area.

And so that means the impacts are very localized. Once again, that’s a thank you to the resource and where it’s located. So we have to be depending on the data that we’re gathering to inform the opinions.

CHAKRABARTI: I appreciate your response, but I have to say I do not believe it is irresponsible for scientists to say we know less about the sea floor than we do about the surface of the moon, because it is true.

Now, you then shifted to saying, we’re talking about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, and maybe that one little section of the sea floor we know a little bit more about. I will grant you that, but it’s long been known that we do not know anywhere near as fully as necessary what is happening on our ocean floors, as we do with the continuous 60 years of mapping of the moon.

But I have to ask you though, what you’re describing is that no matter where human beings look for the minerals or the metals that we meet and might need for the batteries of the future, we are going to leave destruction in our wake. So we have to choose the less bad option.

What I wonder is, why not wait for applying for applications for mining until your technology is actually better at selecting, removing the polymetallic nodules from the sea floors? So you don’t have to rely on scraping the top few centimeters of the seabed. And instead, can perhaps, through better engineering and better I don’t know, even AI, just you grab rapidly the nodules themselves to minimize disturbance? By the way, this is disturbance that a German team, they recently, a few years ago, published a study that they did a test run of seabed mining in a certain location, came back 30 years later and the area had not recovered.

So I’m just wondering, why not wait until the technology for the mining is better?

BARRON: Can I just, actually that experiment that was done 30 years ago, they weren’t harvesting. They dragged a plow through a field and so they tried to create the maximum disturbance, and what they found was that it hadn’t fully recovered.

It had recovered when it came to population species count, and also biodiversity. But it hadn’t fully recovered, and that’s the important word there. And so look, that’s why we’re doing the investing hundreds of millions of dollars into scientific research, and we know enough about our impacts. Last year when we were out there collecting our nodules, we were at sea for six months.

We had a second vessel that was filled with 80 people, many of them scientists, and we were surveying the area before we collected nodules, during the collection process. When, by the way, we had around 50 devices in the water monitoring, measuring, and then we stayed behind a survey. And understand it after we’d collected nodules, as well.

And so we can estimate these impacts. Like this is not a mystery unknown. Because, and we can estimate those impacts off real data, not off wild speculation. And I think we don’t have time to wait, Meghna. That’s the other issue about why don’t we wait. Because I don’t think picking nodules one at a time is going to solve the energy crisis.

I think what we need to do is to make some decisions. And the decisions are, if we can illustrate that we can massively reduce the environmental impacts. Plus, we can stop the impacts on human civilizations, because mining has a big impact on indigenous communities and the people that depend on those ecosystems. Because there are many alternative uses for those land-based ecosystems.

So we don’t have time to wait, and I think that one of the challenges with mining, of course, is that much of it happens in the developing world. Because no one wants a mine in their backyard, particularly in America. And when you outsource the mining, you also outsource the regulatory approvals, and that comes with a challenge. And I think that I also hear people say, “Yes, but you’re not going to stop mining.” But when it comes to nickel, I believe we are going to stop new nickel laterite mines. I do believe that. And primarily because we can also use a lot of the processing facilities that are used for nickel laterite, for our nodules.

It’s another amazing gift.

CHAKRABARTI: Gerard Baron, I know I’ve actually kept you longer than we originally agreed to, so I appreciate your time and for joining us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

BARRON: Meghna, my pleasure.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.