I admit that I sometimes choose topics for Crucible articles based on their ‘wow’ factor, but one topic that has cropped up repeatedly since I originally covered it is deep-sea mining. At each update the plans to exploit the resources at the bottom of the ocean seem to be getting more and more concrete.
As previously discussed, authorities at the little known Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority (ISA) (a UN body) are issuing exploration contracts. Understandably conservationists are very concerned that not enough is known about the fragile biodiversity of the ocean bed to even consider mining, as well as the lack of clear information on the risk of extracting minerals.
According to the ISA private sector interest in this untapped area has grown massively in the past 5 years, with very significant investments being made. I previously wrote about the sale of a British underwater machinery company to a Chinese firm.
In response to these developments a Deep Sea Conservation Coalition has been formed by international scientists. This group has urged ISA to temporarily halt authorization of new mining contracts until networks of “marine protected areas” are established around areas targeted for mining. This was published in a recent article in the journal Science , (July edition). However, in recent days ISA authorised its latest exploration contract, a 72,745 square kilometre (28,087 sq. mile) permit in the Pacific to China Minmetals Corp. China now has the most permits from the U.N. body, with a total of four.
So far, most of ISA’s contracts have been issued for the deep abyssal plains of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, the area of the Pacific Ocean off Mexico and the U.S. At depths of 4,000 to 6,000 metres, it is known to be rich in nodules containing copper, cobalt, manganese and significant concentrations of rare-earth elements. As part of an environmental plan, ISA has set aside nine areas in this zone, prohibiting them to contractors.
It seems incredible that there is high interest in deep sea mining, given that conventional mining companies are struggling to secure funding for far less complex on-land projects. It remains to be seen if any deep sea project becomes a real source of materials.
Tamara Alliot, MMTA