Is seabed mining an economic necessity or a hazard?

A seabed rock or nodule
Image caption,There is growing interest in mining mineral-rich rocks, such as this, from deep-sea seabeds

Deep-sea miner Gerard Barron insists that his company’s extraction method has little impact on the environment.

His firm, The Metals Company, uses remote-controlled machines the size of trucks “to scoop up rocks sitting on the sea floor”.

These rocks are then crushed and processed to release a number of key minerals in high demand for the production of batteries – cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese.

Currently continuing testing work, the Canadian business hopes to get authorisation to start commercial mining in international waters in the north Pacific as early as the end of 2025.

At present such commercial extraction is not allowed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body that regulates the seafloor in international waters. However, the ISA and its 169 member states, are due to meet later this year to try to finalise rules that may potentially allow it to start, with a final vote expected within 24 months.

Some 30 countries including the UK, Brazil, Canada, France and Germany want the ban to continue because of concerns about the environmental impact. However, other nations, including China, are keen for large-scale deep-sea mining in international waters to get the go-ahead.

Gerard Barron
Image caption,Gerard Barron hopes to be able to start commercial deep-sea mining at the end of next year

It comes as Norway made headlines last week when it became the first county in the world to allow future deep-sea mining in its territorial waters. The US is exploring the possibility of doing the same, with President Biden ordering the Pentagon to submit a report on the issue by 1 March.

This move follows after 31 members of Congress wrote an open letter about deep-sea mining in December, saying that the US “must explore every avenue to strengthen our rare earth and critical minerals supply chains”.

In addition to harvesting rocks (more formally called “polymetallic nodules”) lying on the seabed, other deep-sea mining methods are more invasive, and involve digging down.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is opposed to all deep-sea mining on the grounds that it says it presents an unacceptable risk to marine life.

“If the industry proceeds, the intensity and methods of deep seabed mining could destroy entire habitats and species,” says Kaja Loenne Fjaertoft, a marine biologist and senior advisor for sustainable oceans at the WWF.

“Many species living in the deep sea are found nowhere else. Disturbances in just one mining site could wipe out entire species.”

She adds: “As well as the direct destruction of ecosystems when minerals are mined, major damage and disturbance would likely arise from light noise and sediment pollution.”

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