25 Apr

Map of the Week: Deep Sea Mining and the Geopolitics of the Energy Transition

By: Phoebe Hill

Deep sea mining refers to the extraction of solid mineral resources at depths of more than 200m. Such mining practices usually target three types of metallic deposits at depth in the ocean: potato-sized polymetallic nodules, deposits associated with inactive hydrothermal vents, and sea crust similarly rich with rare earth metals. In recent years, national governments and private companies alike have increasingly turned their attention to the practice as demand has surged for the materials locked up far beneath the waves. 

Due to their depth, such deposits tend to be located outside of national jurisdiction within “international waters”. Activities in such areas are regulated by the International Seabed Authority, a UN-affiliated organization composed of UN member-states. The ISA has overseen much of the recent developments in deep sea mining, handing out more than 20 permits for exploration in international waters to national governments and private companies alike but stopping short at issuing commercial permits. Nevertheless, states are free to pursue deep sea mining in the areas that do fall with national jurisdiction, with Norway becoming the first to move forward with the controversial practice in January of this year. 

For many, deep sea mining is the solution to the world’s growing hunger for rare metals. The green transition away from fossil fuels will require a new set of technologies and products expected to send demand for rare earth materials skyrocketing by 2040, with electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind farms all requiring particular rare earth materials. With concerns regarding ecological impacts and falling yields, proponents argue the expansion of terrestrial mining is not the answer. 

Nevertheless, deep sea mining will disturb one of earth’s last remaining untouched ecosystems. With much of the deep sea remaining relatively unexplored, the ecological impacts of deep sea mining are impossible to predict. New research has shown that the vacuum method, in which small robots hoover up the potato-sized nuggets, disturbs sediment, clouding the water and harming organisms from coral to sea snails. While several small island nations are in favor of the practice, others oppose such deep sea mining, arguing that it disturbs the nearby marine environments. Moreover, the formation of prized metallic deposits is one of the slowest geological processes on Earth, with the potato-sized nuggets taking millions of years to form. Many question the logic of seeking to solve the disruption of the carbon cycle by intervening in yet another long-term geological process. It is clear that the question of deep sea mining has divided environmentalists and ocean communities alike.