[SCMP Column] Deep Ocean Mining

May 05, 2018

NASA may be scouring deep space for signs of life and insights into the origins of the universe. Elon Musk might be looking skyward to Mars. China’s scientists have had an eye cast skyward too – but at the same time the country seems keenly focused on challenges much closer to home – mineral riches in our deep oceans.

For decades, the quest for riches scoured from our oceans has been the stuff of fiction. Back in 1974, the CIA hoaxed the world by saying they were launching Project Azorian, a Pacific Ocean search for mineral-rich manganese nodules 4,900m deep. In fact, they were secretly looking for – and indeed found – the sunken Soviet submarine K-129.

In reality, the cost and uncertainty of deep sea exploration has frustrated all attempts to begin plundering the assets to be found in the deep oceans. Until now.

As governments, mining companies, and dozens of alarmed environmental groups prepare for the world’s 7th Deep Sea Mining Summit in London later this month, a Canadian group Nautilus Minerals, with lots of Chinese money and technical support, is poised to begin combing the Solwara1 seabed site in the Bismarck Sea in Papua New Guinea.

Last September, Japan completed commercial trials at a depth of 1,600m in its own exclusive economic zone off Okinawa. So far, the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority which has authority to police deep sea exploration under the UN Law of the Sea, has issued 27 licences for exploration.

The argument for sea-bed mining of minerals like nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, increasingly in demand to make mobile phones, batteries and solar panels, has been well articulated. For example, global demand for nickel currently sits at 2m tonnes a year, rising to 4m tonnes by 2030. But all known resources on land currently sit at 76m tonnes – which gives us little more than 40 years of predictable supply. A further 70m tonnes are thought to sit on the deep ocean floor and would give us 80 years before we run out. For cobalt, the story is similar – except that more than 60 per cent of all land-based supplies sit in the deeply unstable Congo.

Mining companies that are often running out of cheaply accessible land-based resources, and are increasingly being harassed for the deforestation and pollution linked with mining, are without question attracted to the idea of plundering the deep sea bed, where there are no truculent communities to protest local environmental harm, and where any damage will be far out of sight and out of mind.

It is at present unclear whether the environmental harm wrought by deep sea mining will be less or more than the harm wrought on land. But the environmental information available so far – in an area of research that is still in its infancy – is troubling.
The targeted minerals are found in three forms and locations – around deep hydrothermal vents that dot along the “Ring of Fire” that circles the Pacific; cobalt “crusts” that sit on seabed sediments a few centimetres thick; and manganese nodules that are littered in the seabed. All three of these targets raise awkward environmental concerns.

The hydrothermal vents (about 500 active worldwide at the moment) are not only extremely hostile and toxic environments that are immensely inaccessible, but they also each have unique and extraordinary ecosystems with weird living species that have rarely been seen, let alone studied even today. Many are extremely concerned that we are poised to destroy ecosystems that we know so little about.

The cobalt crusts accumulate a few millimetres every million years, while the manganese nodules grow by around a centimeter every million years. As Thomas Peacock at MIT and Matthew Alford at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography note in a recent Scientific American research article: “Given that nodules take millions of years to form and that biological communities away from hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean are very slow to develop, harvested regions are unlikely to recover on any human timescale.”

Before I get too bleeding heart, I need to remind myself that diamonds – or even less glamorous minerals like coal – took similar millions of years to be formed. But it is unnerving to be disrupting ecosystems around hydrothermal vents whose purpose – and role in the origin of organic life on earth – are so poorly understood.

Since most of the technical barriers to searching for, and scooping up, these deep ocean resources have now been overcome, the only remaining barrier as mining companies – and resource-poor economies like China, Japan and Korea – come ever closer to launching operations is the not-insignificant matter of economic viability.

As Peacock and Alford calculate in the Scientific American, for profit, companies would need to collect three million metric tonnes of dry manganese nodules a year - which would mean underwater collector vehicles being able to comb 50km a day, and reap nodules in concentrations above 10kg per square metre. No wonder the Nautilus/Solwara project is four years behind schedule and perilously short of funding.

No wonder either that the Canadian Nautilus Minerals has turned to deep pocketed and patient Chinese partners not only to provide funds, but also to Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding – perhaps China’s most iconic shipbuilder with an illustrious history stretching back through the Qing dynasty – to build its production support vessel.

By now, Chinese companies have three of the 27 licences so far awarded by the International Seabed Authority, and China controls more mining exploration areas in international waters than any other country. Most recently, it has also agreed with Duterte in the Philippines on joint seabed development – though whether this is for seabed minerals or a quest for oil or natural gas is so far unclear.

The priority being given to deep sea development sits well not just with China’s urgent quest for scarce minerals, but also sits comfortably with its Belt and Road ambitions: better to develop South China Sea resources together than to fight over possession of it.

How concerned China is about the environmental challenges is another matter. Lin Shanqing at China’s State Oceanic Administration, said at the UN last June: “Projects that endanger marine ecosystems will not be given the green light.” I think I will need to see that before I believe it.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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