Context: The International Seabed Authority will soon start taking permit applications from companies that want to mine the ocean’s floor.
What is Deep Sea Mining?
- Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep seabed – the ocean below 200m. The deep seabed covers about two-thirds of the total seafloor.
- Seabed mining is done through a huge vacuum that simply travels over the ocean floor to suck up the nodules which are then brought to the surface with a hose.
Why Move Towards Deep Sea Mining?
- Critical Minerals: The deep sea contains three primary sources for mining critical minerals:
- Potato-size manganese nodules (rich in manganese, cobalt, copper, nickel, and rare earth elements);
- Deposits of sulfur-containing minerals around underwater openings known as hydrothermal vents; and
- Cobalt-rich crusts lining the sides of mid-ocean ridges and underwater mountains, also known as seamounts.
- Facilitate Energy Transition: Copper or nickel for batteries, cobalt for electric cars or manganese for steel production; rare earth minerals and metals are fundamental to the renewable energy technologies driving the world’s energy transition.
- These are key to making modern gadgets, from smartphones and laptops to pacemakers, hybrid cars and solar panels.
- Depleting Terrestrial Deposits: Expanding technology and infrastructure has fueled the global demand for resources like cobalt and nickel, whose supply is depleting fast onshore. Hence, more and more countries, including India and China, are moving towards the ocean for extracting these resources.
- Potential Zones: The Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico is a potential hotbed for critical minerals. The basin in the central Indian Ocean and the seabed off the Cook Islands, Kiribati atolls and French Polynesia in the South Pacific are also of interest for potential extraction.
What are the Concerns Associated with Deep Sea Mining?
- Lack of Research in Deep Sea: The deep sea remains understudied and poorly understood; there are many gaps in the understanding of its biodiversity and ecosystems.
- This makes it difficult to assess the potential impacts of deep-sea mining or to put in place adequate safeguards to protect the marine environment.
- Disturbance of the Seafloor: The digging and gauging of the ocean floor by machines can alter or destroy deep-sea habitats. This leads to the loss of species and the fragmentation or loss of ecosystem structure and function.
- Loss of Undiscovered Species: The deep sea is home to unique species that have adapted themselves to conditions such as poor oxygen and sunlight, high pressure and extremely low temperatures. Such mining expeditions can make them go extinct even before they are known to science.
- Sediment Plumes: Deep-sea mining will stir up fine sediments on the seafloor, creating plumes of suspended particles. This is increased by mining ships discharging waste water at the surface.
- Such plumes could smother animals, harm filter-feeding species, and block animals’ visual communication.
- Pollution: Species such as whales, tuna and sharks could be affected by noise, vibrations and light pollution caused by mining equipment and surface vessels, as well as potential leaks and spills of fuel and toxic products.
- No International Agreement for Mining: There is absence of a mining code, which has been under discussion for nearly 10 years. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is uncertain about the process it should adopt for reviewing applications for mining contracts.
International Seabed Authority (ISA)
- The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous international organisation established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, allots the ‘area’ for deep-sea mining.
- It regulates and controls all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, an area underlying most of the world’s oceans
India and Deep Sea Mining
- The Government of India has launched the Deep Ocean Mission (DOM) with an intention to develop technologies to harness the living and non-living resources from the deep-oceans.
- At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille (2021), IUCN Members adopted Resolution 122 to protect deep-ocean ecosystems and biodiversity through a moratorium on deep-sea mining unless and until a number of conditions are met. These include:
- The risks of mining are comprehensively understood and effective protection can be ensured;
- Rigorous and transparent impact assessments are conducted based on comprehensive baseline studies;
- The Precautionary Principle and the ‘Polluter Pays Principle’ are implemented;
- Policies incorporating circular economic principles to reuse and recycle minerals have been developed and implemented;
- The public are consulted throughout decision-making;
- The governance of deep-sea mining is transparent, accountable, inclusive, effective and environmentally responsible.
- Reliance on metals from mining can be reduced by redesigning, reusing and recycling.
- Research should focus on creating more sustainable alternatives to their use because deep-sea mining could irreparably harm marine ecosystems, and limit the many benefits the deep sea provides to humanity.
- The mining code should be adopted soon so that the deep-sea mining applications can be adjudicated around robust rules that protect the environment.