Marine Mining: What is it and Why is it so Controversial?

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Searching for Minerals at the Bottom of the Ocean is an Idea that no Longer Sounds as Far-fetched as it did in the 1960s and is Already Beginning to Cause Concern Among Defenders of the Planet. How Dangerous can Digging in the Sea be for Biodiversity?.

marine mining

Photo: Camiper

LatinAmerican Post | Christopher Ramírez

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Leer en español: Minería marina: ¿qué es y por qué es tan controvertida?

For some years now, the world has been hearing a term that for the majority of the population can be considered unknown, even though it consists of two very famous words: marine mining. However, it is not very difficult to deduce the meaning of what many scientists consider "will be the next environmental danger".

What is marine mining?

According to the Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA), "oceanic mining (or marine mining) consists of the use of mineral deposits located beyond 200 meters deep in the ocean."

In short, it is an initiative that has been underway since 1960, in order to be able to extract minerals from the sea such as manganese, iron, calcium and other metals that can be useful in the manufacture of some electronic products.

“On the ocean floor, there are mainly three types of resources of great economic interest: polymetallic nodules; ferromagnesian crusts and massive sulfide deposits, generated by hydrothermal vents”, they add from AIDA.

Why has this been brought up again?

To understand the resurgence of the debate on the forms and effects that marine mining would bring to the planet, it is enough to quote the Frenchman Serge Latouche, an ideologue of economic decline, who assured that "infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet."

At first, it was not necessary to delve into the need to search for minerals in the depths of the ocean, precisely because such a need did not exist.

"The initial ideas were never carried out due to factors such as low metal prices, relatively easy access to raw materials in the countries of the Global South, multiple technical difficulties and legal uncertainty," said Esteban Ibarguren, AIDA researcher in Uruguay.

However, according to Ibarguren's own explanation, since the Earth is a finite planet, it was logical that the minerals that were extracted on the surface began to become scarce, so the idea of the governments was to dig at the bottom of the sea.

"Currently, interest in these resources has regained strength due to geopolitical changes and increased demand from the non-conventional renewable energy sector," he adds.

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What problems does marine mining bring?

Of course, considering this practice as dangerous for the environment is precisely because there are compelling reasons that show that the negative is much more than the positive.

Under this thesis, the NGO Greenpeace developed an article in which they comment, according to their own research, what are the five great reasons to consider marine mining as "a concern for the planet".

To begin with, this organization assures that looting the seabed will affect the biodiversity that inhabits this area of the planet, with damage that "probably lasts forever on human time scales." Under this point, it is important to highlight that species that simply do not exist in another part of the Earth would be affected; which in turn leads to a third argument: negatively impacting the food chain. "The possible extinction of unique species that form the first rung of the food chain could occur", is what dictates an (ironic) document that would have been distributed in the middle of a meeting of people interested in starting marine mining.

Fourthly, Greenpeace highlights the fact that the depths of the ocean are "our best ally against climate change, since" the seabed is a very influential store of "blue carbon " (...) that remains stored in its sediments for thousands of years when the fauna dies, which helps to stop” this situation.

Thus, with mining, the ways in which the ocean floor stores carbon would be considerably affected, in addition to perhaps releasing it in quantities that would accelerate climate change on the planet.

Finally, the sad conclusion is reached that marine mining would inhibit human beings from acquiring new knowledge regarding the depths of the oceans. “We only know 0.0001% of the deep seabed (…) and companies are already looking to extract and destroy these resources. Without adequate protection of the deep sea, we could destroy species and ecosystems yet to be discovered”, they conclude from Greenpeace.

How legal is marine mining?

In 1994, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea created the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organization in charge of regulating marine mining; Or at least have tried.

Currently, there is no clear or even real legislation that determines who, when, how and where the minerals can be extracted from the deep sea, because the parties involved in the debate (governments, companies, academics, and activists) have not managed to reach to an agreement on what can and cannot be done with marine mining.

As reported by the magazine Science, in September of this year, there have been a total of five times that the UN Intergovernmental Conference has met with the purpose of, precisely, generating an international treaty that allows "protecting the biodiversity of the high seas and guaranteeing that human pressures are maintained at a level that supports this variety. Again, failed.

This indecision has turned marine mining into a time trial situation that cannot be fought if the ISA does not make a decision before the end of next year.

In 2021, a representative from the island of Nauru (in the Pacific) sent a letter to the ISA saying that they could not wait any longer to be able to extract the minerals from the sea, and that if there was no law that prevented them from acting, this country, with the support of the Canadian mining company The Metals Company, would begin to do so. The tests have already started.

It is necessary to act soon, because when it starts massively, the war for minerals will be practically impossible to end.