Deep-Sea Mining Becomes Battleground Between Conservation and Clean Energy

Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep-Sea Symphony: Exploring the Musicians Seamounts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The Biden administration and automakers are hatching plans to make electric vehicles (EVs) represent 40% of all car sales by the end of this decade. But as the government and the public begin to embrace the idea of an electric future, engineers and environmentalists struggle to balance new demand for the raw materials of electrified cars with conservation. Deep-sea mining may be crucial to gathering the resources necessary to build a decarbonized world, but it threatens to destroy the very habitats that climate action aims to protect.

Why This Matters: Electric vehicle ambitions have already come into conflict with conservation goals in Nevada, where a proposed lithium mine is threatening the survival of an endangered flower found nowhere else in the world. Some environmentalists have raised concern that the sudden rise in demand for clean energy could be incredibly harmful to important ecosystems like those at the bottom of the sea. How the governments of the world and the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N. agency that regulates deep-sea mining, proceed will undoubtedly impact the success of the world’s conservation and clean energy goals.

It’s a delicate balance, as climate change is threatening ecosystems around the planet yet many decarbonization solutions are coming into conflict with nature.

Deep-Sea, Deep Impact

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency reported that to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the world will require six times the amount of certain minerals that it produces now. Experts say that deep-sea nodules, lumps of manganese, iron, cobalt, nickel, and copper found along the ocean floor, will be crucial to building clean energy infrastructure like E.V. batteries.

  • Estimates say that there could be six times as much nickel and cobalt in these nodules than on land.
  • Proponents say that mining these nodules will reduce destruction and pollution on land, which could be a win for Indigenous communities like those fighting lithium mines in Nevada.

However, many environmentalists say the risks are enormous and include disturbing whale and tuna migrations, destroying pristine undiscovered ecosystems and species, and kicking up carbon stores.

  • One study found that in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 1.7 million-square-mile stretch of ocean where nodules are plentiful, many species rely on the nodules for habitats and survival.
  • The mining of one patch of seabed led to a 20% decline in life in that area.

Experts warn that the implementation of deep-sea mining operations is moving too fast to understand the impacts that decades of widespread mining could have on ocean ecosystems. “Going into a new habitat to potentially destroy it and reap the metals that [supposedly] will be used to move us away from climate change … well, we’re destroying one habitat to save another and not fixing the problem,” said Diva Amon, a deep ocean biologist from Trinidad.

Until now, deep-sea mining has faced economic, environmental, and political obstacles. In June, the world’s smallest island nation, Nauru, notified the ISA that it would be applying for a deep-sea mining license, triggering a two-year deadline for the agency to finalize regulations. A draft of the mining code was released in 2016 to be finalized in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays. Pippa Howard, who works on mining issues for Fauna and Flora International, holds doubts that the ISA can provide a set of regulations that can protect both ecosystems and the world’s clean energy interests. “There is a real lack of confidence in the ISA’s ability to deliver … science-based standards and guidance,” she said. “They believe that their objective is to get the mining code to get deep-sea mining off the ground.”

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