Arctic seas are now open to mineral extraction; what is next? Metal Tech News - January 11, 2024
This week, Norway's parliament, with cross-party support, voted 80 to 20 in favor of opening roughly 108,000 square miles of Arctic seabed to mineral exploration and potential mining between Norway and Greenland near the Svalbard archipelago.
Energy transition minerals cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, and manganese can all be found in greater quantities than in our terrestrial mines as potato-sized nodules scattered across the abyssal depths of the seafloor.
These accretions are estimated to take millions of years to form, with an average growth rate of one to three millimeters per million years; bountiful to harvest but not strictly renewable.
Norway's decision was at odds with warnings from scientists and opposition from both the United Kingdom and European Commission, which have joined many countries and international businesses calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining due to environmental concerns.
The Norwegian government was cautioned by a letter from European Union lawmakers about the unknown risks posed to marine biodiversity, potential acceleration of climate change, further damage to already weakened oceans and threats to aquaculture and fisheries already struggling with overfishing and black-market activities.
Deep-sea mining advocates like Gerard Barron, outspoken CEO of The Metals Company, say metals and minerals from the ocean's seabed are necessary to facilitate the energy transition, adding that the practice is less environmentally damaging than land-based mining.
"The lack of full scientific knowledge should not be used as an excuse not to proceed when the known impacts of the alternative – land-based mining – are there for us all to see," said Barron.
Critics contend that the full environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are unknown and hard to predict, arguing that choosing the lesser of two evils isn't just short-sighted but scientifically unproven and misleading.
But we're not mining yet – if more research is necessary to better understand what's at stake, exploration is the inevitable next step. Over 30 contracts to explore specific areas and reserve them for commercial exploitation have already been granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN-affiliated regulatory body.
These permits require companies to collect data for environmental analysis while exploring the potential for future extraction. With the ocean sciences dramatically underfunded, mining explorations may help bridge the knowledge gap, draw investors, and inspire further research.
Norway's vote does not result in immediate resource extraction – companies may apply to explore for minerals in its waters, submitting proposals considered on a case-by-case basis. Parliament will still need to approve the issuing of mining licenses.
The Norwegian government's previously conservative stance has been to issue licenses only after more environmental research had been done. Deep-sea extraction license applications will have to be evaluated by the energy department and go back to parliament for approval – an amendment added after strong pushback.
In the context of a larger debate, Norway's decision to greenlight the first steps of deep-sea mining anticipates that further resource extraction from international waters around the globe could soon follow.
In the U.S., Lockheed Martin holds contracts for domestic deep-sea exploration, but rights are not secured beyond our ocean borders because U.S. companies are not able to go through the internationally recognized process without ratifying the ISA's UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This also leaves China representing itself as the leading maritime power in negotiations to set new rules for extraction of seabed minerals.
A bipartisan coalition led by Arctic Caucus co-chair Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, re-introduced a resolution calling on the U.S. Senate to ratify UNCLOS, while members of Congress expressed support in a letter to the ISA for the adoption "of regulations allowing for the collection of critical minerals from the international seabed area" by 2025.
"The longer we sit out, the longer the rest of the world will continue to set the agenda of maritime domain, from seabed mining to critical subsea infrastructure," said Murkowski. "It is time for America to not just join the world at the table, but to make sure we are helping to set the rules going forward."
The ISA is expected to meet this year to finalize regulations on mining in international waters, followed by a vote in July of 2025 – though historically, the ISA's self-imposed deadlines haven't been especially binding.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recently signed into law by President Biden, the U.S. Department of Defense has been tasked with creating a report assessing the domestic processing of seafloor polymetallic nodules by March 2024.
Even as automotive and battery manufacturers struggle to secure critical mineral supplies that comply with the strict guidelines for incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act, corporations, including BMW, Volvo, and Volkswagen, have pledged not to buy deep-sea metals until impacts are better understood.
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an international NGO (non-governmental organization), maintains that any benefits from deep-sea mining would not outweigh the risks and "threaten to undermine the urgently needed shift away from unsustainable, linear modes of consumption."
A report this month from the EJF, predicted that the combination of a circular economy, new technology, and recycling could cut cumulative mineral demand by 58% between 2022 and 2050.
"[Lithium iron phosphate] now powers half of all Tesla vehicles. They don't use nickel and cobalt at all. Toyota's main production roadmap and BYD of China are all showing that they also are moving away from nickel and cobalt. This will cause the prices of those metals to flatten or even [decline], which would significantly undermine the economic reason for deep-sea mining in the first place. So there is an economic and very strong technological argument that in the next five to ten years the metals needed from the deep sea floor are not really going to be necessary," said Victor Vescovo, co-founder of Insight Equity and founder, chief executive, and chief submersible pilot at Caladan Oceanic.
The deep-sea environment is punishing to equipment, making the extraction of mineral resources from such depths extremely difficult.
As debates continue alongside more exploration approvals, a better picture of the risks and rewards of mining this new frontier will form.
Evolving battery design will continue to reduce demand for various minerals, while further improvement of recycling and second-life solutions can strengthen against a supply shortfall. By the time commercial extraction is viable, prices may drop, and the rush may be all but over.
In either case, it is important to remember the goal is to create a long-overdue circular economy where monetary gains reflect stewardship over exploitation.
More details on the ISA and the ongoing deep-sea mining solutions can be read at The lawless frontier of deep-sea mining in the August 23 edition of Metal Tech News.