Mining battery metals from the ocean floor could potentially eliminate or dramatically reduce most of the environmental and social impacts associated with the extraction of riches from the Earth’s surface, a new study claims.
According to a research published this week and funded by Canada’s DeepGreen Metals, a start-up planning to extract cobalt and other battery metals from the seabed, undersea mining generates up to 70% less direct CO2 emissions, 94% less stored carbon risk, as well as 90% less sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions — air pollution from maritime transportation.
Mining the ocean floor would also eliminate the issue of solid waste, while using 94% less land and 92% less forest, the report reads.
The study provides a broader context for a deeper, multi-year environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) being conducted by DeepGreen.
The company says the study will be the largest integrated seabed-to-surface deep-ocean science program ever conducted, with over 100 separate studies being undertaken.
Unlike other seafloor miners, the company doesn’t want to drill, blast or dig the bottom of the ocean. Its main goal is to scoop up small metallic rocks located thousands of metres below the surface in the Pacific.
“Extraction of virgin metals from any source is by definition not sustainable and generates environmental damage,” said DeepGreen chairman and chief executive Gerard Barron. “We believe the polymetallic nodules are an important part of the solution. They contain high concentrations of nickel, cobalt and manganese; they’re effectively an EV battery in a rock.”
The deep sea, accounting for more than half the world’s surface, contains more cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earth metals than all land reserves combined, according to the US Geological Survey.
The nodules DeepGreen plans to tackle are said to be made of almost 100% usable materials and are non-toxic, whereas land-mined ores have a much lower yield rate and do contain toxic elements.
The Canadian miner and other companies exploring the seafloor argue the extraction of those deep-buried riches could help diversify the current sources of battery metals.
Academics and scientists, however, are concerned by the lack of research on the possible impacts of high seas mining. They fear the activity could devastate fragile ecosystems that are slow to recover in the highly pressurized darkness of the deep sea, as well as having knock-on effects on the wider ocean environment.
Two years ago, the European Parliament called for a ban on seabed mining until the environmental impacts and risks of disturbing deep-sea ecosystems are understood. In the resolution, it also urged the European Commission to persuade member states to stop sponsoring and subsidizing licenses to explore and exploit the seabed in international waters as well as within their own territories.
Shortly after, an international team of researchers published a set of criteria to help the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body made up of 168 countries, protect biodiversity from deep-sea mining activities. So far, it has granted 29 licenses to governments and companies, authorizing them to explore in international waters.