Underwater power play for metals in full swing

System used to uplift nodules from seafloor to surface. (Image courtesy of The Metals Company.)

Despite its stranglehold on mining and processing, there’s one arena of critical minerals that China doesn’t control – underwater resources.

No one does, as deep sea mining has yet to begin. But it’s not the sci-fi fantasy it once may have seemed.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which next meets in July, is hashing out the world’s first underwater mining code. Deep sea mining could technically begin as soon as July, even in the absence of rules which the ISA aims to have in place by 2025.

That’s because in 2021, ISA member Nauru triggered a two-year countdown for the body to either solidify regulations, or to allow mining with whatever guidance is in place. The island nation is the sponsor state for exploration licences held by the world’s most advanced seafloor miner in waiting, The Metals Company.

The NASDAQ-listed company plans to apply for a licence to “mine” seafloor polymetallic nodules, rich in cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese, this year. It hopes to start collecting the nodules using its robotic seafloor machinery in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region of the Pacific Ocean that lies between Hawaii and Mexico, by late 2025.

Race to the bottom

The Metals Company may have a head start and an ambitious timeline, but China and other nations are intensely eyeing deep-sea minerals, even as environmental concerns mount.

Oil-rich Norway became the first country to OK seabed mining in its waters in January. It approved the move in an 80-20 vote that crossed party lines, putting it at odds with the European Union, which has called for an international moratorium on deep sea mining. (Norway is not an EU member, but it is part of the European Economic Area.)

Norway doesn’t plan to start mining right away, and says much more study is needed before it would consider granting exploitation licences. While its wealth is based on offshore oil and gas, the nation has a progressive reputation as a leader on environmental protection and climate action. Still, the apparent contradiction had some scratching their heads.

Energy transition

Norway’s rationale for the decision was both to counter China’s — and neighbouring Russia’s — dominance in critical minerals and to increase supplies needed for the energy transition.

“Today, we are almost dependent on Russia and China and we have to diversify the global supply chain production of minerals around the world,” Norway’s Energy Minister, Terje Aasland, told CNBC in January. “We have been looking into the seabed minerals opportunity for a long time. We have a really reliable tradition on how we use the resources in the Norwegian continental shelf. We do it sustainably and we do it step by step.”

China’s motivations are exactly the same.

“Deep-sea mining has become a new frontier of international competition on science, technology, resources and industries, because there are a lot of polymetallic nodules on ocean floors that contain rich concentrations of nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt that are essential to the renewable energy industry,” Ye Cong, deputy director of the China Ship Scientific Research Center, told state-owned China Daily last year.

“A large proportion of the metals I mentioned, which are extensively used at Chinese factories, needs to be imported. Mining them from the seabed will help us reduce the heavy reliance on foreign suppliers.”

International mix

While China is behind other players in developing technology for deep sea mining, it’s stepped up research and investment. It also holds five of 31 exploration contracts issued by the ISA, with Russia, South Korea, India, Germany, Japan, France and Belgium also in the mix.

Absent from that list is the United States. It isn’t a member of the international body, leaving its Asian rival — also the ISA’s main funder — as a dominant voice in the organization charged with regulating sea-bed mineral exploration and mining.

In March, however, two Republican members of Congress introduced a bill that would see federal support for US processing of polymetallic seafloor nodules.

The proposed bill notes that China controls roughly 60% of the global critical mineral production and over 85% of the world’s refining capacity, thanks to aggressive investment around the world.

“Recognizing the potential of marine resources to further its position, China is increasing its investment in deep-sea mining, holding the most exploration contracts of any country,” the bill reads. “Investing in alternatives serving to diversify supply such as the collection of seafloor nodules is integral to ensuring the United States does not continue its over-dependence on China and other adversarial nations.”

Familiar reasoning, but from the other side of the divide.

  • This editorial was first published at our sister publication, The Northern Miner.