Deep Sea Mining is the Next Battleground

Rip up the ocean to extract precious metals — Article by John Toth

My wife and I visited Norway several years ago and we were so impressed with the beauty of this country that we are thinking of visiting it again. The mountains and fiords are so incredible and this nation has a strong track record of being environmentally friendly.

However, I was shocked to learn that Norway, along with other countries, China and Russia, are pushing ahead to mine waters off their shores to extract precious minerals that are needed to produce batteries for electric vehicles (EV). These metals include lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. The waters off Norway’s coast are so beautiful that it is hard for me to understand why Norway would even consider it. Russia and China have little regard for the environment with China opening up new coal furnaces just about every other week.

Why is deep-sea mining for precious minerals even being considered? Surging demand for minerals used in EV batteries has kicked off an international race to mine the deep seas and there are no rules. During July 2023, the International Seabed Authority, comprised of 167 member states and the European Union, missed an important deadline to establish a regulatory framework for deep-sea mining. Until this framework is formalized, nations can go ahead with their plans for mining the seas.

On December 5th, 2023, Norway announced that it is opening the Arctic Ocean to deep-sea mining in an area southwest of the Arctic island of Svalbard. The Norwegian government indicated that it will do this mining in a step by step process so it can be done in a manner to limit environmental damage. 

Canada, France and Germany and others want to pause deep-sea mining because of its largely unknown environmental consequences. Norway, China and Russia are pushing ahead on deep-sea mining asserting that it is less destructive than land mining. 

Mining could damage ecosystems that scientists don’t yet understand. A study published in the Journal, Nature, indicated that sea-bed mining could interfere with tuna migration patterns as climate change drives fish into new waters. Norway’s Greenpeace Director, Prode Plemn, said that this decision to mine the ocean was a “disaster for the sea” and that the mining would “take place in our last wilderness.” He also indicated that “We do not know what consequences this will have on the ecosystems of the sea for endangered species such as whales and seabirds or for the fish stocks on which we base our livelihood.” 

Citizens of Norway are mounting a campaign to stop this mining and I hope that they are successful! Some 30 companies such as BMW, Volvo, and Volkswagen will not use minerals that are derived from deep-sea mining. Seafood industry groups are alarmed at the damage this mining could do to their industry and have demanded a moratorium on deep-sea mining. 

China has an ample supply of rare earth minerals. It has about two-thirds of the world’s supply of lithium and cobalt, essential for the production of electric cars. A significant share or the word’s nickel supply comes from China. Many countries will have to purchase these minerals from China since they do not have them. The Chinese can reap huge profits by raising the prices for them. A Chinese move to restrict exports of these minerals would hit non-Chinese automakers hard, throwing production of electric car batteries into disarray. Accordingly, countries are trying to secure their own sources of rare earth minerals so that they are not dependent on China. Deep-sea mining may offer them less reliance on China for their rare earth minerals.

Electric vehicles are supposed to reduce the impacts of climate change. Mining for these rare earth minerals is occurring on land and a lot of land has to be ripped up to extract the minerals in countries that even use child labor. That is bad enough and now, this deep-sea mining may occur in our oceans with long term devestating effects. In the name of climate change, are we going to ruin our oceans to save us from climate change?

Sources: New York Times, July 4, 2023

Asbury Park Press, December 7, 2023

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