The Ecological Gamble with Deep-Sea Mining

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Picture Credit: AErchie | Diagram of Deep-Sea Mining | 2011 | The Curmudgeon’s Magazine

Thanks to our insatiable demand for Earth’s natural resources, science never fails to find new ways to take advantage of what the planet offers. From the sunlight to the bedrock, companies have been succeeding in extracting energy and materials from the Earth in the most creative and often destructive ways. This time, the Australian-Canadian company Nauti­lus Minerals Inc. claims that the next area of focus should be the bottom of the ocean.

The deep sea remains humankind’s last ex­plored frontier on Earth, given how we know more about the surface of Mars than the bot­tom of the ocean. Hidden in the depths of the dark sea floor is an abundance of priceless metals more valuable than any treasure one may read about in a pirate book.

The ocean not only contains huge nodules of manganese, nickel, and copper, but it also has rich deposits of high-grade zinc, gold, and silver beneath its hydrothermal vents and min­eral layers made out of cobalt and platinum.

With such an immense collection of rich­es right in front of us, it’s no surprise that companies are racing to claim rights to these seafloor territories. The first to do so is Nau­tilus Minerals, a pioneer in what experts are calling “deep-sea mining.” Using its new and revolutionary underwater mining machines, the company plans on cutting up parts of the seafloor and using a collection machine to send them up to a ship on the ocean surface.

There, the sediments are filtered to separate the precious minerals from seawater and other substances. Based on existing technology used to dig trenches for oil and gas pipelines, these 50-foot-long mining machines are remote-con­trolled, which allows the company to extract the ores without sending workers more than a mile below the ocean surface.

Unsurprisingly, the efforts of Nautilus Min­erals have caught the attention of several en­vironmental groups who denounced deep-sea mining as destructive to the entire marine eco­system. While it’s true that deep-sea mining may lead to massive habitat destruction and species extinction, the greatest concern is the fact that no one knows exactly what will happen as a consequence of extracting energy and minerals from deep in the ocean.

“The truth is that we don’t know what the true environmental impacts of deep seabed mining are as yet. We know little about the ecology of the deep sea and the resilience of the system, and the effectiveness of the pro­posed efforts to assist natural recovery are unknown,” stated GreenPeace Oceans Cam­paigner Richard Page.

The ocean is more than just an expansive body of water. It not only serves as one of the largest sinks for greenhouse gases on Earth, but it also holds some of the largest reservoirs of methane gas beneath the seafloor. If something went wrong with the carbon dioxide absorption or if the trapped methane escaped into the atmosphere, the effects of cli­mate change would rapidly worsen and cause unimaginable harm to the planet’s atmosphere.

The bottom line is that Nautilus Minerals’ efforts to extract precious metals from the ocean floor will no doubt damage the eco­system, but the scope of that damage remains frightfully unknown. Given the unique nature of the ocean floor, anything can happen in only a short amount of time.

Although deep-sea mining could potentially have a significant effect on the environment, Nautilus Minerals argues that the overall im­pact of deep-sea mining will not be as severe as that of a terrestrial mine. According to Chief Financial Officer Shontel Norgate, there won’t be issues involving community displacement, the use of freshwater supplies, erosion or loss of land. Not only is the procedure itself minimally disrup­tive, but the minerals that this project will collect, especially copper, are crucial for green energy technology like wind and solar energy and electric cars.

“If we’re saying no to fossil fuels, we’re ef­fectively saying yes to more copper. Where is that copper coming from?” asked Norgate.

In addition, Nautilus Minerals stated that it wanted to pave a responsible path towards deep-sea mining by setting an example for oth­er companies. The company asks for the global community and all the skeptics to give them a chance to prove themselves.

“I certainly believe that if we get this right…it does have the potential to start a new in­dustry and change the way we’ve been mining copper for decades. We have a clean piece of paper here to decide how we want to do this, how we want this industry to be,” stated Nor­gate in an interview on July 2015.

As well-intentioned as Nautilus Minerals might be, deep-sea mining just leaves open too many risks for unforeseen consequences. After obtaining permission from the country’s government in 2014, the company expects to begin their mining project off the coast of Pap­ua New Guinea in 2018. If the project is successful, the company may collect at least 80,000 tons of copper and 150,000 ounces of gold per year.

In our market-driven world, the success of Nautilus Minerals will only provide an incen­tive for numerous other companies to do the same. Nautilus Minerals may be the first to ex­periment with deep-sea mining, but it certain­ly won’t be the last. After all, with the ocean floor rich with precious minerals, it’s only natural for people to want to take advantage of them before anyone else does first.

Already, other corporations, such as Lock­heed Martin, are making plans to commercially explore the seafloor. So far, the International Seabed Authority, the United Nations body regulating this growing indus­try, has issued a total of 19 licenses to differ­ent organizations. While the benefits of deep-sea mining may outweigh the costs momentarily, those costs will grow exponentially as more and more firms join the bandwagon.

As the industry grows, the possibility of things going wrong, like a disastrous chemi­cal spill, will rapidly increase as well. Eventu­ally, it will be an entire swarm of underwater mining machines drilling into the ocean floor, which will ravage the planet at an astronomi­cal scale. Even Nautilus Minerals itself plans on expanding to other areas if the project is successful. What is to stop others from doing the same?

Deep-sea mining presents itself as a glitter­ing, attractive new way to squeeze more nat­ural resources from the environment. But, as with similar past endeavors, once the industry gathers enough momentum, it becomes almost impossible to stop and leaves behind a trail of destruction in its wake.

Originally published on April 21, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsDeep sea mining potentially detrimental to environment

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