Environmental Technology Publications Limited

What is Deep Sea Mining?


Greenpeace have uncovered plans by governments all over the world to drill into the seabeds of vast swathes of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans in search of precious minerals and metals. Although this so-called “deep sea mining” has yet to commence, the Greenpeace study highlighted that at least 29 licenses have so far been granted to countries sponsoring mining companies.

Those in the deep sea mining industry argue that their work is an instrumental part of transitioning to a low-carbon economy, since it avails the raw materials required for a number of different technologies such as phones, computers and batteries. However, environmentalists argue that its effects will disrupt some of the most important eco-systems on the planet and the consequences of doing so are not fully known and will be extremely hard to scrutinise.

Drilling down into the matter

The Greenpeace report indicates that 29 licenses have been issued by the International Seabed Authority, allowing companies to begin exploration of possible mineral hotspots. The area encompassed by all 29 licenses is approximately half a million square miles in size – which is five times larger than the entire UK. Incidentally, the British government holds more of these licenses than any country other than China.

Greenpeace argue that drilling into the sea floor could releasing untold amounts of carbon stored in underwater sediments, potentially limiting the ocean’s ability to store carbon effectively ever again. As such, they are calling on governments all over the world to come together to create a robust global ocean treaty within the next year to safeguard this precious but little understood habitat.

The case for the defence

For their part, the deep sea mining industry claim that extraction of minerals and metals such as cobalt that are stored underwater is an essential endeavour needed to power the ongoing manufacture of all kinds of technology. They also claim that deep sea mining will be far more environmentally-friendly than the majority of existing drilling operations.

Responding to criticism over its leading role in the practice, the UK government issued a statement defending its behaviour. “The UK continues to press for the highest international environmental standards, including on deep sea mineral extraction,” it said. “We have sponsored two exploration licences, which allows scientific marine research to fully understand the effects of deep sea mining and we will not issue a single exploitation licence without a full assessment of the environmental impact.”

Environmentalists unimpressed
However, these words did little to pacify concerned scientists, campaigners and politicians. It’s widely accepted that monitoring is imperative in all kinds of mining, and with operations being performed so remotely, keeping a handle on what mining companies are up to underwater will be trickier than ever.

Moreover, critics say that there is no evidence that extraction of underwater materials are a vital component of any of the technological trades cited by the industry, and claim that drilling into the ocean floor will cause the condition of an already under-fire ocean to deteriorate even further. Some parts of the world, for example the Mediterranean Sea, are already suffering from ultra-low nutrient levels and it’s believed that deep sea mining would only exacerbate the situation.

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