[Image above] Canadian mining startup The Metals Company received approval from the International Seabed Authority to conduct a polymetallic nodule extraction trial in the deep sea. Pictured is the Hidden Gem, TMC’s surface production vessel. Credit: The Metals Company, YouTube
With the rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies and electric vehicle adoption, the mining industry is attracting intense focus from governments worldwide as they consider how to secure the critical materials needed to build these technologies.
While expansion of land-based mineral extraction and processing operations outside of China is a main target in many government plans, some companies push the envelope by exploring the possibility of mining a previously unfathomable location—the deep seabed.
Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the seabed at ocean depths greater than 656 feet (200 meters). There are three distinct types of ore deposits that interest miners in the deep sea:
- Seafloor massive sulfides (hydrothermal vents)
- Ferromanganese (polymetallic) nodules
- Cobalt crusts
Of these three types, most deep-sea mining research and exploration focuses on the first two.
Since the 2000s, interest in deep-sea mining has grown as miners search for new mineral sources beyond the depleted or difficult-to-access land-based deposits. To date, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous international organization established by the United Nations to govern resources of the deep seabed, has issued 31 exploratory contracts to scope out deep-sea mineral deposits.
But even as the ISA develops regulations to move from exploration to exploitation of deep-sea mineral resources, there is concern in the scientific community that much still remains unknown about the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining. Marine experts stress that if deep-sea mineral exploitation is allowed too soon, it could irreparably harm marine ecosystems.
On Sept. 7, 2022, an announcement by Canadian mining startup The Metals Company (TMC) triggered fresh discussion of these risks. The company said the ISA greenlit a plan submitted by TMC subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI) to perform a trial extraction of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. It is the first time since the 1970s that such trials will be conducted in this area.
The trial extraction will see NORI’s offshore strategic partner, Swiss undersea contractor Allseas, deploy a prototype collector to vacuum polymetallic nodules from three miles under the ocean’s surface. Approximately 3,600 tonnes of polymetallic nodules are expected to be collected during the trial, which begins later this month and should conclude in the fourth quarter of 2022.
According to TMC’s announcement, the trial will be independently monitored by ocean scientists from a dozen different institutions, who will analyze the impact of the mining submarine and the machinery used to raise the nodules to the surface processing ship. Their assessment will be used by the ISA to determine if full-scale mining is warranted.
You can see TMC mobilizing for the extraction trial in the video below.
An investigative report published by The New York Times in August 2022 questions the choice of TMC to conduct this century’s first industrial trial. The report details how TMC’s executives spent 15 years gaining influence with the ISA, and how the ISA shared important data with them, including the locations of valuable pieces of seabed that it later reserved for TMC to exploit.
The New York Times also raises concerns about how TMC and ISA’s relationship undercuts the system meant to provide developing nations a place at the table. In theory, developing nations should get access to data in certain mining areas before companies do. “But the reverse happened: A top executive at the firm got the vital data first, then secured two tiny island nations [Nauru and Tonga] as sponsors,” The New York Times reports.
With these sponsors—in addition to a sponsorship that TMC secured from the central Pacific island country of Kiribati in 2015—TMC now has rights to three of the seven exploratory contracts issued by the ISA in areas reserved for developing nations.
Regardless of the results from TMC’s extraction trial, full-scale mining cannot take place until the ISA finishes developing its extraction regulations. Those regulations will likely be completed sooner than later—Nauru, one of TMC’s sponsors, invoked a provision in 2021 that effectively mandates the adoption of extraction regulations by next summer (June 2023).