Norway is the first country to take steps towards deep sea mining. So the debate is now heating up again. Proponents say extracting raw materials from the seafloor is essential for the energy transition. But scientists and environmental movements warn against harming vulnerable ecosystems.
Een op afstand bestuurbare ‘robotstofzuiger’ die vierduizend meter in de oceaan afdaalt, om de bodem van de zee af te speuren voor knollen die vol zitten met mineralen. Die worden door een kilometerslange slang naar het oppervlak gepompt, waar het in een schip terechtkomt.
Diepzeemijnbouw is een manier om grondstoffen te winnen op de bodem van de oceaan, bijvoorbeeld uit ‘mangaanknollen’. In de Stille Oceaan tussen Hawaï en Mexico liggen er duizenden op de bodem. Een mangaanknol is aardappelvormig vulkanisch gesteente dat er miljoenen jaren over doet om enkele millimeters te groeien, zo hebben wetenschappers vastgesteld.
“Mangaanknollen zijn belangrijk als vaste ondergrond voor sponzen, koralen en andere dieren die zich erop vasthechten”, vertelt marien geoloog Henko de Stigter.
Aan de mangaanknol klonteren ook allerlei metalen vast, bijvoorbeeld nikkel, ijzer en het kostbare kobalt. Deze grondstoffen worden gebruikt bij de productie van batterijen, voor in telefoons of elektrische auto’s. Ook worden van die stoffen bepaalde onderdelen van windmolens gemaakt.
International rules are still absent
Norway has now become the first country to take steps towards deep-sea mining. Parliament recently passed a law permitting this type of mining. All this is within Norwegian territory, where its own rules apply. This concerns an area of about 300,000 square kilometers, near the North Pole.
There are currently no rules for deep sea mining in international waters. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations body, is working on this project.
Last year, the Global Compact on Deep Sea Mining was nearing completion, when 168 UN countries met in Jamaica to sign the agreement. This failed, which is why mining is not allowed in international waters until next year. The ISA must make a decision by 2025 at the latest.
A number of countries, including the UK and Switzerland, and several natural organisations, want no deep sea mining at all at the moment. At least until scientific results are reached about the potential impacts and damages to the ecosystem.
Risk of irreparable damage to the seabed
“There is a risk of irreparable damage, which could also have consequences for the climate,” says Karl Königel of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “We still know little about what happens at the bottom of the sea. So we say: be careful.”
Scientists have proven that the deep sea has a wealth of species. Königel emphasizes that the animal species that live there can sometimes live for hundreds of years and take a long time to grow. “This means that if you damage something there, it will recover very slowly.”
Conducting in situ research on deep-sea ecosystems is challenging. For this reason, relatively little is known about it in science. “You have to imagine: it's far from civilization, it's kilometers deep, and there's extreme water pressure,” Königel says. “It is the same depth at which Titan collapsed (the lost submarine, ed.).”
Demand for minerals increases by 70 percent
Many marine and mining companies are keen to explore the market. This also applies to the Dutch offshore company Allseas, which installs gas and oil pipelines and installs and removes platforms at sea. The company has already tested bringing manganese nodules into the Pacific Ocean in 2022.
“We share the concern about ecosystems. That's why our approach from the beginning has been to do it in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment,” says Jeroen Hagelstein of Allseas. “When there is a temporary ban on deep-sea mining, you also stop companies that facilitate the research of independent scientists.”
Hagelstein believes deep-sea mining should be viewed in context. “We believe that there is no method of extracting minerals that has no effect.” He points to the negative effects of mining on the Earth, such as deforestation and human rights violations.
The company also emphasizes that there is a scarcity of some raw materials needed for the energy transformation process. “It is essential to extract the minerals needed for batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.”
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), demand for metals such as cobalt and nickel will actually increase: over the next 20 years, demand will grow by 70 percent. But the agency also points to the lack of science surrounding deep-sea mining, and says it doesn't necessarily need to meet this growing demand.
Mining in the ground also has an impact, but it is better to monitor it and thus intervene if things go wrong.
WWF's Königel also believes that more raw materials are needed for the green transition. But those minerals can also be extracted on land, he believes: “Yes, that has an impact too, but you can monitor it better and thus intervene if things go wrong.”
Moreover, he believes that once sea-mined minerals are on the market – he estimates ten years away – it will already be too late to use them in the energy transition. The WWF dropped one Stady Which shows that demand could be reduced by 58 percent if we focused on recycling and smarter technology that lasts longer. “Then we don't need those extra minerals at all.”
“We also want to move towards a circular society,” answers Allseas' Hagelstein. “But there is not enough material and infrastructure for that at the moment.”
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