Author: Randy Showstack
New regulations could open the door for sustainable mining, says the head of the International Seabed Authority. However, he and others pointed to environmental, financial, and technical challenges.
The world is “on the threshold of a new industry,” the head of an international body that governs deep-seabed mining said last week. At a 14 November forum in Washington, D. C., Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), laid out environmental and other challenges to deep-sea mining while maintaining that a new regulatory system could allow the seabed operations to proceed in a sustainable manner. “All the indications are that we are at a decisive point in the long history of attempts to mine the deep seabed,” he said.
Although commercial exploitation of seafloor materials has not yet begun and could be years off, Lodge told the joint meeting of several boards of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) that ISA has approved 29 exploration contracts covering more than 1.3 million square kilometers of the seabed in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. He distinguished deep-seabed mining from shallow-water mining for gold, sand, and other materials, which has gone on for centuries. Also, ISA distinguishes between exploration and exploitation activities.
Technology for underwater mining, including remotely operated vehicles and other tools, has advanced enormously during the past few years, Lodge noted. Still to be developed, however, are a regulatory regime for mineral exploitation and reliable ways of knowing if a region of the seabed contains sufficient resources—such as manganese nodules, ferromanganese crusts, massive sulfides, or metal-rich muds—to support major capital investments, he said.
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