Source: New Security Beat
Author: David Michel
In practice, seabed mining could prove neither economically viable nor environmentally sustainable. Economically, long-term demands for critical minerals are highly uncertain, depending upon rapidly evolving technology pathways, and could largely be met from existing global terrestrial reserves. Emerging innovations, such as battery technologies requiring fewer critical minerals, and circular economy models recycling raw materials, suggest the green transition can be realized without mining the seabed.
Environmentally, DSM poses considerable risks. Mining impacts could spread over hundreds of thousands of km2 of the ocean, devastating fragile marine fauna, damaging important habitat, and discharging harmful wastes. Especially worrisomely, DSM could stir up seafloor carbon sediments, releasing CO2 that could exacerbate ocean acidification and add to climate warming. DSM operations could also conflict with established environmental and economic assets including fisheries, marine protected areas, shipping lanes, and submarine cables and telecoms terminals. Yet very little of the deep ocean has been studied, leaving large knowledge gaps and scant baseline data from which to build meaningful impact assessments or effective management policies.
Developing DSM could also spawn new geopolitical tensions as major powers jockey to control seabed resources. Some analysts, for example, argue that China’s claims to the South China Sea reflect in part Beijing’s ambitions to assert sovereignty over the mineral deposits under those contested waters. Similarly, seabed minerals may help explain Chinese overtures to several Pacific island states, at times discomfiting nations that consider the region their backyard. China’s neighbors likewise worry that Chinese DSM exploration in the Indo-Pacific furnishes Beijing with “dual use” knowledge—such as underwater surveillance and topographical mapping—that could be adapted to military advantage. Mining activities, in turn, could be used to justify greater Chinese naval presence in the region.
Rather than the springboard for an incipient resource bonanza or impending great power confrontation, DSM now appears clouded in economic, environmental, and regulatory uncertainty. Whether and how any deep sea mineral gold rush will pan out, if at all, remains to be seen.
Achieving the green energy transition and averting the climate crisis will require critical minerals. Acquiring these minerals by DSM would entail trade-offs between the social and environmental benefits of the technologies they enable and the social and environmental risks of extracting resources from the ocean floor. At present, the international community possesses neither sufficient knowledge of the deep ocean environment to accurately assess those trade-offs nor adequate regulatory and institutional frameworks to manage mining the seabed. The world should not pursue DSM without them.