The United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued seven new exploration licences for deep sea mining. This represents a new frontier in the quest for precious raw materials such as gold, copper, cobalt and manganese, amply needed for modern and emerging economies. The ISA was set up to manage the exploitation of the ocean floor beyond territorial limits to prevent a free-for-all and has so far only issued licences for exploration. The first permits for exploitation could come in the next few years.
Companies from the United Kingdom, Singapore and the Cook Islands will be exploring for manganese, whilst India and Germany have searching for polymetallic sulphides, and Brazil and Russia are looking for cobalt. The total area of seabed now licensed in this new gold rush has reached an immense 1.2 million square kilometers under 26 different permits for minerals prospecting.
For a long time, mining activities in these deposits was unfeasible due to much higher costs and lack of the necessary technology. However, the oil and gas industry has spurred technological advances that contributed to the feasibility of such operations, which are set to begin by 2016.
Deep sea mining sparked ecological warnings
The prospect of the resource grab in the little-explored deep sea has sparked ecological warnings. A report issued last year by Greenpeace found that the prospective “large-scale industrial exploitation,” deep sea mining, “could have serious impacts on the ocean environment and the future livelihoods and well-being of coastal communities.”
“In total, about 6,000 km of mid-ocean ridge in international waters are now being explored for potential seafloor mining. In total, around 7.5% of the global mid-ocean ridge – the geological backbone of our planet – is now being explored for its mineral wealth.
“Ridges are one of the three deep-sea environments where there are mineral deposits attracting interest, in this case for the metal ores that form at deep-sea vents along the ridges. But those vents are also home to colonies of some species that aren’t found in other deep ocean environments, which may make them susceptible to environmental impacts from mining”, said Dr Jon Copley, marine biologist at the University of Southampton.
The ISA is still negotiating the conditions and rules for actual mining and is working on a protocol to minimise the environmental impact. Another issue to be discussed and agreed upon on beforehand is how seabed riches should be shared globally, including with landlocked nations.