Companies endorse deep-sea mining moratorium


The Apollo II is a prototype deep sea mine. Tested off the coast of southern Spain in 2019

The long-standing controversy over plans to begin mining the seabed suddenly intensified.

For years, only environmental groups opposed the idea of ​​digging metal out of the deep sea.

But now BMW, Volvo, Google and Samsung are focusing on seeking a proposed moratorium.

The move has been criticized by the companies behind the deep-sea mining program, stating that the practice is more sustainable at sea than on land.

The first concept conceived in the 1960s was Extract billions of potato-sized rocks It is called a nodule from the abyssal plain of the sea a few miles deep.

Rich in precious minerals, these nodules have long been regarded as the source of a new kind of gold rush that can supply the world economy for centuries.

Interest is growing because of the high levels of cobalt and other metals needed for the myriad batteries that power electric vehicles in the zero-carbon economy.

Dozens of ventures, most of them government-backed, have explored vast areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans to assess the feasibility of mining.

Several companies have also developed prototypes of “nodule collectors”. This is a giant robot machine that drives the ocean floor, collects rocks and pipes them to ships on the surface of the water.

I witnessed one of these devices (called Apollo II) being tested In the waters off southern Spain in 2019.

What’s wrong?

Claudia Becker, a senior BMW expert in sustainable supply chains, tells us why car giants decided to oppose the use of deep-sea metals.

“I’m afraid that everything we do there could have irreversible consequences,” she said.

“These nodules have grown over millions of years. If you remove them now, you don’t know how many species depend on them. What is this for the beginning of our food chain? Does it mean?

“Too little evidence, research has just begun, risk is too great.”

The lack of detailed investigation, which has just begun in earnest in recent years, has persuaded BMW to support campaign group WWF. This is leading the promotion of the moratorium until more is understood.

Ms. Becker states that onshore mines, despite suffering from child labor, deforestation and pollution allegations, can at least be inspected and kept at high standards.

“In these mines, we understand the results and have solutions, but in the deep sea we don’t even have the tools to evaluate them.”

She believes that deep-sea mines can be avoided by looking at alternative, less damaging metals, designing batteries that require less minerals in the first place, and developing a circular economy with much better recycling. I will.

What do mining companies say?

Deep Green, which plans to mine nodules in the Pacific, did not respond to my request for comment, but issued a statement stating that the car companies were “irresponsible” in their claims.

“Where does BMW get the battery metal needed to fully electrify its products and how does it affect the climate?”

Apollon and 5 great adventures off Malaga, Spain

Apollo II is submerged in the sea off Malaga

“Will Volvo’s customers really like rainforest metals for EVs if they notice the disastrous impact on freshwater ecosystems, indigenous peoples, charismatic megafauna, and carbon capture forests?”

UK Undersea Resources, a subsidiary of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, has two licenses to explore Pacific minerals and collects the data needed to assess the “environmental health” of nodules. I said that I am doing it.

Chris Williams, managing director of the company, said: “We are committed to a sustainable environment, which is why we are focused on establishing an environmental baseline.”

Intensive research programs are planned for the next few years and will require impact assessment and political approval by the International Seabed Authority, the United Nations responsible body, before mining actually begins.

How serious is the risk?

Professor Rachel Mills, an expert in deep-sea chemistry at the University of Southampton, has experienced a dramatic shift in thinking about deep-sea mining.

When I interviewed her nearly 10 years ago, she thought sea mines were less damaging than land mines, but now they are about the effects of the eruption of huge sediments agitated by machines. I’m worried.

“When you first asked me, I had a simple understanding of the ocean floor, and now I can have a tremendous level of impact on this level of turmoil in a fragile aquatic environment. I noticed that there was. “



She supports the Moratorium’s call and is pleased with the move of BMW and other companies until further research is done on the nodule-dwelling organisms and their role.

“It’s really important, they’re famous, but I think they’re on the tide … I think a lot of people will say,’Don’t ruin the deep sea,'” she said.

Do all scientists agree?

Not at all-there are different views on what is becoming an increasingly polarized debate.

Dr. Bram Merton, a marine geologist at Southampton’s National Center for Oceanography and a colleague of Professor Mills, said he was “feared” by the approach of BMW and others.

He believes that deep-sea mining can provide raw materials for the zero-carbon transition, and believes that companies should look for ways to minimize the impact.

“Instead, what they are doing is pretending that the status quo is sustainable, sufficient, and acceptable. It is not, and we will not be able to reach the Net Zero goal,” he said. Said.

Dr. Henko de Stigter of the Dutch marine research organization NIOZ has also questioned whether the damage is as widespread as the campaign participants claim.

He says that even if 10 mining contractors strip 200 square kilometers of seabed annually and the plume of sediment spreads to a total of 20,000 square kilometers, it is still only 0.006% of the seabed.

“It sounds different to me from WWF’s statement that deep-sea mining affects continental areas and the entire vast marine habitat,” he said.

What’s next?

The intervention of four large corporations has added new fuel to the fire of this controversy.

According to one industry source, “it does not mean the end of deep-sea mining, but emphasizes the need for further research to answer important questions.”

Meanwhile, WWF says more companies are in contact about participating in the campaign and expect more companies to register in the coming months.

WWF’s Jessica Battle signaled governments and investors, “I hope this will be a small snowman that, if desired, will lead to an avalanche of responsible companies.”

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