The demand for critical minerals in 2030 is just a fraction of reserves

The demand for critical minerals in 2030 is just a fraction of reserves
Mining News Pro - Terrestrial reserves, forecasted total demand, and forecasted demand for the energy sector, in thousand tonnes

According to Mining News Pro - However, the IEA notes that there are concerns about the quality of these reserves. The declining quality of land-based minerals makes high-quality seafloor minerals attractive for exploration. For cobalt, for instance, the USGS estimates that around 120 million tonnes of cobalt resources can be found in the deep sea, compared to 7.6 million tonnes on land.

TMC argues that deep seabed mining is essential to get the critical minerals needed for the transition away from fossil fuels and that they are “the cleanest path toward electric vehicles”. The company eventually aims to extract 1.3 million tonnes of wet nodules per year and believes that mining its contract areas would result in enough minerals for 280 million electric vehicles.

Yet, some big automakers have aligned with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). BMW and Volvo, along with Samsung and Google, pledged in March 2021 “not to source any minerals from the deep sea and to refrain from using mineral resources from the deep sea in their supply chains and not to finance deep-sea mining activities”. Since then, Volkswagen, Scania, Renault and Rivian have joined the call for a moratorium on deep seabed mining.

Key to green transition, or environmental disaster?

While TMC says seabed mining would be preferable over mining on land because the mining of nodules generates no tailings leaves nearly no solid waste streams behind and does not contribute to deforestation, researchers say there are too many unknowns to determine the exact impact of deep-sea mining.

Scientists from a European research project that monitored the impact of seabed mining noted that even impacts from small-scale experimental seafloor disturbances had long-lasting effects and affected numerous ecosystems. They also concluded that the impacted area will be larger than just the mines area.

However, even with such research, the precise impact and exactly how long it would last are still not clear. As oceanographer Paul Snelgrove said: “We know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do about the deep sea floor”.

A literature review published in Marine Policy in April 2022 concluded that despite an increase in deep-sea research, the available research is still not comprehensive enough to be able to make well-informed decisions on deep-sea mining and that at least a decade of more research is needed.

This lack of information was a key driving force behind a drive that has called for a pause in the race to the bottom of the ocean, with more than 650 marine experts signing a statement to this effect.

“Deep-sea ecosystems are currently under stress from a number of anthropogenic stressors including climate change, bottom trawling and pollution,” reads the statement. “Deep-sea mining would add to these stressors, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales.”

The statement continues: “Without this information, the potential risks of deep-sea mining to deep-ocean biodiversity, ecosystems and functioning, as well as human well-being, cannot be fully understood.”

Preventing ‘serious harm’ to the seabed

There have been concerns about the motivations of the ISA itself. The body benefits from the revenue received from mining licenses, resulting in the UK House of Commons already expressing concerns in 2019 about this “clear conflict of interest”.

The ISA has also faced accusations of failing to be transparent after it did not renew a contract with an independent reporting service in April 2022. When the ISA permitted a mining trial in September, this came as a surprise, according to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of over 100 international organisations working to promote the conservation of biodiversity on the high seas.

A New York Times investigation in August 2022 revealed how the ISA gave key information to TMC, giving the company an edge and even setting aside the most valuable mining sites for the company’s future use.

Sufficient research will be needed before mining projects in the deep sea can start, as well as an evaluation of the duties of the ISA that are needed to create a coherent mining code. The authority is developing regulations based on the obligation that it must prevent serious harm, but defining what ’serious harm’ entails is critical to effective regulation.

Another study from December 2021, which looks at key outstanding matters that need to be resolved for the ISA’s mining code, says there are still a significant number of outstanding matters that need to be discussed before the July 2023 deadline. It advises that rushing to finalise the code without addressing all outstanding matters could “lead to very problematic outcomes”, as it would be difficult to make changes once the first project is granted permission.

Author Pradeep Singh concludes: “Once the regulations are in place and the first exploitation applications are subsequently approved, it would be hard for the ISA to preclude further applications or rollback the conduct of exploitation activities.”

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