Deep-sea mining has the potential to unearth huge financial rewards. But, much like its onshore counterpart, not without controversy.

The prospect of running out of minerals is a troubling one for mankind, and it has us looking as far as outer space for potential sources. But there are companies going in the other direction: diving down into the depths of the ocean to find metals. While riches from lost shipwrecks often turn out to be fantasy, this venture promises a tangible treasure chest. 

Potato-sized lumps of metal, known as polymetallic nodules, are scattered around the ocean floor, 3,500 to 6,000 metres below the surface. They contain various mixes of cobalt, manganese, nickel, platinum, vanadium and rare earth elements. Polymetallic sulphides – with copper, zinc, gold and silver – can be found near underwater volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries. These sunken resources may be worth up to US$16 trillion globally.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), located in the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, could contain up to five times more cobalt, three times more nickel and 1.2 times more manganese than any known land deposits. Firms such as The Metals Company ($TMC) plan to use robotic vehicles to gather nodules from the CCZ with an estimated earnings value of US$85 billion. The firm forecasts the area could potentially supply battery metals for an estimated 140 million electric vehicles. 

Of course, solving the rising demand for these metals is no easy task. There are high costs, while the extreme conditions in collecting underwater nodules pose technical challenges in overcoming crushing pressure, freezing temperatures and limited visibility.

Deep-sea mining is also an environmental minefield (no pun intended). Although some view it as an alternative to the deforestation, pollution and child labour concerns plaguing mining operations on land, disturbing the ocean floor might seriously damage the habitats of marine life. Protecting that could be considered even more important since about 70-90% of species collected during studies of the CCZ had never been seen before. Many opponents point to a lack of information about the potential risks.

The regulations that would make deep-sea mining possible, including alignment on potential operations in international waters, are still under debate at the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). Failure to reach an agreement in 2023 has pushed the timeline out to 2025 and delayed any commercial activities in the CCZ.

On the other hand, countries have more control over their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which extend approximately 370 kilometres from a nation’s shore. In early 2024, Norway made waves by opening up its EEZ to commercial mineral exploration. Over in the Pacific, island nations are getting involved too. While Nauru is sponsoring The Metals Company’s work at the CCZ, Kiribati and Tonga are backing other exploration activity by the same firm. The Cook Islands have granted exploration licences to three companies, including a subsidiary of Odyssey Marine ($OMEX). 

Overall, though, countries in the region remain divided on deep-sea mining, trying to weigh their general lack of economic opportunities against the environmental concerns. Will it provide a sustainable windfall or be an ecological shipwreck? Only time will tell if a solution can be dredged up that represents a gold mine for both humanity and the high seas.


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