Deep-sea mining: The race for critical minerals for the clean energy transition

Thousands of meters below the surface of the oceans are vast deposits of mineral resources, many of which are key to the clean energy transition the world critically needs in the fight against climate change.

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Photo: The Metals Company
Photo: The Metals Company
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

In addition to disputes on land and in the seas, geopolitics now has a new frontier: the deep seabed.

Thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean are vast deposits of mineral resources, many of which are key to the transition to clean energy that the world critically needs in the fight against climate change.

These minerals from the depths of the sea can also be used to make military equipment and weapons.

Although no minerals have yet been extracted from the seabed, private companies and government agencies, including world powers such as China, India and Russia, have entered the race to get to them.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the North Pacific, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Northwest are all subject to exploration, and companies have obtained exploration permits from the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN-affiliated body.

The US is preparing to extract such minerals from its own domestic seabed.

This country has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and therefore does not operate in international waters, areas of the sea that are not under the jurisdiction of any country.

Of the 31 exploration contracts approved by the ISA, 17 are in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone between Hawaii and Mexico, which is looking for semimetallic nodules - potato-shaped rocks that lie on the seafloor and are rich in manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper.

These and other metals, including lithium and graphite, are used in electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for energy storage.

Why are minerals so sought after?

Interest in deep-sea mining has soared following projections that demand for it will grow as the world moves more towards clean energy.

Electric vehicles require six times more minerals than their predecessors, and offshore wind technologies require 12 times more metals and minerals than natural gas to produce each megawatt of electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.

The World Bank has projected that extraction of these minerals will have to increase fivefold before 2050 to meet demand.

This would mean more than three billion tons of minerals and metals that will be needed for solar, geothermal and wind energy and energy storage.

Proponents of deep-sea mining say supplies from traditional mining may not be enough, as the quality of minerals from land declines due to over-mining.

There are also environmental problems as well as conflicts surrounding this mining activity.

At present, several countries dominate the production of critical minerals on land.

Australia is a major producer of lithium, while Chile is the world's largest supplier of copper.

China mainly produces graphite and rare earth metals used in high-tech products such as smartphones and computers.

The Republic of Congo, Indonesia and South Africa are major players in the cobalt, platinum and iridium markets.

Chinese deep diving

China is also increasingly committed to extracting some of these minerals outside its own territory, raising concerns among the country's geopolitical competitors.

And now China has set its sights on exploring the depths of the sea.

Getty Images

Five of all ISA permits were issued to China - the largest number granted to a single country.

India has two licenses and has just applied for two more, while Russia has four and shares the fifth with other countries.

"The build-up of heightened geopolitical tensions and the energy transition is accelerating the race to extract, process and exploit critical materials," says Nathan Picarsik, co-founder of Horizon Advisory, a US provider of geopolitical and supply chain information.

But the main geopolitical concern concerns China's share of the processing of these minerals before they enter the supply chain.

Having perfected its processing technology and expertise over decades, China currently controls 100 percent of its supply of refined natural graphite and dysprosium, 70 percent of its cobalt and nearly 60 percent of its processed lithium and manganese, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

In addition, Beijing has imposed several bans on the export of processing technology and some minerals.

China says it is to protect the country's national security and interests.

Most recently, in December 2023, it banned the export of technology for making rare earth magnets, which are used in electric vehicles, wind turbines and electronics.

"We're dealing with a dominant supplier willing to use market power to score political points," US Energy Secretary Jennifer Grenholm said at the Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Summit in August 2023.

Two months earlier, the US Congressional Committee on Armed Services had ordered the Pentagon to assess the country's capability for deep-sea mining and mineral processing.

"In recent years, China has taken aggressive and brazen steps to secure and process seabed polymetallic nodule resources for strategic national security planning," the committee said.

"To counter China's increasing control of the global supply chain, it is critical that the U.S. secures its own innovative supply of critical and strategic minerals and materials, including polymetallic nodules, to reduce dependence on sources from foreign adversaries," he added.

The US along with Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the UK and the European Commission launched the Minerals Security Partnership in 2022.

Italy and India have now joined that club.

What's holding mining back?

Extraction of minerals from the deep sea has not yet started, as the ISA is still working on regulations.

Scientists and marine activists warn of the environmental consequences that deep-sea mining can cause.

"When the ISA has its regulations ready, perhaps next year, we will still have huge gaps in our knowledge regarding deep-sea biodiversity and how it will be affected by mining, recovery potential and consequences for the water above, critical ponds or ocean processes such as carbon cycle," said Lisa Levin, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Biological Oceanography and Marine Ecology.

A group of about two dozen countries - including Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Finland, Switzerland and Vanuatu - have called for a halt to deep-sea mining until more research is done on its potential effects on the marine ecosystem.

Despite this, the Norwegian parliament approved exploration in its own waters within the Arctic region in January.

with the BBC

Many countries see the seabed as a huge potential.

One hundred and sixty-nine member countries of the ISA are "increasingly aware of the potential of the deep seabed for the global transition to green energy and green technologies," the ISA secretariat said.

"Complicated geopolitical relations are giving fresh impetus to interest in seabed minerals as the world's three most populous countries focus on the potential of deep-sea resources," said Gerard Barron, of Metals, a Canadian company exploring in the Clarion-Clapperton zone. .

Activists blame deep-sea mining companies for the heated geopolitical game.

"They are fueling geopolitical tension, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and spreading fear by using supply chain constraints to lobby governments to open up the deep oceans to extract minerals," said Luisa Casson, Greenpeace's Stop Deep Sea Mining campaigner.

In response to warnings from the scientific community about a "knowledge gap" about what mining could do to the marine ecosystem, the ISA said it had been facilitating deep seabed scientific research for the past few decades and was currently working with international experts to establish thresholds of ecological value.

"At this stage, there is no consensus in the international community on the knowledge gap," the ISA claims.

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