Gold at the Bottom of the Sea: Ours for the Taking?

Myths and realities of deep-sea mining

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By Jeff Ardron

Some researchers think that the deep sea could become a treasure chest for humanity, full of gold, silver, cobalt, and other minerals – enough to feed our consumer societies for centuries and lift poor nations out of poverty.

Others are more doubtful.

In a world of eternal darkness, cold temperatures, and pressures powerful enough to crush titanium submarines, deep-sea mining might seem like a bit of a crazy idea. That anything could even live down there would appear even more unlikely. That the seafloor is, in some places, littered with rock balls sometimes as big as tennis balls, chock full of valuable metals, seems stranger still… But once you know where to look, the deep sea is full of such surprises. Some of these surprises are being discussed this week in Berlin, where experts are at a workshop hosted by GEOMAR and the IASS to debate the future of deep-sea mining.

Manganese nodules contain mainly magnesium and iron, but also silicon, aluminum, nickel, copper, and cobalt, which are used in stainless steel production as well as specialty metals.

Treasures of the deep sea: Manganese nodules contain mainly magnesium and iron, but also silicon, aluminum, nickel, copper, and cobalt, which are used in stainless steel production as well as specialty metals. Photo: BGR

When I started this research about two years ago, most of the popular press was saying that we are running out of minerals on land. As it turns out, this is not true at all… No matter, the story continues that we need not worry because there is all this great stuff at the bottom of the sea. Just like oil and gas, we will turn our focus on the deep sea to serve our future mineral and metal needs. But the more I looked into it, the more convinced I became that this was a huge over-simplification, the wishful thinking of a few who were heavily invested in the idea.

Deep-sea mining: party like it is 1965

These very convenient myths/assumptions have been distorting discussions on deep-sea mining for decades, and can be traced to the publication of a single book back in 1965, The Mineral Resources of the Sea[1], which wildly over-estimated the riches of the sea while at the same time painting a gloomy picture of what was left on land. A few years later, in 1967, this book was quoted at length in an historic UN address by Malta’s Ambassador, Arvid Pardo, which led to the negotiation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Fast-forward 50 years and we are still acting like it is 1965, where the deep sea will solve all our problems.

With a number of recent news stories, it is rather easy to forget that no one has actually done any deep-sea mining. It is all still exploration, which is very costly, with no financial returns. Someone has to pay for those exploration bills… and believe that money will eventually be made…. In my view, this has definitely influenced the international discourse, mainly at the United Nations and its regulatory body, the International Seabed Authority. To date, 17 countries (including one consortium) have successfully applied for 26 licenses to explore for minerals in the deep sea outside of national borders. China has recently applied for one more, which if successful would mean that it holds four licences – more than any other nation. Who will say when enough is enough? Will the Chinese (or another nation) be allowed to get a 5th and 6th license too? These licenses are huge, some of them larger than small countries.

Bulk cutter for deep-sea mining

Heavy equipment for deep-sea mining: This bulk cutter is designed to dig through hydrothermal vent fields to mine ores containing gold, copper, silver and other metals which would then be pumped to up the surface. Photo: Nautilus Minerals

Deep-sea mining and the CIA

There is also another element that occasionally appears in the DSM story, which is that of intentional misrepresentation. Arguably the most audacious example was that of the top secret 1974 CIA effort to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine. A massive ship, the Glomar Explorer was purpose-built by the eccentric industrialist Howard Hughes under the pretense of deep-sea nodule mining.[2] Hughes’ involvement further perpetuated the myth that nodule mining was already being taken seriously by America’s industrial barons. This misperception may have had a role to play in the involvement of other industrialised nations in the global nodule hunt back in the 1970s.

In reality, the deep sea was, and remains, a difficult and expensive environment in which to prospect for minerals and pilot test new technologies. Between 1974 and 1982 a consortium of Western mining companies spent US$ 650 million in an ultimately failed attempt to bring nodule mining to commercial readiness. High extraction costs combined with several other factors, including inflated valuations of the mineral resource, political interference, and collapsing metal prices, contributed to the failure.[3]

Mining our common heritage

Legally, deep-sea mineral resources are the common heritage of mankind, which sounds great, but no one is really sure what this means. Proceeds from deep-sea mining are supposed to be shared. But how exactly this would happen, and who exactly would receive the money, or if there will be any money left over after expenses are paid, is very unclear. Legal experts will be on hand this week at the workshop to participate in these discussions.

While industry and sponsor governments remain hopeful, some environmentally-oriented researchers are very concerned.

“Personally, I do not believe that the recovery of minerals from the deep ocean, no matter from which ecosystem, will be of any benefit to society,” says Sabine Christiansen, a deep-sea biologist and consultant who has worked for a variety of non-governmental organisations and is currently a fellow at the IASS. She fears that it will take efforts away from research into transforming consumption patterns. She would like to see an economy that is more circular, recycling metals more efficiently rather than thinking that we can always dig up new ones.

Still, the prospect of deep-sea mining (DSM) does offer some opportunities to re-think how we do business with the environment. Sebastian Unger, coordinator of the Ocean Governance Group, believes that “Emerging deep-sea mining activities are an important test case whether we continue with ‘business as usual’ or take societal transformation seriously.”

Results from the workshop will be summarised by the IASS and posted on our website.

For more information, contact: Jeff.Ardron@iass-potsdam.de; Sebastian.Unger@IASS-Potsdam.de; Sabine.Christiansen@iass-potsdam.de

Header photo: GEOMAR

[1] Mero, J.L. 1965. The mineral resources of the sea. Elsevier, Amsterdam. 312 p.
[2] US National Security Archive. 1985. (Partially declassified 2010.) Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Accessed April 2015: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb305/doc01.pdf
[3] Scott, S.D. 2001. Deep Ocean Mining. Journal of the Geological Association of Canada. 28 (2): 87-96. Accessed April 2015: http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/GC/article/view/4078/4591

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