There are billions of tons and billions of dollars’ worth of critical minerals including nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese lying at the bottom of the seafloor. These metals are vital to electric vehicle batteries and the clean energy transition, and they are found in abundance in a patch of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
But extracting these metals via deep-sea mining has become a lightning rod for global controversy, as many fear the potential ecological disruptions it could cause in a part of our planet that remains largely unexplored. What’s more, international regulations for deep-sea mining have yet to be finalized, and the United Nations-affiliated regulatory agency in charge, the International Seabed Authority, or ISA, recently missed a key deadline to do so.
Now, the ISA must accept mining applications in the absence of regulations. The Metals Company has announced that it’s planning to submit its application next summer and begin exploitation in 2025, leaving many concerned about the potential implications.
“We know so very, very little about how the deep sea functions, but we know it’s fragile. It’s very sensitive to disturbance,” said Jessica Battle, who leads the World Wildlife Fund’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative.
But Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company, contends that we need to compare the potential impacts of deep-sea mining to the known harms that come from terrestrial mining, such as the deforestation stemming from nickel mining in Indonesia and the child labor found in Congolese cobalt mines.
“You know, we’re not suggesting that this is a zero-impact activity, but what we are suggesting is that the impacts are a fraction compared to the land-based alternatives,” Barron said.
Between 2020 and 2030, battery demand for nickel is set to increase by a factor of around 20, manganese demand is projected to rise about eightfold, and cobalt battery demand is expected to quadruple, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a company focused on tracking the metals integral to the energy transition.
Nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese are found in abundance on the seafloor, in the form of polymetallic nodules, which are globular concentrations of minerals that cover up to 70% of the seafloor in certain areas.
Polymetallic nodules containing nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese cover up to 70% of the seafloor in certain parts of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean.
The Metals Company
In the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, “they estimate there’s more than 20 billion tonnes of nodules in the area,” Barron said. “When it comes to nickel, they estimate there’s around 270 million tonnes.”
For comparison, the world produced about 3.3 million metric tons, or tonnes, of nickel last year. The Metals Company thinks the nickel market could benefit most from deep-sea mining, both because the mineral is integral to energy dense lithium-ion batteries, and because the ramp-up of nickel mining in Indonesia is causing massive deforestation in the country’s rainforests, which are vital carbon sinks.
“What I am absolutely convinced of is that we can slow down or maybe even stop the growth in rainforest nickel,” Barron said.
One area where The Metals Company holds an exploration license, called NORI, is ranked as having the largest undeveloped nickel deposit in the world and encompasses nearly 29,000 square miles of seafloor. Though that’s only about 0.02% of the entire seabed, the company says this resource, combined with another project area where the company has an exploration contract, contain enough nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese to power about 280 million EVs — that’s about the total number of cars (gas and electric) in operation in the U.S. today.
Last year, The Metals Company commissioned Benchmark Mineral Intelligence to conduct a life-cycle analysis that modeled the environmental impact of collecting nickel, cobalt and copper from the seafloor and then processing these minerals on land in Texas.
The analysis showed that The Metals Company’s proposed NORI-D project performed better than land-based mining and processing in the majority of impact categories measured, including global warming potential, which was generally 54%-70% lower. Deep-sea mining avoids the emissions associated with blasting, as well as sulfidic tailings, a waste material that can contaminate groundwater.
“If these projects go ahead in the way that is being described and targeted today, it could actually show some significant benefit,” said Andrew Miller, COO of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
But there are potential impacts that were not captured by Benchmark’s lifecycle analysis, including possible damage to deep-sea ecosystems and biodiversity — issues of great concern to the many advocacy organizations and companies that have lined up against deep-sea mining.
A few years ago, the World Wildlife Fund released a business statement calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Major tech companies Google and Samsung, as well as automakers BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo, Renault and Rivian have since signed on.
“Scientists are projecting it will take decades before we know enough about the deep sea to make those informed decisions, to not jeopardize and destroy something before we actually really know what it will do for us,” said Battle from the WWF.
Although Barron contends that the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, where The Metals Company plans to mine, has been explored much more thoroughly than other areas of the deep sea, he admits that scientists are still discovering a lot about the area.
“Reports suggest that there may be between 5,000 and 8,000 species that have been yet to be identified or that are still being discovered,” Barron acknowledges.
A gummy squirrel (Psychropotes longicauda) found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. There are many species in the deep sea that have yet to be discovered.
Deep CCZ Expedition, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
These include corals, sponges, octopi, sea cucumbers and worms. Some of these organisms rely on polymetallic nodules for shelter or as an important part of their habitat, and they would inevitably suffer were these nodules to be sucked off the ocean floor.
The ISA, based in Kingston, Jamaica, recently missed a key deadline triggered by the tiny island nation of Nauru, an ISA member country that is sponsoring The Metals Company’s NORI-D project and stands to receive royalties from mining operations. In June 2021, Nauru submitted a letter to the ISA, notifying the agency of its plans to start mining. According to preexisting rules, this gave the ISA a two-year time frame to finalize regulations before it would have to start accepting mining applications.
Whether these applications now must be provisionally approved is a legal gray area. The Metals Company says it plans to submit its application in July 2024, and Barron is optimistic that it will be approved even if regulations are not finalized.
“The LTC [Legal and Technical Council] would need to consider our application against where regulations are at the time. And the good news is those regulations are very advanced. And so we think that it would be sufficient to be regulated against or to be measured against those regulations that are nearly finalized,” he said.
But Pradeep Singh, a fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam who attends meetings of the ISA and is a participant in the negotiations, is not nearly as confident that the regulations are close.
“The ISA has not even developed thresholds on what levels of harm would be deemed acceptable and what levels of harm would not be acceptable,” Singh said. “And so it would take, I think, quite a long time before we get to a point where all 36 states are happy to sign off on the regulations.”
However, The Metals Company, which was founded in 2011, is under serious pressure to prove its value. Its SPAC merger in 2021 proved disastrous, as a major investor failed to deliver $200 million in promised funding. Today, the company’s stock price has plummeted almost 90%, and shipping giant Maersk, which once held more than 9% of the company’s shares, divested in May.
“They have to show a business case pretty soon,” Benchmark’s Miller said. “Money’s not infinite for these types of projects.”
But whether the potentially big business of deep-sea mining will make the global metals industry more or less sustainable and whether the inevitable ecosystem impacts will prove worth it for the clean energy returns remain a matter of debate, perspective and scientific inquiry.
Correction: The NORI area, where the Metals Company has an exploration license, is ranked as having the largest undeveloped nickel deposit in the world. An earlier version of this story misstated the name of this area.