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We’ve got to get deep-sea mining right

We’ve got to get deep-sea mining right


New mineral discoveries, in Japan too, require scientific and legal clarity

They call them “critical minerals” for a reason. Cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel and the tongue-twisting assortment of rare earth elements (REEs) are the bedrock of the 21st-century economy.
Without sufficient supplies, there is no digital transformation, no green transformation and none of the technologies that are already the stuff of daily life.
Global demand for these raw materials is expected to more than double in the next five years. Shortages are anticipated. The International Energy Agency estimates that current mining plans will not allow us to meet the target of net zero global emissions by 2050.
In other words, the countries and companies that control these resources will have incredible geopolitical power, akin to, if not exceeding, the role of oil-producing nations in the fossil-fuel economy. China is now the world’s top exporter of REEs.
Deep-sea mining could be the answer. By some estimates, the ocean floor could contain more nickel, cobalt and REEs than all land-based reserves combined. Not only is Japan the world’s biggest importer of critical minerals, but it knows first-hand how supplies can be used for coercion — remember that spat with China in 2010 involving collisions between Japanese and Chinese vessels near the Senkaku Islands? Confirmation that Japan’s waters contain vast amounts of manganese nodules with those very minerals is a potential game changer.
As reported last week, researchers from the Nippon Foundation and the University of Tokyo ascertained that there are 234 million tons of manganese nodules lying on the seabed near Minamitorishima, an island some 1,900 kilometers southeast of Tokyo. The deposits, first discovered in 2016, are estimated to contain enough nickel to support Japan’s consumption for 75 years, 11 years of its cobalt needs, as well as 730 years' worth of global demand for dysprosium, used in magnets in hybrid cars, and 780 years' worth of yttrium, used in lasers.
The 2010 Senkaku Islands incident inflamed Japanese sensitivities, especially when China provides 56% of Japan’s critical minerals imports. Both the 2022 Economic Security Promotion Act (ESPA) and National Security Strategy prioritize the reduction of “excessive dependence on specific countries” and the creation of a “secure stable supply for critical goods including rare earths.” The government later designated 11 “specified critical materials,” a list that includes REEs, under ESPA.
The Fourth Master Plan on Ocean Policy, approved by the Cabinet last year, made commercialization of seabed resources a priority — “to become valuable national resources unaffected by international affairs or geopolitical risks, thereby improving Japan’s degree of self-sufficiency.”
It won’t be easy. The resources are at least 5,000 meters below the ocean’s surface and the extraction technology is unproven, although small-scale tests have been successful. Industrial-scale mining is scheduled to begin in either 2026 or '27.
Technology may be the least of concerns. Environmentalists warn that large-scale mining, no matter what the technique, will do exceptional damage to the ocean floor, the effects of which cannot be estimated. While the ocean depths remain the final frontier, scientists know that they are some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, home to untold creatures and microorganisms that play a vital role in food chains. An inventory of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 4.5 million-sq-km area between Hawaii and Mexico that is rich in minerals, found over 5,500 species, of which over 5,000 have yet to be named.
Mining can hoover up those critters or disrupt sediments, releasing embedded carbons and other materials. This is not speculation. In one case, a mining site remained biologically barren nearly 40 years later and other studies produced similar results.
This has prompted more than 800 marine science and policy experts from over 44 countries to sign a statement calling for a pause in deep-sea mining. They warn that such extraction could produce a “loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales.”
A second set of problems are legal. States have the exclusive right to explore and exploit resources in their continental shelf — sometimes called the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ — which extends 200 nautical miles from their coast. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets out legal rights and responsibilities beyond that area, in the extended continental shelf (ECS) or international waters like the CCZ. Rules are set by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and they are murky.
There are questions about the applicability of any mining code to the ECS or revenue sharing, as the seas are “the common heritage of humankind,” as stated in UNCLOS, and landlocked countries are invariably shut out. Those resources sprawl across the seabed, from continental shelves to extended continental shelves and into international waters, also called the “Area,” making ISA rules critical to the legality of mining operations.
But there aren’t any rules — yet. Mining in the ECS and international waters was on the agenda at ISA meetings this March and last summer but no consensus was reached. In fact, the debate is increasingly contentious, with 25 states now calling for a halt or ban on deep-sea mining.
Some expect a deal at the upcoming ISA meeting next month, which will produce final regulations by next summer. Others are not sure.
In theory, that wouldn’t matter to Japan — or Norway, Canada, the Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea, all of which want to start mining. Norway’s parliament gave the green light in January since the minerals are in the country’s EEZ. (Japan might be affected by a territorial dispute in waters near Okinotorishima in the Philippine Sea but that is not where the new find is located.) Japan has said that it would abide by ISA rules even though they need not strictly apply.
Environmental questions and legal issues notwithstanding, there are other reasons to look positively at deep-sea mining. Land-based production of many of these minerals already results in widespread environmental damage, human rights abuses and the political destabilization of producer countries.
There is a geopolitical dimension to this issue that transcends the usual concerns about Russia and China dominating certain critical minerals supply chains. Smaller countries, many of which are marginal to regional politics, will have more weight in political discussions if their marine resources become available to global markets. The Cook Islands, for example, are thought to have seabed cobalt reserves that are three times the total amount of those on land, enough to meet the world’s demand for 80 years.
Exploiting those reserves could transform possessor nations’ place in the world. But mining also threatens other national assets such as fish stocks and tourism, which means that any extraction strategy must accurately balance risks and protect long-term interests.
While technologies are certain to evolve — meaning that so too will demand for minerals required for the economic transformations ahead — wholesale shifts are unlikely. Seabed mining will remain a tempting opportunity, demanding that politicians and the scientific community double down on efforts to understand the impact of such activities and ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. His new book, with Gilbert Rozman, "Japan's Rise as a Regional and Global Power, 2013-2023: A Momentous Decade" has just been released by Routledge.

Jun 26, 2024 08:15
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