Minerals from the Deep

June 1, 2020  •

As society increasingly relies on batteries both to run everyday operations and to revolutionize the global energy future, we’re going to need more of them—a lot more. That means producing more of the materials that make up batteries. This coming surge in demand has the world on the cusp of tapping into an entirely new mining frontier: the deep seabed.

Projections show that the global supply of cobalt and nickel, key components of lithium-ion batteries, could be exhausted as soon as 2023 at current rates of use. And while improved recycling efforts can—to borrow what has become a common phrase—flatten that curve, current sources simply can’t produce enough of what it needs to power a green revolution.

But can the answer to this dilemma really lie in the planet’s last unexplored regions, kilometers below the waves in international waters? And would this simply perpetuate humanity’s perfect record of underestimating the long-term damage of activities that seem mostly harmless at first glance?

When it comes to the global oceans, particularly the distant regions that encompass much of the High Seas—the area beyond any one nation’s jurisdiction, which covers about 45 percent of the surface of the planet—we know virtually nothing. Scientists have higher-quality maps of the surfaces of Mars and the moon than they do of the ocean floor here on Earth, and marine biologists estimate that there could still be millions of undiscovered species dwelling in the depths. The ocean has played a massive role in keeping runaway climate change from being far worse than the effects we see today, absorbing 90 percent of the excess heat and half the carbon dioxide that comes out of the atmosphere. The effect the inevitable damage and destruction of seabed mining would have on these critical ecosystem functions remains unknown.

Meanwhile, the International Seabed Authority, a United Nations body tasked with managing the ocean floor beyond national jurisdictions, is developing regulations that would for the first time allow commercial exploitation of seabed minerals. The ISA could complete this process as soon as summer 2020. In so doing, it must answer questions not only about how the environmental impacts would be measured, mitigated, and enforced but also about where the proceeds should go. International law defines the seabed as the “common heritage of mankind.” Since it belongs to everyone, how should the profits be distributed?

This possibility of moving ahead with wide-scale mining in the deep ocean has polarized different elements of society. Ocean conservationists and some scientists insist that we simply don’t know enough to proceed with industrial-scale mining of the deep ocean. Many environmental groups have called for a 10-year moratorium on commercial mining to coincide with the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science, which will kick off in 2021.

Hitting the pause button would allow scientists more time to understand the role of deep ocean ecosystems in the global carbon cycle and account for biodiversity. The discovery of new species has taken on additional urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, as past vaccines and cures for other diseases such as MERS have originated from novel proteins discovered in ocean life. But this hiatus could also delay the needed transition away from fossil fuels if there aren’t enough batteries to power the projected one billion electric vehicles envisioned by market analysts by 2050.

Furthermore, increasing production of minerals from landbased sources is also problematic. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with lax environmental regulation and a less-thanstellar track record of human rights and child labor abuses; future production there will require more-intrusive practices. Exploration is already underway at sites in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other locations, but recovering minerals would mean destroying forests, grasslands, and other virgin ecosystems. All these activities could actually produce more carbon emissions than what would be offset by the products built as a result.

Manufacturers are working on reducing the amounts of the minerals that their batteries require, but so far they have been unable to eliminate them entirely. Elon Musk has pledged that his next-generation Tesla will use cobalt-free batteries, and as of March 2019, Tesla’s batteries used 75 percent less cobalt than other manufacturer. But there is no indication that they are close to rolling out a zero-cobalt battery.

Society is thus left looking for the least-bad option. Over the last century, humanity’s track record has not been good. Experiments that seemed safe at the time—bringing unchecked agriculture to the grasslands of the Great Plains, testing nuclear weapons in remote Pacific islands, producing endless single-use plastic packaging—have all proved short-sighted. And all have had long-lasting environmental implications: the creation of the Dust Bowl, the displacement and disregard of indigenous populations, the remnant radioactive sites now threatened by sea-level rise, the rampant pollution from plastic.

To help ensure that we don’t replicate humanity’s mistakes of the past, the Aspen High Seas Initiative will host a series of meetings beginning in late 2020 to initiate an independent review of the relative merits of different sources of the materials that will power the future. In true Institute fashion, the initiative will bring together scientists, environmental and human rights activists, leaders from the land- and ocean-based mining industry, regulators, and others for a multiday forum to get to the bottom of this critical issue.

As the world works to solve the global climate crisis, humanity has one final chance to avoid the mistakes of its past. We know more now than we have ever known before, and yet there is still so much to learn about the deep, dark, distant ocean. And when it comes to the planet’s life-giving heart, we can’t afford to get this one wrong.

Michael Conathan is the executive director of the Aspen High Seas Initiative.