Mining at deep sea

Countries are delving deeper into the ocean to explore its mineral wealth. The deposits on the ocean floor are enormous and the ecology of this largest habitat on earth, unexplored. How will deep sea mining impact the ecology and shape the mechanism to share common resources?

By Richard Mahapatra, Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Monday 15 September 2014

Mining at deep sea

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Deep inside the ocean is a world as vibrant and rich as the one outside. There are mountain ranges, ridges, forests, seamounts, volcanoes and a unique ecology that defies common knowledge. For example, life here thrives without sunlight. This barely explored territory is also believed to hold vast quantities of precious metals and minerals that can sustain the modern world for centuries.

So when the International Seabed Authority (ISA) issued seven new licences in the last week of July to explore for the riches that lie on the floors of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, it sent ripples across the world. The UN body regulates exploitation of the ocean floor beyond 370-kilometre territorial limits to prevent a free-for-all. Several governments and the mining industry who have their eyes on the underwater riches hailed the announcement, while scientists and environmentalists raised concerns about venturing into this unknown territory.

Both state-owned and government-sponsored companies from India, France, Russia, Germany, China, Singapore and the UK had sought permission for minerals prospecting in the high seas. Four licences have been granted for the Pacific Ocean—the Clarion Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico and the Magellan Seamount in the northwest Pacific. Two licences are for the Indian Ocean Ridge, while one for Rio Grande Rise in the southern Atlantic. These are significant chunks of seabed. One UK Seabed Resources, an English subsidiary of the US defence giant Lockheed Martin, has secured exploration rights to an area larger than the entire UK.

By now the ISA has opened up a vast 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed—one-third the size of India—for exploration of mineral deposits under 26 licences issued since 2001. “We are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining,” says Michael Lodge of ISA.

Life in deep sea thrives without sunlight. Only 0.0001 per cent of the ocean floor has been investigated for the presence of life

The vast repository of minerals, including the precious cobalt, zinc, manganese and rare earth materials that are needed for smart phones, laptops and hybrid cars, are present in three forms of ore—polymetallic manganese nodules that remain strewn across the ocean floor; cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that cover the seamounts; and massive polymetallic sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents (see map). These vents are cracks in volcanic areas of the ocean floor through which seeps iron- and sulphur-rich magma. As these minerals meet cold bottom water, they precipitate, creating high-grade deposits. Typically, an ore from seabed deposit is seven times enriched with minerals than that mined from land. This beguiles governments who are fast running out of reserves on land.

With the new licence India will start looking for polymetallic sulphides that are rich in copper, zinc, gold and silver in the Indian Ocean Basin. Similarly, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and Brazil’s Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais will explore for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the Magellan and the Rio Grande Rise seamounts. At least 20 countries have been carrying out exploration activities since 2001. Deep sea mining is witnessing a fast revival after a lull of almost 40 years.

The possibility of harvesting the deep seabed for limitless supplies of minerals has been known since the 1860s. The first attempt to mine the seabed was, however, made a century later. The 1970s saw a frenzy of exploration activities (see ‘New gold rush’). Towards the end of that decade, oceanographers discovered the mineral-rich volcanic vents and the UN adopted regulations governing international seabed. But the euphoria did not last long. Bringing the resources to the surface did not prove economic. A glut in the world market due to relatively easy access to minerals in the developing world took the fizz out of deep sea mining projects.

Technological advances in the past four decades, particularly by the oil and gas industry that delves deeper into the sea in search of reservoirs, have made the operation feasible. Increasing demand for metals, particularly rare earth materials, at a time when reserves are dwindling has caused metal prices to rise (see ‘Rare earth effect).

Rare earth effect
World searches seabed for the minerals to circumvent China's monopoly
Rare earth minerals—-there are 17 of them—are vital for the production of smart phones, cameras, steel and hybrid cars, and hence the world economy. They are present in a significant amount on the sea floor, both in sovereign and international waters. Polymetallic nodules are known to contain rare earth mineralsAt present, China contributes 90 per cent of the global production of the minerals. Developments in last five years show that China has been using this monopoly to control the production and price of the minerals. So there have been attempts worldwide to realign strategic relations around exploration of rare earths in seabed. Developed countries are taking the lead. Japan, along with the US and the EU, formed an alliance to challenge China's restrictive policies in the WTO. In April 2014, the WTO ruled against China.

India has collaborated with Japan since November 2012 to develop rare earth materials. As part of India-Japan strategic collaboration, an agreement was signed for exploration and production of rare earths, following which India is setting up a monazite processing plant in Odisha. In April 2013, Japan disclosed discovery of a bounty of rare earths in the seabed around Minami-Tori-shima Island. Scientists claim the reserve holds 20 to 30 times more minerals than those being mined in China.


According to the World Trade Organization, the price of several non-energy materials increased annually by about 15 per cent between 2000 and 2010, primarily due to consumer demand in emerging economies like India and Brazil. This is making the cost of retrieving minerals from extreme depths appear lucrative to companies.

Mining is expected to begin in 2017 after the first phase of 15-year exploration agreements come to an end in 2016. With all probabilities, Clarion-Clipperton Zone will be the first to be mined for polymetallic nodules. This is where maximum exploration activities are going on. While explorations sponsored by Russia, China, Japan and France will come to an end in a couple of years, Tonga, Nauru, Belgium, Germany and the UK will continue to explore the zone for several years. India’s first agreement to explore polymetallic nodules in the international seabed of the Indian Ocean will come to an end in 2016, paving the way for mining. It was the first country to receive the status of a Pioneer Investor in August 1987. The ISA had then allocated it 150,000 sq km for carrying out various developmental activities for polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean Basin. Since 2002, it has explored 75,000 sq km for minerals and is developing technologies for mining the wealth (see ‘Vents can divulge secrets of life’).

Vents can divulge secrets of life
Shailesh NayakShailesh Nayak, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences that has got the licence to explore deep sea minerals, speaks to Down To Earth about India's progress in deep sea mining. Edited excerpts
India has been exploring deep sea for minerals since 1981. Now that the UN has extended another exploratory licence, what does it mean for the country?

Seabed mining is very important for India, if you consider the future requirement. To the best of my knowledge, we do not have vast reserves of cobalt or nickel, or even gold and silver. So we are looking for alternative sources. For this, we need to have exploration experience of mining deep sea floor, where these metals are present in ores such as polymetallic nodules and hydrothermal sulfides. We need to find out the potential of this region. More exploration activities will also help us develop technologies.

How far is India from deep sea mining?

For picking up material from deep sea, we need remotely operated vehicles (ROV) with robotic arms. They can be designed only when we have technologies to investigate conditions of the seabed. This may take 10 to 15 years, even though the exploration licences expires in 2017. So we need to start well in advance. We are also trying to understand what may happen if you run mining equipment on the seabed. One of the impacts is it leads to more turbidity in that region. How long the turbidity will last is being studied. Conducting these environmental impact assessments are important because whenever we start mining, which is quite distant right now, the laws of the land will be applicable to the marine environment.

What are the main concerns associated with deep sea mining?

The areas we have been licensed recently hold hydrothermal vents. Several kinds of microbes that thrive in harsh environments are found here. The other issue is that we believe life originated in oceanic areas that had very high temperatures. Under that circumstance, certain reactions built amino acids, which is the basis of life. We need to find out the conditions there and if life is still originating in these places.

What kind of investment does this involve?

Basic exploration activities do not require much investment. All that one needs is a ship, which costs around Rs 200 crore. Exploration activities involving sophisticated technologies would cost Rs 300 crore to Rs 400 crore. It depends on the level country wants to do these explorations. We have already built an ROV and an automatic soil tester. We will use them to collect information.


Some countries are also carrying out minerals prospecting in their territorial waters. Papua New Guinea has already asked Canadian company Nautilus Minerals to begin mining in its economic zones in the Bismarck Sea. The company will extract minerals from hydrothermal vents. Nautilus Minerals is also carrying out exploration activities for Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Sudan and Saudi Arabia are working together to start underwater mining in the Red Sea, believed to have one of the largest polymetallic sulphide deposits in the world.

According to the European Commission, such is the frenzy to mine the deep sea that 5 per cent of the world’s minerals, including rare cobalt and zinc, would come from the ocean floors by 2020. This would double by 2030. The global annual turnover of deep sea mining would touch €10 billion (US $13 billion) by 2030 virtually from zero now. This makes it one of the fastest businesses in contemporary time.

Ocean of life

Though there is no consolidated data on the mineral wealth underneath the high seas, studies suggest its richness. Consider this. Recently, scientists have stumbled upon a rare earth reserve in the Japan side of the Pacific Ocean, which is estimated to hold 80 billion tonnes of the material. Even at a concentration of 0.2 per cent, one square kilometre of ocean floor might yield one-fifth of the world’s annual consumption of rare earth minerals. Scientists have also identified 350 hydrothermal vents, known for polymetallic sulphides. Such vents are located at every 100 km along the 60,000 km mid-oceanic ridge system that encircles the globe, according to ISA. Similarly, there are 100,000 seamounts taller than a kilometre. They are potential cobalt crusts.

Polymetallic manganese nodules, which can range in size from that of a potato to a dining table, are available in plenty. According to an ISA estimate, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone alone holds 62 billion tonnes of these nodules, sufficient to yield 17,500 million tonnes of manganese, 761 million tonnes of nickel, 669 million tonnes of copper and 134 million tonnes of cobalt. At the present market rate, metals extracted from a tonne of these nodules can fetch over US $1,000.

In the Indian Ocean, says the country’s National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), these nodules are strewn across 10-18 million sq km of ocean floor. About 380 million tonnes of nodules are present in the licensed exploration area of 150,000 sq km. These include 92.60 million tonnes of manganese. Minerals like cobalt, nickel and copper are present in the concentrations of 0.56, 4.70 and 4.30 million tonnes. These metals are not available on the country’s land. NIOT is developing technologies for extracting these minerals from deep sea and has set up processing plants at the cost of US $135 million.

Risky proposition

The prospect of a race to the bottom of the ocean has alarmed scientists. The reason is deep seas are not marine deserts as thought. “The deep sea is the largest habitat on earth. It is incredibly important to humans and it is facing a variety of stresses, from increased human exploitation to impacts from climate change,” says Andrew Thurber, marine scientist at the Oregon State University, US, who has recently published a review of the services deep seas provide.

But just like the terrestrial environment, oceans are facing the conflicts between development and environment—overfishing, industrial waste and plastic debris are just a few of the factors ailing them. What adds to the conflict is utter lack of knowledge of the deep sea environment.

According to the international conservation association IUCN Oceania, only 0.0001 per cent of the deep sea floor has been investigated for the presence of life. A handful of studies, however, indicate that the resources that will be mined to extract minerals are indeed rich nursery of benthic organisms (microbes and invertebrates). The world is slowly discovering them. About 50 per cent of organisms collected from areas deeper than 3,000 m are new species. In 1977 when scientists discovered the hydrothermal vent, where the temperature remains around 400ºC, the richness of biodiversity around it startled them. The biomass around the vents can be 50 to 100 times higher than in the surrounding areas. A survey shows that 90 per cent of the 500 species identified around the vents were endemic to it. These species have been identified by studying just 100 vents. The cobalt crusts play a critical role in distributing nutrients that help the primary productivity in surface waters. The seamounts are also known to host specific ecosystems.

In fact, the deep sea hosts a much diverse and unique ecosystem than the terrestrial ecology. By volume, 98.5 per cent of the planet that can support life is in the deep sea. Deep seas are 10 times larger than shallow continental shelves in the world’s oceans. “A quarter to a half of the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere has been absorbed by deep sea,” says Thurber, underscoring the environmental services of the oceans.

The technology used for deep-seabed mining is different for different resources. But all the technologies follow the standard procedure of violating the sea floor, the water above and a massive reshuffling of habitats.

Mining will introduce light to an environment where life thrives in darkness. This may attract or deter some fish or benthic species and alter their feeding and reproductive behaviours (see ‘Dive to destruction’). As the ores mixed with seawater are processed in surface support vehicles for extracting minerals, this will create massive swirls of debris and sediments. The treated seawater, of different salinity and temperature and containing trace amounts of toxic chemicals, will then be dumped in the sea, which will have profound impacts on the ecosystem.


Besides, mining will require site closure, which will restrict the movement of species both at deep and shallow sea. The huge machines and vessels involved in the process may lead to inadvertent introduction of invasive species, cause noise, air pollution and vibration, and result in fluid leaks and discharges from vessels and equipment. Together, these will further contaminate the marine environment.

Matthew Huelsenbeck, marine scientist with non-profit Oceana, says, “It is challenging to permit exploratory actions when you do not know what is there and you do not know if there are economic benefits at all.”

The damage mining can cause to this unknown ecology can be easily gauged by assessing the impact of commercial fisheries that go 62.5 m deeper every decade. In the late 1980s, overfishing of cod and habitat destruction in North America led to a collapse of fish stocks. The fishery was closed in 1992 and has shown little sign of recovery since. There are already reports of adverse impacts of humans’ deep sea forays. Many seamounts, that store cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, have been damaged by bottom trawling. Into the abyss Deep sea mining will set in motion a vicious cycle that will ultimately subsume the very resource. The vast mineral resources have been formed following a series of biological processes over thousands of years. The benthic species usually use a part of the sea minerals and help create the mineral resources. Without them, the seabed will gradually become devoid of minerals.

Regarding the deep sea species, the ISA warns, “If this base population is destroyed by mining, the result could be the extinction of rare species.” According to an assessment published in Nature in 2011, researcher Cindy Van Dover pointed out that even small-scale mining can wipe out the vent communities. While some species might possess the ability to re-colonise, those in dormant vents may take over 10 years. Jon Copley, a marine biologist at University of Southampton in the UK who has monitored the development of deep sea mining, says, “Those vents are home to colonies of some species that are not found in other deep ocean environments, which may make them susceptible to environmental impacts from mining.”

deep sea

Numerous species residing on the sea floors are filter feeders like the cold deep-water coral and sponges and rely on a clean current for nutrition supply. During mining, sediments on the sea floor are disturbed and the presence of particulate matter can alter their food supply. Experiments in the Peru basin and the Clarion Clipperton Zone show though mobile species may return after disturbances, sessile species do not recover.

The ISA acknowledges mining as a threat to the fragile sea ecology, but is not ready with an environmental safeguard. The conditions and rules for mining have not been readied till now. A protocol to minimise the environmental impact is still being drawn up. Most explorations are taking place without environmental studies. The UK Seabed Resources has begun environmental assessment for its exploration and is still debating the technology for mining. Similarly, the Ocean Mineral Singapore is working with the ISA to finalise the terms of contract. It will work on the environmental assessments.

There are protests as well. Early this year, New Zealand rejected a proposal to mine iron ore from the seabed offshore the South Taranaki Bight. Australia’s Northern Territory banned seabed mining in its jurisdiction till 2015 due to lack of knowledge on environmental impacts of deep sea mining. Namibia has also put moratorium on phosphate mining in deep sea pending more studies on the environmental effects.

Irony of the commons

The fear of the unknown brings back the focus on how to manage a global common property. The ISA calls the international deep seas “common heritage of mankind” where all countries have equal rights over its resources. But there are a few fundamental flaws with the body. The ISA was established in 1995 under the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which has been signed by all countries except the US. The body does not have the power to decide whether sea floor mining is good or bad. Its establishment is more tilted towards “exploiting” the resources. Moreover, its mandate is for the sea floors but not the water above it. It is legally convenient but ignores the ecological linkages between the two. This kills the very principle of ecosystem—interface of many elements in nature creates a habitable system.

It seems if an application for exploration is made, it gets approval by default. For an application to be rejected on environmental reasons, there must be “substantial evidence indicating risks to the marine environment”, says ISA. This is in contrast to another UN instrument, the Convention on Biological Diversity, which adapts precautionary principle that mandates evidence of no likely harm. Natalie Lowrey, spokesperson, Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Australia, says, “The granting of these licences flies in the face of the precautionary principle. There is insufficient scientific data to understand the impacts of deep sea mining; there are no regulatory frameworks in place to govern mining operations; and the capacity to enforce such frameworks does not yet exist. The issuing of exploration licences must cease until these issues are addressed.”

Even though the ISA has set environmental regulations for exploration activities, there is no such regulatory framework in place for commercial mining activities in international waters. There is more to it. The ISA is supposed to earn from these operations that will fund developing countries to assert equal rights over the common property. Though ISA technical study (No 11) published in February 2013 has provisions for several potential royalty and taxation regimes, no revenue collection method has been established yet. The study recommends that it would reflect land mining practices when finalised.

How to access the hidden treasure

Who can mine deep sea

The UN's International Seabed Authority (ISA) grants prospecting, exploration and exploitation licenses for all mining activities in the seabed of the international waters, which are beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. Only an ISA body or state-owned or government-sponsored companies can engage in mining-related activities. However, there are instances when companies have directly approached a nation to mine its territorial waters.

Hydrothermal vents, known for the prized polymetallic sulphide deposits, are nurseries of benthic species, many of which are yet to be discovered

Laws that protect exploitation and trade of deep sea minerals

Due to geography and jurisdictional location of deep sea mining, the framework for financing and development of a deep sea mining project will include a complex set of agreements subject to various governing laws. Exploration and exploitation contracts between project company and ISA are governed by the Law of the Sea and, where relevant, by international laws. Since projects are situated beyond territorial waters, a varied security regime will apply to provide security to surface vessels, submersibles, remotely operating vehicles, dredgers and extraction equipment.

Mouth of a vent containing biomassAbout taxes and royalties

Resources under the international waters are meant for the entire humankind. However, ISA has been considering ways to levy royalty and taxes on the minerals extracted, similar to terrestrial mining. A 2013 technical paper published by ISA says this is to safeguard the environment in areas of mining. Till now there is no regulatory mechanism in place for this. Since certain exploration licences are due to expire in 2016, ISA plans to introduce a framework that says commercial operators shall pay based on the principle of "common heritage of humankind".

Environmental impacts

This has been a bone of contention between mining companies and the scientific community. One of the greatest ironies of deep sea mineral deposits is, for a marine botanist or biologist these are places that hold secrets of life. Besides, most areas of the ocean floor are yet to be explored and environmental impacts of mining on these areas remain unknown. Though ISA require contractors to follow necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution during exploration activity, it does not have regulations in place for commercial mining.

According to UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the state parties are responsible for ensuring environmental safeguards. A sponsoring state is not liable for environmental damages resulting from a contractor’s activities if the state has all domestic laws and regulations in place. But without a mechanism, experts point out, it is difficult to monitor deep inside sea whether the safeguards are implemented.

This needs a fresh set of laws in many countries, particularly the developing ones which are struggling with weak environmental regulations. At the same time, ISA has to fix regulations so that countries can adopt them.

The Global Ocean Commission has already pursued the UN to include separate provision for biodiversity conservation agreement in UNCLOS. An agreement in this regard will be finalised by the end of 2015. One of the provisions is to establish a new body to protect deep sea biodiversity in the international waters.

This is crucial as environmental responsibilities in international waters are currently managed in a very disjointed manner. There are separate instruments covering sea floor mining, cable laying, ocean dumping, shipping and fishing. “I think that some fundamental reforms of the ISA will be essential, if it is to be given greater responsibility for the environmental stewardship of our planet’s largest home,” says marine expert Jon Copley. In the 1970s when the international framework was being negotiated to regulate wastes from ships, platform and other human-made structures at sea, pollution generated from offshore mining was conveniently set aside to be regulated by the ISA. But ISA is yet to take action.

As the new gold rush goes deep inside the sea there is little time left to regulate the industry. Either it is now, or never.

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