30 November 2020

The Atlantic: “History’s Largest Mining Operation is about to Begin”

His case for seabed mining is straightforward. Barron believes that the world will not survive if we continue burning fossil fuels, and the transition to other forms of power will require a massive increase in battery production. He points to electric cars: the batteries for a single vehicle require 187 pounds of copper, 123 pounds of nickel, and 15 pounds each of manganese and cobalt. On a planet with 1 billion cars, the conversion to electric vehicles would require several times more metal than all existing land-based supplies—and harvesting that metal from existing sources already takes a human toll. Most of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the southeastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of young children work in labor camps, inhaling clouds of toxic dust during shifts up to 24 hours long. Terrestrial mines for nickel and copper have their own litany of environmental harms. Because the ISA is required to allocate some of the profits from seabed mining to developing countries, the industry will provide nations that rely on conventional mining with revenue that doesn’t inflict damage on their landscapes and people.

By the time I sat down with Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the ISA, I had spent a lot of time thinking about the argument that executives like Barron are making. It seemed to me that seabed mining presents an epistemological problem. The harms of burning fossil fuels and the impact of land-based mining are beyond dispute, but the cost of plundering the ocean is impossible to know. What creatures are yet to be found on the seafloor? How many indispensable cures? Is there any way to calculate the value of a landscape we know virtually nothing about? The world is full of uncertain choices, of course, but the contrast between options is rarely so stark: the crisis of climate change and immiserated labor on the one hand, immeasurable risk and potential on the other.

Wil S. Hylton

I first read about this potential future issue on Peter Watt’s blog – whom, being a trained marine biologist, I trust to be an expert on the subject. Strip-mining the seafloor for rare metals does now look like a valid solution to our current climate change problems; we would simply patch one thing and damage another, with no clear estimation of the future consequences on Earth’s environment. In fact, we would repeat the same mistake that led to global warming in the first place: burning fossil fuels without thinking of large-scale and long-term repercussions.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a deepwater plain wider than the continental United States
The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a deepwater plain wider than the continental United States. When the Mining Code is approved, more than a dozen contractors could begin commercial extraction there. (La Tigre)

The demand for rare metals should be solved with other, less risky solutions, like reducing waste and better recycling of existing electronic products. Another source to explore for the next decades could be space mining – clearly less damaging to Earth, but possibly with more risks for the people and companies involved.

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