The geopolitical dispute for the riches at the bottom of the ocean – 03/30/2024 – Environment

The geopolitical dispute for the riches at the bottom of the ocean – 03/30/2024 – Environment


In addition to land and maritime disputes, geopolitics now has a new frontier: the bottom of the sea. Thousands of meters below the surface of the oceans lie enormous deposits of mineral resources, many of which are fundamental to the energy transition that the world so desperately needs in the battle against climate change.

These deep-sea minerals can also be used to manufacture military equipment and weapons.

Although minerals have not yet been extracted from the depths of the seabed, private companies and government agencies, including world powers such as China, India and Russia, are participating in a real race to ensure the feat.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the north Pacific Ocean, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the north Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the northwest Pacific are being explored after countries and companies obtained exploration licenses from the International Seabed Authority (ISA, in English) — the UN body that oversees mining in international waters.

The US is preparing to obtain these minerals from its own seabed. The country has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea — and, therefore, does not operate in international waters, areas of the sea that are not under the jurisdiction of any country.

Of the 31 exploration contracts awarded by ISA so far, 17 are for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, between Hawaii and Mexico, where the search is underway for polymetallic nodules — potato-shaped rocks that lie on the sea floor and are rich in manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper.

These and other minerals, including lithium and graphite, are used in electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and energy storage batteries.

Why are minerals so coveted?

Interest in deep-sea mining has increased following projections that there would be greater demand as the world embarks on a transition to clean energy.

Electric vehicles require six times more minerals than their predecessors, and offshore wind technologies require 12 times more metals and minerals than natural gas to produce each megawatt of electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.

The World Bank has projected that the extraction of these minerals will have to increase fivefold by 2050 to satisfy demand. This means that more than three billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed for wind, solar and geothermal energy and energy storage.

Proponents of deep-sea mining say resources from traditional mining may not be enough as the quality of the earth’s minerals is declining due to over-extraction. There are also environmental issues and conflicts surrounding extractive activities.

Currently, few countries have mastered the production of critical minerals on land. Australia is a major producer of lithium, while Chile is the world’s largest supplier of copper. China predominantly produces graphite and rare earth metals that are used in high-tech products such as smartphones and computers. The Republic of Congo, Indonesia and South Africa are large players in the cobalt, nickel, platinum and iridium markets.

China’s dive into deep waters

China is also increasingly mining some of these minerals outside its territory, raising concerns among the country’s geopolitical competitors. And now it has its sights set on deepwater exploration.

Five of the ISA licenses are in the hands of China — the largest number granted to a country. India has two licenses and has just applied for two more, while Russia has four and a fifth shared with other countries.

“The confluence of rising geopolitical tensions and the energy transition are accelerating the race to extract, process and utilize critical minerals,” says Nathan Picarsic, co-founder of US-based geopolitical intelligence consultancy Horizon Advisory.

But the main geopolitical concern has been China’s involvement in processing these minerals before they enter the supply chain.

Having perfected technologies and accumulated processing knowledge over decades, China currently controls 100% of the refined supply of natural graphite and dysprosium, 70% of cobalt and almost 60% of all processed lithium and manganese, according to the International Agency of Renewable Energy.

Additionally, Beijing has introduced several bans on exports of processing technologies — and some rare earth metals.

China claims it is to protect the country’s national security and interests.

The latest of these, from December 2023, banned the export of technology for the manufacture of rare earth magnets, which are used in electric vehicles, wind turbines and electronics.

“We face a dominant supplier that is willing to weaponize market power for political gain,” said US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at the Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Summit in August 2023.

Two months earlier, the US House Armed Services Committee had ordered the Pentagon to assess the country’s deep-sea mining and processing capabilities.

“In recent years, China has taken aggressive and brazen measures to protect and process deep-sea polymetallic nodule resources as strategic planning for national security,” the committee said.

“To address China’s growing dominance in the global supply chain, it is critical that the US secure its own innovative supply of critical and strategic minerals and materials, including polymetallic nodules, to decrease dependence on foreign adversaries,” he added.

The USA, together with Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the European Commission, launched the Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) in 2022. Italy and India have now joined the group.

What’s stopping mining?

Deepwater mineral extraction has not yet begun, as the ISA is still working on regulations.

Scientists and ocean advocates have been warning about the ecological impact that deep-sea mining can have.

“When the ISA has the regulation ready, possibly next year, we will still have huge knowledge gaps regarding deep ocean biodiversity and how it will be impacted by mining, its potential for recovery, and the effects on the waters above, on fisheries essential or in oceanic processes such as the carbon cycle”, observes Lisa Levin, professor of biological oceanography and marine ecology at the University of California, USA.

A group of about 20 countries — including Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Finland, Switzerland and Vanuatu — called for a halt to deep-sea mining until more research is carried out into its potential impact on the marine ecosystem.

Despite this, Norway’s Parliament approved exploration in its waters in the Arctic region in January.

And many countries see the deep sea as a huge prospect.

The ISA’s 169 member states “are increasingly aware of the potential of the deep seabed for the global green energy transition and green technologies,” the ISA secretariat said.

“Complicated geopolitics are giving new impetus to interest in deep-sea minerals, with the world’s three largest countries by population now focused on the potential of deep-sea resources,” says Gerard Baron of Canadian firm The Metals Company , which has been carrying out explorations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

Activists attribute the intensity of the geopolitical game to deep-sea mining companies.

“They are fueling geopolitical tensions, creating an atmosphere of insecurity and fear, by talking about supply chain restrictions to pressure governments to open the deep ocean to extraction,” says Louisa Casson, campaigner with the Stop Deep Sea Mining campaign. (“Stop deep sea mining”, in free translation), from Greenpeace.

In response to warnings from the scientific community about a “knowledge gap” about what mining could do to marine ecosystems, the ISA said it has encouraged scientific research into the depths of the seabed over the past few decades — and is currently working on with international experts to establish environmental thresholds.

“At this stage, there is no consensus in the international community about a knowledge gap,” they state.


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