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What to think about deep-sea mining for clean-energy minerals
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What to think about deep-sea mining for clean-energy minerals
A conversation with journalist Daniel Ackerman.
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The ocean floor is a rich source of the key minerals used in the batteries and solar panels that will power the clean-energy transition. In this episode, journalist Daniel Ackerman dives into the far-reaching implications of the idea of deep-water mining.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

As Volts subscribers are aware, the transition to clean energy is going have the effect of radically raising demand for a key set of minerals used to make batteries, solar panels, and electric vehicles. Currently, those minerals are mined in often environmentally and socially destructive ways, using exploited or even child labor.

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In recent years, more attention has turned to an alternative place to find those minerals: the ocean floor. It turns out that huge caches of these minerals are simply lying on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, waiting to be plucked up and processed.

Of course, the idea of mining the seafloor raises all kinds of sensitive questions about feasibility, sustainability, and affordability.

Daniel Ackerman
Daniel Ackerman

Recently, journalist Daniel Ackerman dug into all those questions for a story on the podcast How to Save a Planet. Shortly after it aired, he found out that Spotify was shutting the podcast down and laying off its staff.

That’s a bummer — it was a great podcast and Spotify's decision has left several talented journalists, including Ackerman, jobless.

So I thought, in the name of highlighting both this subject and Ackerman's work, I would get in touch with him to talk it through. We discuss how deep-sea mining works, the size of the resource available, the environmental concerns it has raised, and cutting-edge technologies that promise to reduce its impact.

Alright then, without any further ado, Daniel Ackerman, welcome to Volts, and thank you for coming.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, thanks for having me.

David Roberts

Volts listeners will be somewhat familiar with this from a podcast I did last year about clean energy minerals and everything. But just let's review quickly why it is we think that the market for these particular rare earth minerals is going to explode soon. Like, give us some sort of forecast, some statistics, maybe.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. So the commodities that are most of interest right now at the bottom of the ocean are things like nickel and cobalt. They're kind of the two big ones that are found in these formations called polymetallic nodules. And right now, when you look at the EV industry, the vast majority of electric car batteries contain nickel and cobalt. Right now, about 80% of electric cars sold around the globe contain nickel and cobalt in their battery cathodes. And there are going to be a ton of caveats today because deep-sea mining is so complicated. And the first caveat is we're just talking about the market today, right?

So there are some indications that battery chemistry is changing. There are a lot of efforts, including funding by the US government to create more batteries that don't contain nickel and cobalt because those cause a ton of problems in their extraction. But in the next couple of years, the demand for nickel and cobalt is going to continue to skyrocket as EVs take up more and more of the vehicle market,

Right, and so we've got to find those minerals somewhere. Currently, they are mined overseas in often unpleasant circumstances, unpleasant environmentally and socially. There are children involved. There's environmental damage left behind. I think we've all read these stories. So there's a lot of attention now to where else where we can find these minerals. And this is where the sea floor comes in. So let's just start by describing sort of what's down there. Describe the resource for us. What are we down there looking for and what does it look like and where is it?

Yeah, so, deep-sea mining. There's been three different resources that have received some amount of commercial interest. Quickly, the first two are hydrothermal vents, which are these bizarre kind of deep-sea vents near tectonic plate boundaries where the superheated water comes out and all these bizarre animals live. So that's hydrothermal vents. Another resource of interest is basically underwater mountains called seamounts. Those often have crusts on their surface that are rich in cobalt. But the third resource is really the one that we're probably going to focus on. That's the polymetallic nodules. So these nodules form in the very deep ocean, talking like two to three miles deep.

And they basically form on what's called the abyssal plain, this flat expanse of sandy ocean bottom. And these nodules are just completely bizarre. So they're rocks, but they grow slowly over time, over the course of millions of years, as minerals precipitate out of the seawater and slowly kind of glom onto organic particles, often like a shark's tooth. So, 3 million years ago, a shark lost a tooth. And that tooth is slowly accumulating metals that are now very important to us, like cobalt, nickel, manganese, and copper. And in terms of the size of the resource, it really is pretty mind-blowing.

So in one particular area of the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. This is kind of a swath of ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. It's got a deep abyssal plain with lots of these polymetallic nodules. In the CCZ alone, there is more cobalt, nickel, and manganese in the form of these nodules than in all terrestrial reserves of those metals combine.

David Roberts

Oh, wow.

Daniel Ackerman

There is a significant amount of metal out there on the seafloor.

David Roberts

So this is a big prize, not a small thing.

Daniel Ackerman

And important to note that these nodules have things like nickel and cobalt together in the same resource. So you don't have to open a mine in the DRC to get your cobalt and then another mine in, say, Indonesia to get your nickel. It is all in one place.

David Roberts

Right. And, you know, I've seen pictures of the seafloor with these nodules on it. And just for sort of the listeners benefit, they just look like little round tennis balls, basically. They look like black tennis balls, like somebody spilled a giant bucket of black tennis balls on the surface. So it's not, like people think mining. They think digging underground. But these are more or less laying there on the surface.

Daniel Ackerman

Right, they're sitting there on the surface in places where they're really concentrated. I've heard scientists describe it as like a cobblestone street. It's just the surface is covered in these nodules.

David Roberts

Tell us what the current technology is that we would use to go down and get these. And where did the technology come from?

Daniel Ackerman

Just to preface this, there is no commercial scale mining happening yet. So, all this technology has kind of been trialed in various phases, but it's not actually happening at a commercial scale. But what it would look like is basically a giant underwater vacuum cleaner. So basically, companies are proposing to send these things that are maybe the size of semi trucks, but way, way heavier, that would kind of go back and forth along the seabed and suck up the top, say, like 10 centimeters of sediment, which includes those nodules. And then from there, you'd have this huge pipe between your vacuum cleaner going all the way up to the surface of the ocean.

David Roberts

That's a two to three mile long. That's a lot of pipe.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. So it is quite a feat of engineering. And the ideas for this technology have been around for quite a while. There was a metals shortage back in the 60s and 70s that kind of drove some interest in deep-sea mining back then. And then there was also this very bizarre incident during the Cold War.

David Roberts

I love this story, by the way. Just tell it real quick.

Daniel Ackerman

Okay, this is a total aside, but I think it's worth it. So during the Cold War, there was a Soviet sub that sunk to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and it happened to sink in an area where there are known to be polymetallic nodules. So the CIA basically said, hey, let's go out there and try to recover this Soviet sub, because you would learn so much about the nuclear codes and whatever intel they thought they could get from the Soviet sub.

And so the CIA basically decided, "Okay, we're going to go out there, but we need a cover story. We can't just send a naval ship to do this out in the open, because if the Soviets knew what we were doing, they would change all their code books and things like that." So the CIA gets in contact with none other than Howard Hughes, who was this eccentric billionaire. He had this aviation company. He was a Hollywood tycoon. He was kind of everywhere at the time. And the CIA said, "Alright, Howard Hughes, can you go out and tell the public that you are going to mine for polymetallic nodules and that you are sending out this huge ship to this random spot in the Pacific Ocean for that purpose?"

And Hughes was like, "Yeah, sure. Let's do it." So he's sent this ship out there, ostensibly saying that this is a deep-sea mining operation. But what was actually happening was under this boat, the CIA was kind of lowering a giant claw to lift up that Soviet sub. They were ultimately not super successful. The sub kind of broke in half when they were lifting it, and they only ended up with a small piece of it. But publicly, it had this really big influence on the deep-sea mining industry. Everyone was like, "Wow, if Howard Hughes is into this, then maybe there's something here when it comes to deep-sea mining."

David Roberts

And the CIA funded some actual research, right, into how to do this.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. Or other branches of the federal government at the time were funding research into deep-sea mining because they needed this cover story to be convincing, right? So they kind of ginned up this whole industry where there were suddenly academics who were doing research studies on the chemistry of these nodules and where they were located, and there were academic conferences to discuss deep-sea mining. So suddenly there was a lot of money and interest in the deep-sea mining industry as part of this cover story. And that didn't totally go away. That some of that money and interest and information kind of kept the industry going through the 80s and 90s.

David Roberts

Hilarious that we developed a successful research program and successful technology as part of a cover story for a failed CIA mission. There's a parable there somewhere. Some perfect metaphor there somewhere. I'm not quite sure what it is. So when people hear, I think when anyone hears, about a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up the top 10 centimeters of a surface, it doesn't sound very ecologically sensitive. It sounds like clearcutting. It's not discriminating. And so if these were just rocks sitting in sand, be one thing, but as humans have learned again and again, no matter how sort of inclement or far away or deep down or high up, it is, there's life there.

So there's an ecosystem down there. So tell us a little bit about what we know about that ecosystem. It is largely mysterious to us, is it not?

Daniel Ackerman

Right. So there's been some research in the last 30 or 40 years in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, but overall, it is a pretty understudied ecosystem. The deep ocean as a whole, just because it is hard to get to, pressure is really high, temperatures are really low, it's dark. It's just not an easy place to do science. So pretty much every time scientists go down there in a submersible, they discover species that are totally new to science. The scientists are still learning about this ecosystem.

And these nodules, they're not just rocks. They are kind of the basis of this ecosystem down there. There are certain types of sea sponges that use the nodules as substrate and other animals that rely on those as well. So you mentioned clearcutting. I think that's a decent analogy. It's also basically a form of strip mining right. You're basically removing the entire surface layer, which is a habitat in its own right, and it's one that scientists are still working to understand.

David Roberts

I suppose we don't have a great understanding yet, but sort of what are the ecological dangers here?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. So the obvious one is you're removing the surface of the sediment and all the animals that might be living there.

David Roberts

Right.

Daniel Ackerman

But beyond that, this operation would kick up a bunch of plumes of sediment that would kind of travel through the water column. And this could be a problem for animals that use light to communicate. There's a lot of bioluminescent squids and jellyfish and things down there, and if the water gets murky, they won't be able to use that communication system, potentially. This sediment plume could also interfere with creatures that use basically filter feeding as their mechanism of getting food out of the sea water.

And then there's the noise pollution. So this has been a big one that's received a lot of study recently. We know that sound travels really far in the deep ocean, just because the water is so dense, sound travels really far. So the noise pollution, of course, could be a huge impact for whales, dolphins, animals that make all those really cool calls to communicate with each other.

David Roberts

Right. And we're talking about when we say noise, we mean the noise of the semi-truck shaped thing on the surface.

Daniel Ackerman

Well, there's the semi-truck shaped thing on the seabed. There's also nodules that are going to be rattling up 2 miles of pipe to the surface.

David Roberts

Right.

Daniel Ackerman

And then the ship that is waiting on the sea surface to receive those nodules, that's actually going to be using kind of like a very fine-tuned positioning system that generates a lot of sound up at the surface. So there's sound basically emanating from all parts of this operation, potentially.

David Roberts

So, there's none of this happening yet. There's a lot of interest gathering, and then there's also a lot of opposition gathering. We're going to get to all that in a minute. But first, let's just talk about who is in charge here. Who regulates this? If I'm a Howard Hughes–esque figure and I want to buy a giant ship and go mine some nodules, who do I ask and who gives me permission? And if I screw it up, who punishes me? Is there any such thing? What's the regulatory environment here?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, so that depends exactly where you are. So, for countries with coastlines, they basically have jurisdiction over seabed resources about 200 miles from their shores. So that's called the Exclusive Economic Zone of an individual country.

David Roberts

So there are some of these nodule fields located close enough to countries that they're within territorial waters.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. And some countries, like the Cook Islands in the Pacific, have actually given out exploration licenses to mining companies to explore in their exclusive economic zones. But the vast majority of the ocean does not fall into an exclusive economic zone. It's international waters or the high seas or in UN-speak, the area beyond national jurisdiction. And in this area, the International Seabed Authority is the regulator of deep-sea mining.

David Roberts

That's a UN agency?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. So the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was a treaty commonly known as the "Constitution for the Ocean," initially signed in the 1980s, updated in the 90s, and it was this UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that set up the International Seabed Authority as the regulator of this industry. So the International Seabed Authority is based in Kingston, Jamaica, and periodically all the member states of the ISA, which notably does not include the US, but it does include most countries. Yeah.

David Roberts

Is there a reason? Did we purposefully not join?

Daniel Ackerman

Yes. So, like everything seems to do, it goes back to Ronald Reagan in the 80s, when the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was being written up at the United Nations. Reagan and his administration basically decided that they didn't really like the terms of this. They didn't want to kind of submit to international regulation when it comes to the deep-sea, which previously was a place where the US felt like they could just go out and do their own thing. So Reagan was not a fan of that treaty. So the US still has never entered the treaty and thus is not a part of the International Seabed Authority, or at least they can't really vote on important things there.

David Roberts

So let me just pause here and ask you a question because I often wonder about related things. So say the International Seabed Authority comes up with some rules, handing out permits or whatever. Is the US just not subject to those because it's not part of the treaty? Can it just go out and do whatever it wants? If it tries to go out and do whatever it wants, does the International Seabed Authority have any recourse against it?

Daniel Ackerman

They don't have, like, an international police force or anything, so I don't think there's much recourse there. And in fact, the United States does actually assert an exploration lease area for deep-sea mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in international waters that the federal government says preexists the ISA and all of that. So the US is kind of maintaining, "Hey, we actually do have a claim in this area." Not that anything's happening there, but there is a little bit of tension that has been going on for decades over the fact that most countries on Earth have kind of agreed to participate in this international government structure and the US is still kind of doing its own thing.

David Roberts

There's another parable. So the International Seabed Authority more or less controls this. And as I understand it, they are in the process of coming up with rules. How's that going to work?

Daniel Ackerman

Yes. So they have come up with rules for exploration, basically they've given out 31 permits, or 31 licenses, to various companies and countries to go out into different parts of the ocean and explore for nodules and other resources.

David Roberts

Since the resource has been, if not exploited, it has been explored fairly well. Like we understand it fairly well.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. In certain parts of the ocean, that is the case, yeah. But there has not yet been a turn from exploration to exploitation. That could be happening soon, though. Like you mentioned, the countries of the ISA have been meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, periodically to come up with this exploitation rulebook. Basically call it basically the "mining code." This would be the set of environmental regulations that a mining company would have to follow. It also includes how royalty payments would work. Something you might not have known before today, David, is that you actually are the proud owner of polymetallic nodules on the seafloor. The UN defines these seabed resources as the common heritage of humankind.

David Roberts

Interesting. So you would pay royalties to all of the humans of the Earth. How does that work?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, that's one of the many sticking points in negotiations at the ISA right now. As part of this mining code, as this rulebook, they have to come up with how royalty payments would work.

David Roberts

Yeah. Who do you pay?

Daniel Ackerman

If you had your own mining operation, you would pay the International Seabed Authority. Then they would have to redistribute that. And the question is how? They could just dole it out to all their member countries based on population. But then there are these questions of equity, like maybe less-developed countries to get more. Maybe countries whose economies are going to be impacted by deep-sea mining should get more. For example, if you're Indonesia and you have a lot of nickel mines and suddenly the market for nickel is flooded with deep-sea metals, maybe you're entitled to more. So these are all debates that are happening.

David Roberts

Or maybe some of it should be spent on remediation and maintenance of healthy underwater ecosystems.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, exactly. So these are all ongoing conversations at the International Seabed Authority. This is a slow process. They've been coming up with these rules for more than a decade. I was at the last conference this summer, in July and August, and watching the delegates go through this draft rule book. It is like they go through every single word. They have a debate on every single word. And so it's just a slow process. I think it'll take a few more years.

David Roberts

The UN. Got to love it. Is it the case that no one can go down and exploit this before there are rules? Or is this kind of thing where they've fallen behind? Or do they have some authority to keep people out until the rules are in place?

Daniel Ackerman

So that is up in the air right now. You might have heard of the so-called "two-year trigger rule." So there's this kind of hidden clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that basically says, "If a country wants to go out into international waters and start a mining operation but the ISA rules are not yet in place, that country would have to give, basically, two years notice to the ISA. And then the ISA would either have to finish the rulebook in those two years or just kind of maybe provisionally grant a license to mine."

David Roberts

Interesting.

Daniel Ackerman

And all of that was very theoretical until, in the middle of last year, in 2021, Nauru, the Pacific Island nation, sent a letter to the ISA saying, "Hey, we would like to apply for a permit to start mining in two years. So that would be the middle of 2023." And Nauru is doing that in partnership with a Canadian mining firm called The Metals Company.

David Roberts

Who knows, but is there reason to believe that the ISA could actually finish up its rules and have them in place within two years, or do you think it's probably going to be some ad hoc thing?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, I mean, at this point it's less than two years. It's until July of 2023. I just don't see that happening. Given the pace that the work is going and how much work needs to be done on this rulebook, I don't think it will be completed. At the same time, I don't know that Nauru and The Metals Company, come the end of this two year deadline, are actually going to apply to mine. There's still kind of trials of the technology that need to be done, environmental baseline data that needs to be collected. There's been a lot of questions about what happens when this two-year rule expires next year. I wouldn't be surprised if nothing really happens at all. It depends on whether Nauru actually submits an application to mine, and I'm not sure they're quite ready to do that.

David Roberts

So you said there's no sort of commercial mining happening at any scale. Is anyone just down there testing, doing a little bit of this, seeing what happens? Do we have good information on ... We can guess, but obviously we need to go down and do experiments. Like, do we know what happens when nodules are mined this way?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. So over the years, there have been some very small scale experiments talking just like scientists who have dragged kind of a plow over a couple of hundred yards of the sea floor and have revisited that kind of furrow 26 years later and found that not much has changed. Like the ecosystem hasn't recovered. Things happen really slowly in the deep sea.

David Roberts

Yeah, I bet.

Daniel Ackerman

In terms of actually testing the mining equipment, that is beginning to happen. So I mentioned The Metals Company, which is working with Nauru, The Metals Company right now as we speak, is actually testing a pilot of their deep-sea collection system in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. They just recently last week announced they have successfully dragged up a few tons of nodules from the sea floor with their machinery. So those tests are beginning to happen. And I think one kind of space that I'm really interested in watching is whether there are successful tests of alternative technologies. So we've been talking about this huge what I would describe as destructive vacuum.

David Roberts

Right, yeah. This was my next question. Like, the traditional companies, the companies that are going after this right now, including The Metals Company, are using the traditional vacuum cleaner. I'm just going to call it the vacuum cleaner. Presumably there's a lot of thought and research going into improving this. I mean, this is literally like 1.0 stuff. So what technologies are on the horizon and how close are they to being real?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, so there are a few companies that are piloting, basically technologies where submersibles would go down there and hover above the sea floor and pluck up those nodules so you wouldn't be disturbing the sediment. It would be much quieter. A lot of these environmental impacts would potentially be mitigated. So the company that is kind of farthest along on this is called Impossible Metals. They're a startup and at this point, they don't have a pilot vehicle that they are ready to test. They say they'll have that next year. But basically the design of their vehicles, they would send this kind of fleet of underwater robots that have like a few dozen mechanical hands on the bottom of them. You would hover above the sea...

David Roberts

Unmanned, we're talking?

Daniel Ackerman

Right, yeah. There would be no people going down there. These would be untethered vehicles. And it would use remote sensing and artificial intelligence to basically look at the sea floor. And if it sees a nodule with, like, an animal on it, there's an octopus or there's like a sea sponge or something, it can actually just leave that nodule there and only pluck up the ones with nothing growing on them. So this is potentially a game-changing technology, but again, it doesn't quite exist yet.

David Roberts

I mean, you could theoretically program it to pluck every other nodule or every third nodule or something, so you're not doing the clearcutting sort of version of this.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. So they call this like selective harvesting, that they can leave much of the ecosystem intact. But of course, there's questions over whether this can just work from a technical standpoint. And then there's questions economically, like the rate of nodule collection with these things, I think would be much lower than with a giant vacuum cleaner.

David Roberts

Do we know that? Well, I guess we haven't done it yet, so we don't know it. But do they have estimates like the relative speed of these two technologies?

Daniel Ackerman

I don't have the numbers off the top of my head. Obviously, the company thinks they can make it work, but it is untested and it is potentially game-changing. But still, that's potential, not quite yet reality.

David Roberts

Right. And this does seem like one of those things where buyers of minerals could exert some power, put some sort of standards on the metals they're willing to buy and move and boost alternative technologies that way.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. And we've already seen a number of buyers of these metals, notably car companies, like Rivian and BMW and Volkswagen, Volvo, a few others have basically announced, like, we are not going to use metals from the bottom of the ocean. And they've done that.

David Roberts

Really?

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. So they've made that announcement full-stop. Of course, they don't say we will never use them. They just say we are not going to. And they say it's because of these potentially harmful and unknown effects of deep-sea mining. But if a company like Impossible Metals comes along and shows that they can successfully recover these metals with much lower environmental impact, maybe those buyers will say, "Okay, well, we can buy from this company."

David Roberts

Interesting. And so you say next year. Well, they say the company claims next year they'll have an actual submersible to send down there?

Daniel Ackerman

They say they'll have a pilot submersible that they can test in shallow water. So that's still a few years away from commercial deployment. So when we're talking about some of these mining companies that are closest to actually setting up a commercial mining operation so that's like the metals company. Another one is called GSR. That's a Belgian company. Those companies are all proposing to use this kind of vacuum cleaner, clearcutting-type technology.

David Roberts

It just doesn't seem like, if you have a giant vacuum cleaner, you have any capacity to improve those results or to be selective or anything. You can't really like, giant vacuum cleaners are sort of by nature undiscriminating.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. There are some open questions of ways that these vacuum cleaners could kind of mitigate the damage. For example, we talked about that pipe that brings the nodules and some sediment up to a ship waiting on the sea surface. That ship is then going to collect the nodules and then discharge kind of the waste, sea water and sediment back into the ocean.

David Roberts

Which is itself a plume also, right? It's just going to be like dirt, basically.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. And so there's questions about, well, maybe we can create regulations to say that plume needs to be discharged in its own very deep pipe down back near the bottom where it came from. So there are some ways to potentially mitigate it. But overall, yes, the vacuum cleaner is the vacuum cleaner. It just sucks everything up.

David Roberts

My impression is that there is a growing resistance to this, that a lot of people are waking up and that more and more people are sort of coming along and saying, "Hey, no, don't hold on a second." So tell us a little bit about sort of like who's pushing back and how, and is there any prospect of that resistance slowing things down?

Daniel Ackerman

So pushback from the scientific community has been happening for a number of years. A number of marine biologists in particular have kind of led this effort to call for a moratorium, saying we don't know enough about the deep ocean and how it would be impacted by deep-sea mining. So until we gather more information, we should not go forward with any deep-sea mining. So those calls for a moratorium from the science community have been happening for a number of years. More recently, in just the last couple of years, we've seen, like I mentioned, these car makers actually kind of joining this call for a moratorium.

And then just this year, at the ISA meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, for the first time, national governments kind of stood up at the ISA as they're in the middle of this debate over making this rulebook for mining. They said, "Alright, well, should we actually back up here and decide whether we want to move forward with this or not?" They've been debating the minutiae of these rules for so long, and now, for the first time this summer, the Federated States of Micronesia, their delegate at the ISA, stood up and called for a moratorium, basically in front of all of the countries that were there debating the rulebook. And a number of other countries have since joined that call.

David Roberts

Are these countries that have nodules around them that are sort of like targets, or are they just interested countries? Is that what we say about the countries that are ...

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, a number of the countries that have called for a moratorium are Pacific Island countries. So I mentioned the Federated States of Micronesia, a couple of other Pacific Island nations as well. Costa Rica and Chile have also joined this call. So some of these countries are near the areas that would potentially be impacted by deep-sea mining, but a lot of them just kind of claim on the basis of, "As a group, we're responsible for international waters, for the deep-sea. And to be good stewards of that area, we should really kind of take our time with this and maybe wait 10 or 15 years until we learn more about this ecosystem."

David Roberts

Yeah, of course, the, you know, looming behind that is the fact that these coming 10 or 15 years are precisely what we're going to need shitloads of these minerals. Do you think the resistance is big enough and strong enough yet that it's actually going to materially, slow things down? What's the balance of forces?

Daniel Ackerman

I think it could. So at this point, no one has actually submitted an application to the ISA to mine. But, like I mentioned, that could be coming in the next couple of years. But all of the ISA member countries would basically have to collectively have to vote to approve that application and that mining operation.

David Roberts

Is this a UN thing where everyone has, where it has to be unanimous?

Daniel Ackerman

It's a slightly complicated procedure where a much smaller kind of expert panel within the ISA called the Legal and Technical Commission reviews the application behind closed doors — because the application presumably involves like trade secrets surrounding the data that companies have about their lease areas. So the Legal and Technical Commission reviews the application and basically recommends "Yes, we should approve," or "No, we should deny." And then the entire body of the ISA, all the member states will then vote based on that recommendation.

But of course, the member states don't have the data to look at. All they have is this recommendation from the Legal and Technical Commission. So they're kind of at an information deficit. But at the same time, if there are a number of countries that are just philosophically opposed to the idea of starting a deep-sea mining operation in the next few years, they might just vote no. So I think that is something that could be on the horizon.

David Roberts

Interesting. And let's talk a little bit about the countries and kind of their cross-cutting incentives. You said there are Pacific Island countries that are coming out against this in advance, but there's also, as you say, the Cook Islands that is going forward with this. So if you're a Pacific Island nation that's got nodules on the sea floor around you, what are the kind of cross-cutting incentives? What is the calculation that's going on there? And why are they falling on different sides of this line?

Daniel Ackerman

Let's take the Cook Islands as an example here because they are kind of down the middle when it comes to this. They haven't really staked out an extremely strong position either way, but they have been slowly moving forward within their exclusive economic zone. They've offered these exploration licenses. I recently interviewed Alex Herman, who is the Seabed Minerals Commissioner of the Cook Islands, and she basically said with these exploration permits they've given out, it's just a way to get more marine science. Like they're going to just learn more about the ecosystem that is in the deep ocean around the Cook Islands.

They're also going to get some revenue because these exploration permits come with payments. So there's kind of this tension where, yes, they get some benefits from this exploration, but the mining companies that are partnering on this exploration obviously are only doing it because they hope that one day they will be able to actually set up a mine. So the incentives are really complex for some of these Pacific Island countries. It is an opportunity for a lot of revenue, which is important, in the case of the Cook Islands, their economy is heavily reliant on tourism. During the Pandemic, they basically found out that is not a very resilient industry.

So they see deep-sea mining as a way to diversify their economy. But at the same time, Alex Herman expressed some wariness that ultimately we don't really know what the effects of deep-sea mining are going to be until and if it actually starts. So they obviously don't want to kind of ruin the fisheries or the water quality.

David Roberts

Right. These are countries that treasure the ocean and depend on it completely. In a sense, it's somewhat unique physically, but it's not that different than the sort of resource calculations of a lot of poor countries terrestrially. Right. I mean, it's the same thing with, like, a surface lithium mine. The revenue is there. You can make a lot of money off it. It's going to damage a lot of your ecosystems. It's a very similar calculation.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. But the proponents of deep-sea mining would say the difference is that when you go hundreds or thousands of miles away from any community where people are living in the middle of the ocean to get these nodules, you're not touching anyone's water supply. You're not dislocating a community in order to dig a hole in the place that used to be their home. You're not cutting down any trees, you're not creating these huge tailings dams.

David Roberts

You're touching on this. But let's sort of fill it out a little bit. Sort of like the case against this, I think, is pretty clear. The worries about ecosystems that we don't fully understand and doing permanent damage before we understand what we're doing, which is kind of our thing. So what's the pro case? What's the case for going ahead with this?

Daniel Ackerman

So the case for going ahead with this is that we know a lot of electric vehicles are going to be sold that contain nickel and cobalt in the next decade or so. And digging up those minerals on land is terrible. Like you mentioned, child labor.

David Roberts

We understand that quite well.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah. And so when we talk about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the deep ocean that is relatively remote from where anyone lives, it doesn't touch anyone's water supply. There are potentially impacts to fisheries like tuna and some other fish that kind of utilize deep parts of the ocean. But overall, you're not really going to be directly damaging people's homes and communities in the same way that terrestrial mining often does.

David Roberts

Right.

Daniel Ackerman

So basically, to sum this up, it's like proponents will say, we're going to need to continue extracting these metals, at least for some time, and deep-sea mining is a way to do that with much less social harm than mining on land.

David Roberts

Right. So it's compared to what kind of argument.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. And one thing I'll throw out there is that, you can make this comparison all day, but when it comes to it, if the ISA starts approving deep-sea mining projects, there's nothing to say that mining on land is suddenly going to close down, right. This could just be an additional impact.

David Roberts

It almost certainly will be, right? The rate of growth of demand that is projected for these minerals is just wild. Especially at the beginning, it almost is certain to be additional, right, not substituting for any land-based. I guess you could say it's substituting for additional land-based mines, not yet open mines. So then let's talk about that demand projection. So you mentioned in passing a couple of reasons, and I think this has been covered on Volts quite a bit, a couple of reasons to think that maybe demand for these minerals will not be as stratospheric as a lot of current projections. Say, what's the case there?

Daniel Ackerman

The key thing to keep in mind is that when we're talking about polymetallic nodules, we're not really talking about lithium. In most battery chemistries out there, lithium is really important. That's not necessarily the case with cobalt and nickel, which is what's found in these sea floor nodules. Right now, the vast majority of battery cathodes in EVs contain nickel and cobalt, but there's a huge effort to engineer those materials out of the cathode. So even today, Tesla, for example, a huge proportion of its sales include batteries with this so-called lithium iron phosphate or LFP chemistry. Most of those sales are actually in China, where consumers are less obsessed with range than they are in the United States.

So the benefit of using cobalt and nickel is that it gives you a really high energy density. So, we still can't make a battery with more range in an EV than we have with nickel and cobalt. So I think a few things could happen. First, there will be improvements in alternative battery chemistries where suddenly you do get really good range without nickel and cobalt. I don't know how quickly that will happen.

David Roberts

Or charging will come along and Americans will unclinch their sphincters about this largely illusory problem of range. Let me just get that out.

Daniel Ackerman

Exactly. Okay, that's the other thing. Hopefully range anxiety can be alleviated and American consumers will be less obsessively focused on range of their EV, because basically we don't have to rely on going to the gas station when we can just charge our vehicles at home or at work or whatever.

David Roberts

Right. So that's substitution of different materials, maybe finding more benign and less damaging materials to use, like iron, for instance, you can get anywhere. And there's a lot of work on a lot of different battery chemistries, as Volts listeners will also be familiar with, and did a big thing on lithium-ion and its various alternatives last year that people should go check out. But there's also recycling, right, which is also somewhat nascent, but people have very high expectations about this.

Daniel Ackerman

Yes. In fact, a lot of the companies that are pushing into the deep-sea mining industry, like The Metals Company, they say that in the long term, they're actually going to be recycling companies. It's just that in the short term, in the next few years, there is going to be so much demand for battery materials that there's just not enough in the system right now to recycle.

David Roberts

Right.

Daniel Ackerman

So I think, with the advances we're seeing in recycling, a circular economy is possible, but definitely not in the next decade.

David Roberts

Right. And this is like, I don't want to insert my own rant here, I'm supposed to be listening to you, but this is something I always want to emphasize when we talk about minerals. It is true that you are going to need a bunch more minerals in coming years to build this wave of new batteries and EVs. But this is not like fossil fuel technology where you need a constant flow of materials, right. I mean, that's the whole point about fossil fuel technology is even once you've used the materials to build it, you still need constant input of fuel. So you're doing constant digging, constant mining, constant exploration of new materials.

This is different. Once you build the battery, you're done. And then the minerals in that battery are in circulation and can theoretically be recycled and used to make new batteries forever and ever. I'm in. So you can envision a point when the sort of saturation point has been reached and like there's enough batteries and enough EVs being recycled to satisfy the need for new batteries and new EVs and you're done with mining, right. Obviously that's like...

Daniel Ackerman

The question is how do we get to that point.

David Roberts

Yes, exactly. Getting from here to there is difficult, but this is not a forever type of thing, right. It's not like you're forever going to need more and more and more and more minerals. There is a saturation point that you can't envision reaching, which is just, you constantly hear people saying, "Oh, we're trading one environmental destruction for another. And all this kind of like actually EVs or bad" type of gimmicky arguments online and I just have to make this point over and over again.

Daniel Ackerman

Yeah, I don't know that those arguments are gimmicky because they do kind of set up this conversation of, "Okay, well, if we say we do need these minerals, how do we get them in the least harmful way?"

David Roberts

Sure.

Daniel Ackerman

So it at least sets up that conversation.

David Roberts

Totally. Yeah. And this is another thing also, is that mining and drilling, they can be done somewhat better or worse, but there's a sort of base level of damage you're doing. But there's a lot of wiggle room still to improve these minerals. Because right now, like the current, current market for these minerals is relatively modest. It's the near future everybody's freaking out about. So there just hasn't been a lot of attention paid yet to the mining and trying to impose rules on it and trying to improve its impact.

Daniel Ackerman

Right. And I think in the future, in addition to kind of technological improvements in mining, there's going to be a lot more public pressure on manufacturers, on companies that use these metals to source them responsibly.

David Roberts

Yes. And you also have stuff like federal procurement. I believe there's already stuff in the Inflation Reduction Act about the federal government trying to use its buying power to push toward cleaner materials and stuff like that. So this is not "trading one permanent ecological nightmare for another permanent ecological nightmare." This is a bottleneck that we're trying to get through in the next several decades. So, obviously, we'd like to do it well. As a final question, I'll ask you to get slightly philosophical.

Daniel Ackerman

Okay.

David Roberts

Just intuitively, when someone tells me, "Hey, there's an unexplored virgin territory on Earth, and we've recently discovered it contains valuable materials..."

Daniel Ackerman

What could go wrong?

David Roberts

What could go wrong? What is there in the history of humans on Earth that would give us any confidence that we're going to do this? This seems like the sort of paradigmatic thing that humanity does, is stomp into these unexplored territories, which turn out to be inhabited by all sorts of things. Once you get there and look around and mining them and clearcutting them and destroying them and then coming along years later and saying, "Oh, my gosh, that was terrible what we did. Look at all this damage. Look at how complex the ecosystem turns out to be. Blah, blah, blah." We've seen this show before. So how confident are you that this will be different?

Daniel Ackerman

I can't say I'm super confident. Like you said, we don't have a good track record on this stuff. What I will say, though, is that there's something that's different about deep-sea mining, which is the regulatory environment is being set up before the industry is happening, which is, pretty much different than any kind of mining that's happened in the past. Yeah. So I think there's some hope that if the countries of the ISA can agree to really strong rules, maybe even agree to say, "We don't want to use this vacuum, dredging, destructive technology, we got to use ones that will have a much lighter touch."

Potentially, there's a chance that this industry can happen in a much more responsible way, but I agree. We don't have a great track record on that. We'll see what the ISA can come up with.

David Roberts

The UN. All our hopes turn to the UN. That's daunting. Well, thank you so much for all your research on this and for coming and laying it out so clearly. I've been meaning to look into this for ages. So thanks for doing the work for me.

Daniel Ackerman

This is great. Thanks, David.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much, and I'll see you next time.

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Volts

Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)