What if your cellphone stopped working. You decided to buy a new one but there were no more. New models were no longer being shipped because the manufacturer had run out of a key, rare metal. This is just the tip of the iceberg when you start considering the issues around deep sea mining.
It’s not only cell phones, but computers and satellites. Technologies that make modern life possible. Plus, the new technologies that we will need for a low-carbon, green future. Electric cars, solar cells and wind turbines, all depend on rare metals. For example, there are millions of Toyota Prius hybrids on the road and each has a battery that uses about 20 pounds of rare metals.
Lanthanum, Lutetium and Yttrium
Rare metals are the “vitamins of chemistry” says David Cordier of the U.S. Geological Survey, “They help everything perform better, and they have their own unique characteristics….particularly in terms of magnetism, temperature resistance and resistance to corrosion.”
So, let’s venture into this story full of complexities and conflicting perspectives over metals like: lanthanum, lutetium and yttrium, names that you probably have never heard.
First conundrum, rare metals (also called rare earth elements) aren’t really that rare. The name is a 15thc. hold-over that meant “strange” or “unusual.” But these 17 “rare” metals are hard to come by. That’s because some are mined in constant conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But, the much larger reason is that 97% of all rare metals come from China and China does not shy away from using its monopoly on rare metals to further its economic and geopolitical agenda.
“The Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths.”
Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after the death of Mao, said in 1992 “The Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths.”
This was not always so. For 50 years starting in 1940 the United States produced its own rare metals primarily from the Mountain Pass mine in southern California.
In the 1960’s when color was brought to television, a rare metal called europium was needed to produce TV’s red. Demand for rare metals exploded and the Mountain Pass mine became the world’s largest. (photo – Alicia Wallace, Denver Post)
The bonanza didn’t last. By 2002 the mine was shuttered for serious environmental violations. Then starting in 2008 a new owner Molycorp invested $1.25 billion and reopened the mine. With rising rare metal prices Molycorp was by 2012 on track to produce +20,000 metric tons.
Apparently, that was too much competition for the Chinese, they flooded the world market and forced prices for rare metals down. By 2015 Molycorp went bankrupt and in June of 2017 the mine was auctioned. Not surprisingly the new owner was a Chinese owned consortium.
China Controls 97% of the World’s Supply
That means that China now controls 97% of the world’s rare metals mined on land and they are now looking to deep sea mining to find more. (photo – The Telegraph UK)
All known potential sources of rare metals on land total about 76 million tons. That’s enough predictable supply to meet demand for only 40 more years. Plus, the demand for more common metals like nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper is rapidly surpassing new production sources.
All of these metals, rare and common are found on the sea floor and have been in the sights of mining companies for years. Until recently technical limitations have made mining these minerals impossible.
Now, 27 exploration licenses have been granted by the International Seabed Authority and China has three. A vessel especially built for trawling deep waters for minerals is under construction in China’s state-owned shipyard.
Japan Discovers a Bonanza off Okinawa
A year ago, Japan completed its first trials, 4800 feet deep, off the coast of Okinawa. Japan a huge, hi-tech manufacturer, remembers a collision at sea that led to a confrontation with China in 2010. The Chinese responded by halting shipments of rare metals to Japan, forcing it to capitulate. The Japanese do not want to suffer another humiliating face off and need to insure mineral supplies from their own, more secure sources.
The results of Japan’s deep-sea survey were impressive finding “some of the most critically important elements” needed by modern society. The discovery if extrapolated over a 2,500 square kilometer region could contain 16 million tons of important minerals.
Solwara 1 Begins Within Months
The project closest to actual execution is scheduled to begin in early 2019 in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. Known as Solwara 1. The prospect will be carried out by the Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals. They will be targeting copper and gold deposits surrounding hydrothermal vents..
A specialized support ship is in final construction. It will lower the mining equipment to the sea floor and also pump the ore to the surface for processing. Nautilus says everything has been carefully thought out, but at a mile deep, under enormous pressures, a lot can go wrong.
It now seems clear that the technical barriers to searching for and harvesting deep sea minerals have now mostly been overcome, what remains are the ethical and environmental concerns.
Sylvia Earle and Liz Taylor Speak Out
Voices within our own Blue Ocean community are raising the alarm. Sylvia Earle and her daughter Liz Taylor, both Blue Ocean summit alumni known a thing or two about the deep ocean.
Sylvia, one of the leading oceanographers of her generation, founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research or DOER Marine in the 90’s. Liz is co-founder, president and CEO of the company.
On the cutting edge of deep-sea exploration technology, DOER Marine leads in the development of remotely operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs.
Liz and Sylvia have made it DOER’s mission to expand and democratize access to the oceans. Their agenda is nothing less than healing our damaged sea. They share very strong opinions on deep sea mining and are critical of the methods Nautilus Minerals intends to use. Taylor believes it would be “remarkably destructive” to the deep-sea marine ecosystem and its biodiversity.
Can the Deep Sea Ecosystem Be protected?
“Remarkably Destructive” is an opinion widely shared among ocean conservationists and scientists. Craig Smith an oceanographer with the University of Hawaii believes that this type of seabed mining would “basically wipe out large areas of deep-sea ecosystems.”
“In all cases, seabed mining will, by its very nature, destroy species and habitats within the mining zones.” Affirms David Santillo, a research fellow with Greenpeace. “There is no justification for a ‘gold rush’ to mine the seabed. Instead we should be focusing on making smarter and more efficient use of the materials we already have.”
The issue of Deep Sea Mining is so complicated and important that we broke our article into two parts. See Part B, Is Deep Sea Mining Inevitable? Where we will delve deeper into this controversy and look at the unique marine life discovered around hydrothermal vents?
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
See these Related Blue Ocean Articles:
How To Get More Ocean-Hearted Intel Delivered To Your Inbox!
We believe ocean lovers can change the world. If you care about the health of the ocean and want to do something about it, then connect with the Blue Ocean tribe: Our growing community of ocean change-makers is turning ocean lovers into ocean leaders. It starts with you. Join us!