In industry, the stories we tell today turn into the events of tomorrow.
Sector narratives are vitally important, particularly in the energy transition and especially now. What we choose to talk about matters, as evidenced by the dialogue and resounding commitment of so many countries at COP28 to triple renewables by 2030.
Yet a central part of the energy transition remains a faint whisper on the periphery of the conversation. I’m talking about the sourcing of critical minerals.
We are moving from a fossil world to a minerals-based world. By any measure, the mineral sourcing discussion holds profound industrial and geopolitical significance.
As a specialist in narrative structure and industrial conversations, three things jump out at me when I look at the current state of the minerals dialogue: 1) we do acknowledge we will need much more, but 2) we don’t talk about where this unfathomable increase should come from, and 3) more specifically the ocean – deep-sea mining – is alarmingly conspicuous by its absence.
We’ve looked to the ocean to solve pressing energy problems before. We went offshore for oil & gas in the 1890s. Now, offshore oil & gas represents 30% of the market. Denmark found tremendous wind resource at sea in 1991. Offshore wind is now positioned to be a fundamental part of the future global energy mix.
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With critical minerals so essential to the energy transition, I believe we find ourselves again with a pressing need to go to the ocean. With no time to waste to save our planet, I believe ocean metals is an industry whose time has come.
Polymetallic nodules in the deep ocean contain four essential battery metals: cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese – all in a single ore and of higher quality than land ores. And the seabed is full of them. For example, one zone – the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean – contains enough mineral resource to singlehandedly power batteries for 280 million EVs.
Deep-sea mining is not hemmed in by the capital constraints facing terrestrial mining. Even at depths of 4,000-6,000 metres, ocean metals are far more accessible, eliminating many of the headaches that come with land-based permitting, roads, and infrastructure requirements.
Importantly, deep-sea mining eliminates human rights abuses still problematic with terrestrial mining – namely disruption to indigenous communities and exploitation of child labor – and avoids the devastating effects of deforestation, including the loss of essential carbon sinks and hundreds of thousands of species in biodiverse rainforests.
When carried out responsibly, with highly trained crews on decarbonised vessels, mining ocean-based nodules is expected to generate, on average, 80-90% less CO2 equivalent emissions than using ores from land-based mines, according to recent studies.
If we want a peaceful and sustainable energy transition, we need transparent and balanced supply chains in the energy sector.
Dominating the global minerals market, China is obscured by an opaque supply chain and vertical integration of terrestrial mines, possessing OPEC-level power with approximately 80% of the world’s processing activity.
Deep-sea mining opens up processing capacity in ways that will restore much-needed balance to the minerals market. Secure, balanced, and transparent supply chains mean a safer world.
Deep-sea engineering and innovation has advanced in adjacent industries which now makes it possible for ocean metals to leverage this expertise.
Ocean governance is now in place. The current governing body for international waters, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), was created in 1994 to regulate seabed use globally. However, the 168-member ISA is now stuck in a bureaucratic slog as it attempts to establish a regulatory framework to govern these activities.
It’s disheartening to see NGOs lining up in opposition to ocean metals.
With global security and a healthy supply chain hanging in the balance, we urgently need a diverse minerals industry to facilitate a sustainable energy transition and to stabilize the market.
It’s disheartening to see environmental NGOs lining up in opposition to ocean metals – the very groups who say there is no time to waste in the climate crisis. NGO opposition says that we don’t know enough about the impacts, so this should be studied for decades before operations are considered. We don’t have decades.
As someone with a background in the NGO world, I question the motivation of my environmental NGO friends on this one. It seems that their opposition is more about vociferous messaging than actual data.
To bring the technology forward and commercialise ocean metals, we must overcome false narratives – and the best way to do that is through full transparency and peer-reviewed data.
An entire industry waits at the starting gate, ready to join the fight against climate change. Responsible deep-sea mining is more than just a “less bad option”. It has the potential to facilitate a safe and sustainable energy transition and to balance the geopolitics of the global minerals market.
The time for the ocean metals conversation is now.
- Michael Morris is a partner at Engagement Lab