7. Deep-sea and space mining

In anticipation of growing scarcity, extractive industries are moving the frontiers of mining to the ocean floor and outer space. Will these pristine places provide us with much-need metals?

The deep sea contains a treasure trove of minerals in high concentrations. Already, mining companies are prospecting the abyssal plains of the oceans for polymetallic nodules, potato-like lumps that are rich in manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel and rare earths. Seamounts and hydrothermal vents are being explored for metals as well. Is deep-sea mining the cleaner alternative for mining on land? It is too early to tell. We know too little about the impacts of mining on marine biodiversity and the ocean carbon sink. For instance, sponges and other deep-sea wildlife depend on the polymetallic nodules, which take millions of years to grow back. Mining the ocean floor might wipe out entire species before we have even discovered them. Marine sediments are the largest pool of carbon storage, which we must not tamper with lightly. (1)

The ongoing research into the ecological effects of deep-sea mining will gradually teach us the extent of the damage and whether ecosystems can recover from it. (2) For the moment, the European Parliament and the European Commission are wisely advocating a moratorium on deep-sea mining. (3) They might not find enough support for such a precautionary approach within the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This intergovernmental organisation controls the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction – a third of the Earth’s surface. ISA is under pressure from the mining industry to finalise its Mining Code and give the go-ahead for deep-sea mining on a commercial scale(4) This makes it all the more important to drive forward the negotiations on a global treaty to protect marine biodiversity in the high seas. Marine-protected areas, off-limits to industrial fishing and mining, should cover at least 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030. (5)


Norway dives for metals

Deep-sea mining in areas of national
jurisdiction does not need ISA’s
permission. In Europe, Norway is a
frontrunner. Oslo plans to give out
licences for the exploration of its
extended continental shelf in the
Norwegian Sea as early as 2023.
The coveted metals include copper,
zinc, cobalt, silver and gold, which
have been deposited on the sea
floor by hydrothermal vents. (6)
The mining plans are meeting
opposition from environmentalists.

Conflicts in space

In a few decades, the technology to extract metals from the Moon and asteroids might be available. Some of the asteroids that get close to Earth during their orbit contain trillions of Euros worth of rare metals. In the USA and elsewhere, companies backed by venture capitalists are already preparing for space mining, with governments tailoring their laws to space miners. But, whereas the minerals in the seabed below international waters are recognised as a 'common heritage of humankind’ and managed by the ISA, there is no such governance yet for minerals on celestial bodies. We are heading for a situation of ‘first come, first served’, whereby some countries lay their hands on near-by space resources while others are left with the crumbs. (7) This is a source of conflict that can exacerbate the ongoing militarisation of space. Any amount of metals that humankind gains from space mining might well be dwarfed by the resources it will waste on an orbital arms race. Military tests that destroyed satellites with missiles have already made a significant contribution to space debris, the growth of which could render space inaccessible to earthlings. (8)

If only we had a treaty on space mining... In fact, there is one, but it has remained a dead letter. The 1979 Moon Agreement identifies the Moon and all other celestial bodies as a common heritage of humankind. It contains an explicit ban on the appropriation of space resources. It requires an ‘international regime’ to be set up for managing the resources and sharing the benefits. But the space powers, such as the USA and Russia, recoiled from this fair deal. They did not sign the Agreement. Only 18 countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria, are parties to it. (9) The EU, which has recognised space as a common heritage of humankind in its most recent space programme (10), should encourage its member states and partners to accede to the Moon Agreement, in order to increase its legal weight and reduce the threat of conflicts over space resources.


Stepping stones for space travel

The costs of transport between Earth and
outer space are steep. With the energy it
takes to escape the Earth’s gravity,
millions of kilometres can be covered in
space. That is why it is appealing to build
spacecraft and space stations in space,
using metals that are extracted from
celestial bodies. Fuel for spacecraft can be
produced in space as well, out of water
found on the Moon or asteroids and with the
use of sunlight. As yet, that is where the
biggest opportunities lie for space miners. (11)

Given the hurdles and risks, neither deep-sea nor space mining can be counted on to provide us with metals for the energy and digital transitions. Space mining holds an entirely different promise, if cooperation wins out over competition: it may enable humankind to further explore our solar system and beyond without draining on earthly resources.


Further viewing

The Economist, 'Mining the deep sea: the true cost to the planet' Afspelen op YouTube
Guillaume Lenel / DW, 'Asteroids - A new El Dorado in space?' Afspelen op YouTube

Further reading

Cosmic Bonanza - Green European Journal

Liesbeth Beneder & Richard Wouters, Cosmic Bonanza - Mining in Outer Space

Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.


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