7. Deep-sea and space mining

In anticipation of growing scarcity, the extractive industries are expanding the frontiers of mining to the ocean floor and into outer space. Will these pristine places provide us with the metals we so desperately need?

The deep sea is a treasure trove of minerals in high concentrations. Mining companies are already 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 also being explored for metals. Is deep-sea mining the cleaner alternative to 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. Sponges and other deep-sea wildlife depend on 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. And marine sediments are the largest pool of carbon storage; any decision to tamper with them must not be taken lightly. (1)

Ongoing research into the ecological effects of deep-sea mining will gradually reveal 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) However, they may find it difficult to garner enough support for such a precautionary approach within the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This intergovernmental organisation controls the areas of the ocean floor that lie beyond national jurisdictions – a third of 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 international waters. Marine protected areas, off-limits to industrial fishing and mining, should cover at least 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030. (5)

pickaxe

Norway dives for metals

Deep-sea mining in areas of national
jurisdiction can be carried out without
ISA authorisation. In Europe, Norway
is a frontrunner. Oslo plans to issue
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

With regard to space mining, the technology needed to extract metals from the Moon and asteroids could be available within decades. 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 the wishes of space miners. While the minerals in the international seabed area are recognised as the ‘common heritage of humankind’ and managed by the ISA, there is currently no such governance structure for minerals within celestial bodies. We are heading for a situation of ‘first come, first served’, whereby some countries are able to access nearby space resources while others are left to gather the crumbs. (7) This could develop into a source of conflict and exacerbate the ongoing militarisation of space. The quantity of metals gained from space mining could well be dwarfed by the resources wasted 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)

We may wish that we had a treaty on space mining, but in fact, one already exists. The 1979 Moon Agreement identifies the Moon and all other celestial bodies as the common heritage of humankind. It contains an explicit ban on the appropriation of space resources and requires an ‘international regime’ to be set up for the purpose of resource management and benefit-sharing. But the space powers, including the USA and Russia, recoiled from this fair deal. Their failure to sign means that the agreement has so far remained a dead letter. Only 18 countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria, are parties to it. (9) The EU, which in its most recent space programme recognised space as the common heritage of humankind (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 conflict over space resources.

Metals

Stepping stones for space travel

The costs of transport between Earth and
outer space are steep. With the energy it
takes to escape Earth’s gravitational pull,
millions of kilometres can be covered in
space. Hence the appeal of building
spacecraft and space stations in space
using metals extracted from celestial
bodies. Fuel for spacecraft can also be
produced in space, using water found on
the Moon or asteroids and sunlight. This
is where the biggest opportunities currently
lie for space miners. (11)

Given the obstacles and risks, neither deep-sea nor space mining can be counted on to provide us with the metals we need for the energy and digital transitions. Space mining holds an entirely different promise, if cooperation can win out over competition: enabling humankind to further explore our solar system and beyond without draining limited terrestrial resources.

Footnotes

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), the 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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