Sun, Aug 25, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Managing the next ‘gold rush’ as miners eye the vast seafloor

By Sharon Burke

However, the US will not even be at the table, because it is not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and thus is not officially represented at the ISA. A small clique of US senators has long blocked accession to the treaty for obscure ideological reasons, an idiosyncrasy that America might soon decide it can ill afford.

With or without US companies in the mix, economic progress is not a free ride. Recovering and refining the raw materials needed for digital technologies and clean energy inevitably has environmental consequences. All mining — including the noxious process of extracting minerals from rocks — is destructive and it is too soon to tell if deep-ocean mining is more or less destructive than mining on land.

What looks at first like a barren and forbidding wasteland is actually the largest biome on the planet, populated by fantastical creatures such as the anglerfish, vampire squid, and ancient corals that have been around since the Bronze Age. A recent University of Hawaii-led exploration of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a vast international underwater territory stretching from Hawaii to Mexico, documented a plethora of deep-seabed flora and fauna, more than half of which were entirely new to science.

Researchers have also recently discovered that microbial organisms in the deep ocean might play an important part in regulating the Earth’s climate. Some of these formations and organisms have taken millions of years to accrue; disturbing them, or even covering them in the sediment that mining would kick up, could permanently destroy them. Little is known about the role these species and deep-ocean microbes play in fisheries, the global climate and other ecosystem processes that support marine and terrestrial life.

The international community should aim to secure the best, least destructive supply of the minerals it needs, whether from the DRC or the deep ocean — or likely both. We should at least identify and understand the tradeoffs before crucial decisions are made, so as to weigh the possible consequences before they become irrevocable.

Clearly, China and the US — if it can be persuaded to step off the sidelines — must play a leading role in this effort.

When the industrial revolution began, no one could have known that climate change would be one of its end results, but in the digital age, the world must be much more environmentally aware when tapping the deep-ocean mineral riches.

Sharon Burke, former US assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, directs the New America’s Resource Security Program.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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