Several kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean in an area known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone, the seabed is littered with rocks the size of potatoes. Known as polymetallic nodules, they are rich in the minerals required to make batteries.
As global demand for critical minerals rapidly increases, a number of companies are considering the potential for mining polymetallic nodules. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established by the UN in 1994 to organise, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole. They have a mandated duty to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed related activities.
The ocean seabed is one of the most complex, under-studied and potentially vulnerable environments on earth, so it’s essential that any deep-sea mining that is proposed is guided by stringent environmental considerations.
Scientific research can quantify environmental impacts and map out the best possible development pathways should the ISA give the go ahead to exploration.
With deep expertise across oceans management and quantitative modelling, CSIRO is ideally placed to help inform what lies beneath and how we best consider the environment.
Assessing potential environmental impacts of deep-sea mining
CSIRO is leading a consortium of organisations to highlight any potential impacts of a deep-sea mining proposal from The Metals Company (TMC), a North American mining company. The research, which will also be made publicly available, will close a knowledge gap that is there today and help ISA make decisions. Specifically, we will develop an ecosystem assessment and framework that will inform the company’s environmental management plan and provide vital information for the ISA to consider.
TMC’s proposal to mine an area of the Clarion Clipperton Zone will be the first project presented for review by the ISA. If approved, TMC’s proposal will set a precedent for all future projects, making it critical that the environmental management plan is evidence based, comprehensive, and driven by robust scientific data.
“We are not a proponent for deep sea mining activity,” says Dr Jeffrey Dambacher, a senior researcher with CSIRO’s Ecological and Environmental Risk Assessment team.
“That is simply not our role. We’re involved with the project because we want to provide a framework to assess the potential environmental impacts of deep-sea mining in a way that addresses the concerns of ISA, global stakeholders and TMC – and we think we can set a very high standard for everything that may follow. We will develop an approach that is defensible, adaptive, and scientifically rigorous,” says Dr Dambacher.
Why do we need more critical minerals?
As Australia and the rest of the world intensify efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move towards net zero, global demand for renewable and low emission technologies is growing rapidly.
As a result, the demand for the critical minerals required to build those technologies such as solar panels and utility-scale batteries is increasing too.
A 2020 report from the World Bank projects that in order to meet demand, a 500% increase in the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt will take place by 2050.
“If we’re going to have an energy transition, we need more minerals,” says CSIRO’s Dr Chris Vernon, a senior research scientist who leads the organisation’s Green Minerals Technologies Initiatives.
“Some of those materials can be found and extracted quite easily, like the silicon needed for photovoltaic cells. But for high performance batteries, the type required to manufacture longer range electric vehicles, we really need nickel and cobalt – and we need it in a hurry to help us decarbonise,” says Dr Vernon.
“There are projections that we need to increase the annual extraction of some key minerals 3 to 5 times above current rates. If we can’t find enough of those minerals that we can easily extract on land in an environmentally sensitive way, or that we can procure through recycling and reuse, some of them may instead come from deep-sea mining.”
The challenges of deep-sea mining
There is broad agreement across the international community that before any work begins on deep-sea mining projects, there must be appropriate consideration given to potential environmental impacts.
Consisting of 167 member states and the European Union, the ISA is tasked with regulating mining activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
But one of the key challenges facing the ISA – along with mining companies and other stakeholders – is that even after decades of research, there are still significant gaps in our knowledge about the seabed.
“We use the phrase ‘data poor’ for a situation like this,” says Dr Dambacher.
“An ecosystem might be data poor because no-one has looked at it before; it could also be data poor because it can be difficult to make observations. With this project, it has both of those characteristics.
“It's not 100% data poor – there has been deep sea research taking place for many years - but compared to an environment like a forest or a coral reef, observing the bottom of the Pacific presents a real challenge.
“We will need to apply specific techniques that are successful in data poor systems, and we will design the framework so that it can be refined and constantly improved throughout the life of the project.”
What is CSIRO doing?
CSIRO is leading a consortium with the NZ National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Griffith University, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Museums Australia, to develop an integrated ecosystem assessment and ecosystem-based management framework that considers the potential impacts of TMC’s proposed mining activities.
“Initially, we will work with other experts to understand the entire ecosystem and how the different parts interact with each other,” says Dr Piers Dunstan, a researcher with CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere who is leading the project alongside Dr Dambacher.
“That approach will allow us to begin identifying the parts of the ecosystem that are vulnerable to impacts from different activities – because clearly not every disturbance will have an impact on every part of the system,” says Dr Dunstan.
Sources of disturbance to the deep-sea ecosystem might include sedimentation, physical or habitat disturbance, or noise from mining operations. For each activity, the researchers will work to identify what impacts might result from different levels of activity.
“Our technique is to provide a modelling framework that takes what’s known - data that has been gathered through baseline studies - and tries to address the complexity of the seabed and the ocean itself, between the mining environment and the surface, to understand and predict the major processes at play,” says Dr Dambacher.
“We look at how things might change with the activities going on from the proposed mining,” he continues.
“From there, we develop indicators that we think are likely to be informative for monitoring, and then we structure a monitoring program that is a companion to the operations if they are allowed to go forward.”
While the team is using novel modelling techniques that are well-suited for low data environments, they’re also applying many of the traditional, trusted principles of good environmental risk assessment frameworks – such as using the concept of thresholds to determine what constitutes different levels of impact.
“A key part of the current work is finding agreement on definitions and thresholds,” says Dr Dunstan.
“We know there’s likely to be a certain level of mining activity where a small change is detectable with little impact. We know there’s a point where that becomes a significant level of impact – and the response then should be to change operations and reduce the impact. Finally, there’s the point at which serious harm will occur – but the entire focus of the management plan is to ensure that the limit is known but never reached.”
The consortium led by CSIRO will spend the next two years working on the project, and The Metals Company intend to use the final report to produce an Environmental Impact Statement that will be submitted to the International Seabed Authority.
The importance of social licence
Dr Andrea Walton is a social scientist with CSIRO’s Adaptive Communities and Industries group, who conducts research into social acceptance and perceptions of risk and benefits in relation to contested industries. While not directly involved with the TMC project, Dr Walton’s work across mining, waste and energy has revealed that transparency is one of the key considerations for people weighing up their views on projects like this one.
“When it comes to social acceptability, there are several factors at play that are common to different situations and they all work together as a package,” says Dr Walton.
“You can’t just look at one or two in isolation. Those factors include potential risks and impacts – environmental, social and cultural. They also include potential local and societal benefits; trust in governance and the mining operator; an understanding of the need for the technology; and fair, open access to information,” she says.
“It has to be a transparent process right from the start, and where you see problems arise is when industries don’t have those strong frameworks in place along with open and responsive engagement.”
Whilst engaging with TMC, CSIRO and other consortium members will retain the rights to publish all the outputs of the research – an agreement that the whole team agreed was essential for reasons of integrity and transparency.
Providing the information to help society make difficult decisions
The consortium’s research will highlight the potential impacts of TMC’s deep-sea mining proposal through science and data.
“The global energy transition means that we will need to make more and more of these kinds of decisions,” says Dr Walton.
“If a project is going to go ahead, we want regulation and industry standards to be at the very best level possible, and that’s what CSIRO can help inform,” she says.
However, none of the researchers working on the project are under the illusion that science has every answer to every question.
“We already know that terrestrial mining has an enormous impact,” says Dr Dunstan.
“Deep sea mining doesn’t involve digging up and shifting millions of cubic metres of soil, so there’s certainly potential for it to be a lower impact operation - but it will have some level of impact on the seabed.
“The question for all of us globally is are we willing to accept some impact in order to extract minerals from the sea floor as a trade-off for decarbonisation and developing alternatives to fossil fuels?
“Whether we are willing to accept that is not a science question, it’s a question for society. What science can do is provide a robust evidence-based risk assessment to help with answering the question – and that’s exactly what we are doing.”