Deep Sea Mining: Electric Car Batteries May Upset the Ocean Ecology  

By Roar Bjonnes

More electric cars are needed to save us from using fossil fuels to save us from global warming. These electric cars need cobalt, a naturally occurring metal and an essential ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries powering everything from cell phones and laptops to Elon’s Tesla.

In the race for climate sustainability, the current cobalt market feature prices soaring up to $60,000 per metric ton. Experts have predicted no less than a 14,900% increase in demand for cobalt by 2030. But with dwindling cobalt resources in copper and nickel mines, there is, from a purely profit and production standpoint, a dire need for more cobalt.

Today, 60% of the global supply of cobalt comes from copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with calamitous consequences to the local environment. The pollution from copper and cobalt operations has poisoned and ended fishing in the Katapula tributary of the Congo River.

The same pollution is threatening to engulf the entire city of Lubumbashi in toxic acidity. High concentrations of toxic metals in the air are causing respiratory illnesses and birth defects.

Not only is the precarious ecology of the country threatened, so is the health and wellbeing of more than 40,000 boys and girls who work the mines, according to an investigative report by the Washington Post. The demand for more sustainable production of electric luxury cars and the race for a cleaner environment is ironically wreaking havoc on both people and nature.

As the push for producing more electric vehicles is accelerating, mining companies are searching for new areas to extract cobalt.  Ocean minerals are thus becoming increasingly valuable in the current market. With increasing commodity prices, mineral resources such as cobalt, copper or zinc are now sought after in an even more precarious environment: the deep blue sea.  

Cobalt is found on the seabed at depths between 800 to 2400 meters and are therefore impossible to extract without sophisticated robots and AI to vacuum the mineral rocks off the ocean floor, loading them on ships to be shipped to factories for processing.   

A quick Google search on deep sea mining resulted in this statement: new cobalt ventures are needed to create “a more sustainable production of our future resources – for the benefit of mankind.” To the environmental activists in Greenpeace, however, such mining ventures would come at a great environmental cost, potentially destroying the delicate ocean ecology for good.

And time is of the essence. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is set to decide the fate of the world’s oceans behind closed doors by fast-tracking regulations for the launch of the deep-sea mining industry by July 2023 at a meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, from July 18-29.

In notes sent to the Jamaica Observer, the organization stated, “Civil society and frontline communities are protesting this destructive industry, which threatens one of the world’s largest carbon sinks as well as the lives and livelihoods of billions of people living in coastal communities. Greenpeace is calling on the car companies — the supposed customers of this industry — to support a moratorium.”

Greenpeace also noted, “The ISA is charged with protecting the oceans as the ‘common heritage of mankind’. However, it is now trying to open a vast new frontier of the global ocean commons to large-scale industrial resource extraction and has implemented severe restrictions on the participation of civil society that diminishes our engagement in one of the most critical discussions about the future of our oceans.”

Countering Greenpeace’s warnings, the ISA is claiming that deep sea mining offers a “greener more socially just” alternative to land based mining. Many scientists, according to Greenpeace, are warning that deep sea mining is not only threatening the ecological balance of the deep seas, our most effective sink hole for carbon, but also the livelihoods of millions of coastal people at risk.

The activist organization said that calls for a moratorium have grown as more countries, civil society, scientists, automobile and technology companies, financial institutions, and the fishing industry have stated that deep sea mining is not worth the environmental risk.

Indeed, several technology and electric vehicle industry heavyweights are now calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, including Rivian, Renault, BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo Group, Scandia, Google, and Samsung SDI.

Moreover, Greenpeace are “calling on US automakers Ford, GM, and Tesla to come forward and take a stand to protect our oceans.”

While we are racing to halt the heating of our planet by searching for green alternatives to fossil fuels, we are in the danger of simplifying our complex challenges with technological fixes driven by greed and a one-shoe-fits-all solution to our energy problem.

Deep-sea mining to fuel our electric vehicles is wrought with ecological, cultural, political, and economic complications. Here are a few important considerations before we take the robotic plunge toward the bottom of the sea:

First, we cannot fix our energy problem, nor climate change, if profit-making in the name of sustainability is the sole driver of progress. Second, green growth is often a double-edged sword, and thus we need to become comfortable with letting some sources of energy stay in the ground.

Third, as Buckminster Fuller said, we need to look for less-is-more solution—ways to decrease the use of energy through more public transportation, walkable cities, bicycles, reduced consumerism and meat consumption, and a dramatic increase in cultural and leisure activities. All activities that are very high on the human wellbeing scale but very low on the energy scale.   

After all, a low-growth economy—where economic sufficiency and wellbeing, not GNP, are the best measures of progress—is more likely our best hope in outgrowing our energy predicament without destroying the environment in the process.

Deeper systems changes are required while we search for new sources of renewable energy and other ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. This will require political, economic, and cultural innovations—solutions that go way beyond mining our seabed to fuel technological fixes and electric vehicles alone.

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak

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