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GSR vows not to produce ocean-mined minerals before the environmental risks are comprehensively understood

Antwerp 31 March:  Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), the deep sea exploration division of DEME Group, acknowledges that before any deep seabed mining occurs, it needs to be clearly demonstrated that such activities can be managed in a way that ensures the effective protection of the marine environment.

GSR is fully committed to the research required to provide the necessary evidence and is collaborating right now with an independent EU funded monitoring program as part of an ongoing research campaign for its pre-prototype nodule collector, Patania II.

Kris van Nijen, Managing Director of GSR, said: “Deep seabed mining is an industry in the exploration, research and development phase. Years of detailed scientific work lie ahead before there is any prospect of commercial activity.”

“The research that campaigners are calling for is required by the International Seabed Authority. In effect, campaigners are simply, and rightly, asking for the current regulatory processes to be followed and requirements applied.”

“GSR will only apply for a mining contract if the science shows that, from an environmental and social perspective, deep seabed minerals have advantages over the alternative – which is to rely solely on new and current mines on land.”

Editors notes

About GSR

Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) is the deep-sea exploratory division of the DEME Group, a world leader in marine engineering, dredging, and environmental remediation.  Using its 140 years of know-how, DEME is helping to address many of the most pressing global challenges, including climate change, rising sea levels, and the transition to renewable energy.

What is Deep Seabed Mining?

Deep seabed mining (DSM) is the term applied to processes and technologies designed to collect metal-rich resources from the deep seafloor. There are three types of deep seabed mineral resources that are of interest to mining companies:  seafloor massive sulphides, cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, and polymetallic nodules.

Extracting sulphides and crusts entails cutting into the seabed surface. By contrast, polymetallic nodules are rock-like accretions that lie unattached on the surface of the ocean floor and can be collected without cutting or drilling.

Most interest and investment in DSM is focused on polymetallic nodules and this is the sole focus on GSR’s exploration and research. There are trillions of these nodules, roughly the size of potatoes, lying at a water depth of 4,000 to 6,000 metres in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a six million square kilometre region of the Pacific Ocean’s seafloor between Mexico and Hawaii.

Since the early 1970s, there has been growing interest in collecting these nodules due the high-grade and multiple metals they contain – metals like nickel, cobalt, manganese, and copper.

The limits of recycling and substitution

The metals found in polymetallic nodules are critical for clean energy technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicle batteries and other energy storage devices. The World Bank estimates that more than three billion tons of these metals will be needed to deploy the wind, solar and energy storage technologies required to keep climate change to below +2°C[1].

As with clean energy technologies, urban infrastructure is metal intensive. By 2064 the number of people living in resource-hungry urban locations is forecast to increase by 1.93 billion[2]. Remarkably, to accommodate this swelling urban population, the equivalent of 229 New York Cities will need to be built in the next 40 years, putting huge pressure on already strained resources.

In the long-term, a fully circular economy in metals is achievable but all credible studies[3] conclude that enormous quantities of primary resource will be required first. Current land-based sources will make a contribution, but they can’t do it all.

Expanding recycling will also play a part but can only make a modest contribution. That’s because of long in-use lifetimes (an offshore wind turbine is expected to last more than 30 years for example) and also because of low efficiencies in collecting and processing end of life materials.

Beyond recycling, strategies such as material substitution, product re-use and product re-design may be able to place a brake on society’s thirst for metals, and future technological advances may also help to dampen demand.  However, the scale and pace of forecast demand is so high that significant new sources of metal will still be needed in the coming decades.

Diversity of supply

Today all of the world’s primary metals are sourced from land-based mines. About 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with the balance coming from Russia, Australia, Cuba, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea and Canada. Nickel is primarily mined in Indonesia, Philippines, Russia, and New Caledonia.

Because the ore grade of land-based deposits is declining, new sources of metal supplies are being explored, often in remote and ecologically sensitive regions, including rainforests. While many mining companies act responsibly there is no escaping the fact that land-based mining is carbon intensive, often results in deforestation, creates mountains of waste – some of it toxic – and can lead to the displacement of peoples.

Nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt never appear together in terrestrial deposits; two to three separate land-based mines are needed to extract them. The multi-metal nature of polymetallic nodules means that a deep seabed mining area is, in effect, two or three land-based mines in one, which means there is the potential to reduce waste and CO2 emissions per tonne of metal mined and minimise a number of other negative environmental and social effects.

The world is certainly not running out of land-based metal. There are enough resources to meet demand. The problem is that mining these resources comes with a heavy environmental burden, and as exploration takes miners into ever more remote and biodiverse areas, the scale of that burden will only grow.

Deep seabed mining may represent a better way of meeting future metal demand and expand diversity of supply. It certainly won’t replace land-based mining entirely, but it may contribute to a less carbon intensive way of providing the metals we need, and it may have fewer ecosystem effects overall. Continued research will provide the evidence that all stakeholders need to draw rational conclusions about how best to proceed.

Patania II trial

Named after the world’s fastest caterpillar, Patania II is the pre-prototype seafloor nodule collector built by Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR).

GSR commenced its technical development programme in 2012. In 2017, the company tested a robot with a tracked propulsion system designed to crawl across the deep seafloor (Patania I). Using the learnings about trafficability and manoeuvrability from this test, GSR engineered Patania II, a 12 m-long, 4 m-wide, 4.5 m-high, 25-ton nodule-collecting robot, also on caterpillar tracks.

Patania II is equipped with the latest cameras and sensors, including environmental sensors. The robot is controlled from a surface vessel via a 5 km-long cable that provides power and communication capabilities.

Patania II is being trialled in 4500 m water depth on the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean in April and May 2021. The trial will aim to confirm the trafficability and manoeuvrability of Patania II and its ability to pick up nodules.  The trial follows the submission of an Environmental Impact Statement, which was made publicly available through the websites of the International Seabed Authority and Belgium government.  The results of this research will also be made public.

Independent environmental monitoring

Environmental monitoring is a key component of GSR’s development program, ensuring the effects of its activities are understood, can be accurately predicted and improved upon and so that appropriate environmental management strategies can be developed and implemented.

For the Patania II trial, GSR is collaborating with the European research project Mining Impact. Scientists from 28 European institutes will join efforts with the German exploration contract holder, BGR, to independently monitor the trial to help understand the environmental effects of collecting mineral resources from the seafloor.

[1] Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition, World Bank, 2020

[2] Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study, Stein et al, 2020

[3] Institute for Sustainable Futures – Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy, 2019; Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition, World Bank, 2020; Analysis of Potential for Critical Metal Resource Constraints in the International Energy Agency’s Long-Term Low-Carbon Energy Scenarios. Watari et al.,2018