Because of the increased demand for raw materials and technological innovations, deep sea mining has gained greater attention by governments and industry. The deep layers of the ocean store manganese nodules, ferromanganese crusts, and massive sulphide deposits. These deposits contain metals such as copper, nickel or cobalt which are needed for renewable energy production and high-tech applications as well as trace elements like lithium, indium, gallium or germanium. Without them the electric car couldn't drive, no windmill would turn and no smartphone could work. These deep sea warehouses are being considered as a new source of raw materials in the medium term. At the least, they could complement terrestrial mining.
Minerals in the deep sea are regarded as the common heritage of humanity. Their exploration and use is monitored by the ISA headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows use of the Area exclusively for peaceful purposes. It must also be ensured that the environment will not suffer negative impacts.
The German Federal Government made a commitment during its 2015 G7 Presidency to assume more responsibility for the development of benchmarks of future, environmentally friendly raw materials extraction from the deep sea. This includes doing scientific research and environmental impact assessments.
Since 2001, the ISA has issued 27 licences which are valid for a period of 15 years, 17 of which were designated for exploration of manganese nodules in areas of 75,000 square kilometres (m2) each, four for exploration of manganese crusts (with an area of 3,000 m2 each) and six for exploration of massive sulphide deposits (with an area of 10,000 m2 each). The BGR has been tasked by the Federal Government since 2006 to explore a licensed territory containing manganese nodules in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and since 2015 to explore sulphide deposits in the south-western Indian Ocean.
Whereas exploration has a low impact on the environment, large-scale deep sea mining projects in the future will have significantly more severe effects on the deep sea. Many of the sea organisms such as sponges, mussels, starfish and other bottom dwellers and bacteria would be removed if manganese crusts or nodules are harvested with automatic collectors. Fine sediment particles stirred up by mining equipment will drift near the bottom as a murky cloud and could impair the vital functions of the animals and the food chain.
According to the latest research, the repopulation of mined areas takes many decades, perhaps even centuries. It is therefore recommendable to designate large protected areas in the immediate vicinity of potential mining areas in which no mining is permitted. The aim is to preserve biodiversity.
High standards of environmental protection will be important in any set of regulations. In addition to campaigning for a systematic consideration of the precautionary principle at international level, the BGR and UBA also emphasise the inclusion of spatial planning tools and a plan for conflict resolution with competing uses such as fishing. Regulations must also make it possible to adjust the terms and conditions of licenses after their issue should new research findings determine that ongoing projects are causing environmental damage. In this regard, the interests of environmental and nature conservation must be weighed against economic ones.
The BGR and UBA have said the body of knowledge about the deep sea ecosystems and technologies for deep sea mining must be further improved. German research institutions have invested hundreds of millions of euros over the past 30 years in exploration of the deep sea and its environment, but not all the gaps in knowledge have been closed. "Environmental impact must be scientifically examined before mining activities begin. This provides an opportunity for Germany to lead the way with its environmentally friendly technologies and high standards of regulation", emphasised President Prof. Dr. Ralph Watzel of the BGR. "We still do not really know what the deep sea looks like and what must be protected. So the question remains if we would possibly do better to deal with the scarcity of raw materials with an ambitious recycling programme in Germany," said UBA President Maria Krautzberger.
Andreas Beuge (Press Officer)
Tel. +49 511/643-2299, e-mail: info [at] bgr [dot] de
Martin Ittershagen (Press Officer)
Tel. +49 340/2103-2245, e-mail: pressestelle [at] uba [dot] de