Mining the ocean floor for valuable mineral resources is not particularly new. Mineral resources from sand and gravel deposits to diamonds have been harvested for some time. A rich and checkered history is behind today’s large-scale aspirations in this area.
It has been known for decades that vast mineral-rich deposits on the seafloor often exceed the ore quality of commercially exploited terrestrial sources. The primary problem has always been a matter of economics, but also of politics and national security.
Can these subsea deposits be recovered, shipped, and processed more cheaply than those from large commercial operations on land? To date, the answer has been no.
In the 1970s a few international consortia were organized to exploit seafloor resources, primarily manganese nodules. These ubiquitous potato-shaped lumps are rich in copper, cobalt, and nickel. Found on the seafloor at depths up to 16,000 feet, their recovery offered many challenges to would-be aqua-miners.
Major names such as Kennecott Copper, Lockheed, International Nickel, and Sumitomo formed consortia to develop ocean-mining businesses. Seafloor-mining equipment was developed, shipping and processing methods were worked out, and small-scale mining was performed at sea. In some operations tons of nodules were harvested and processed. The know-how was developed. But no commercial operations were established.
The national-security aspect was especially important during the Cold War. The Soviet Union controlled major global sources of “strategic minerals.” In response, the United States established “strategic stockpiles” of purchased commodities to provide a national reserve. Turning to seabed resources was an option then, but one that was never executed. With the end of the Cold War in 1991 and advancements in material sciences, supply security was no longer an issue.
Another disincentive was the international politics related to exploitation access to the World Ocean seafloor. Who should have rights to this potential wealth that many have called “the Common Heritage of Mankind?” This issue was addressed by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1973–1982. With respect to ocean mining, there were two provisions in the Law of the Sea Treaty (it became international law in 1994). The first awarded a 200-mile-wide Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to all coastal nations. In this area the coastal state could make any arrangement it wished for mining the seafloor.
The second provision was a “High-Seas Regime” covering about 65 percent of the ocean area, and this did embrace the principle of common heritage. To regulate ocean mining under the treaty, a new UN agency, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), was created in 1994.
However, developing nations insisted that the ISA set aside a large portion of any awarded area for their benefit. In addition, commercial mining companies would be required to help those nations through technology transfer and financial assistance.
The third-world ocean-mining provisions of the Law of the Sea Treaty initially were a deal breaker for the ocean-mining consortia. In some cases their respective governments decided against signing the treaty. The ocean-mining provisions were the principal reason the United States did not sign the treaty when it was opened for international signing in 1981. Subsequently, the unfavorable aspects were modified, and for several years the presidential administration in power at any given time has urged the Senate to provide advice and consent regarding the treaty.
Later it was decided that the early objections due to the consortia’s fears of “giving away the store” were largely unfounded. But ocean mining did not fail because of politics; it failed the economic test. It simply could not be done more cheaply than terrestrial mining of the same commodities.
Today the ISA has granted mining rights only to China for Pacific and Indian Ocean tracts on the international seabed. In the EEZs, the governments of Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Fiji have negotiated with foreign companies to produce ore from the seabeds under their jurisdictions. But the operation closest to actual commercial production recently terminated its agreement with Papua New Guinea.
In the past few years another concern has entered the picture—the environmental impact of these activities. This has been made more urgent when the true cost of seafloor-trawling fisheries became evident. Bottom trawling has been called the marine equivalent of clear-cutting in the forest: The resource is harvested in a way that creates permanent damage. While it appears that ocean mining would not be so onerous, these concerns need to be taken into account.
So far, no enterprise has produced significant commercial quantities of seafloor minerals. Ocean mining still remains just around the corner. Clearly, it will come someday. The “if” of it is assured, but the “when” remains unclear.