Bruce Beaubouef * Managing Editor
HOUSTON – With demand for critical minerals expected to ramp up in the coming years, deepsea mining is set to offer an efficient resource play with relatively and comparatively benign marine and environmental impacts.
That was the key theme offered by Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO, The Metals Company, at one of the executive dialogues held at Wednesday’s Offshore Technology Conference in Houston. The dialogue, entitled “Deepsea Minerals: a new offshore industry 150 years in the making,” was moderated by Dan McConnell, Founder, Geomarine Resources PLLC.
Barron pointed out that interest in ocean floor resources is nothing new. He noted that the first commercial interest in seabed mining dates back to the mid-1870s, when the British Navy’s HMS Challenger undertook the first global marine expedition, equipped with a special dredging platform. But interest waned after that, and was only renewed 100 years later, in the late 1970s, when the Hughes Glomar Explorer was hired by the Ocean Minerals Company to test a prototype deepsea mining system in the Pacific Ocean. But a lack of rules and regulation about mining in international waters stymied the nascent industry. The United Nations sought to remedy that challenge with the creation of the International Seabed Authority in 1994, whose remit it is to authorize and control development of mineral related operations in international waters.
Barron said that The Metals Company was formed in 2021 to pursue deepsea mining opportunities; and it was at OTC 2018 that he met officials from Allseas Group, which would become “a key partner” for The Metals Company.
In April 2022, The Metals Company and Allseas successfully tested a pilot module collector vehicle on the floor of the North Sea. The testing confirmed critical drive functions including the robotic vehicle’s ability to maneuver forwards and backwards at various speeds and in different directions, as well as to raise and lower the nodule’s adjustable collector heads, another critical function. Engineers were also able to test dynamic positioning systems aboard the Hidden Gem, the Allseas collection vessel, confirming the vessel’s ability to adjust speed and heading as the collector drives across the seafloor.
“For a long time, deepsea mining has been a pipe dream; something for the future, maybe,” said Barron. “But maybe that future is now.”
He noted that onshore mining is not always carried out responsibly, whether in terms of labor use or environmental impact. Deepsea mining, in contrast, can have a minimal impact on the environment, away from human population centers and competing industries such as agriculture and water use development, he said. Seventy percent of the estimated critical minerals on the planet reside on the ocean floor, “and this is where we should focus,” Barron said.
“There will be an impact on the environment whether this mining is done onshore or offshore,” he observed. “It really comes down to the question of – which impact do we want?”
Barron noted that there was “a lot of narrative warfare” going on about deepsea mining, and about its potential environmental impact. He pointed out that “there’s not a lot of life” on the abyssal plain where much of the deepsea mining would be concentrated. He also noted that the marine environment can adapt and adjust in the wake of a potential deepsea mining campaign. “As soon as we move on, the environment adjusts.” He noted that in the area where the pilot project had taken place, the seafloor fauna had not only rebounded but had actually increased.
“People think that it’s a pristine environment where nothing changes…but things do naturally change,” he said. He noted that natural eddies come into these seafloor environments, causing significant natural disruption. “We’re not creating the first disturbance in these areas,” Barron said.
Barron said that The Metals Company subsidiary NORI has been collecting and submitting a voluminous amount of environmental baseline data to the ISA, including over 1,400 biological samples from extensive boxcore and multicore sampling, and over 8,000 images of benthic megafauna captured by remotely operated vehicles.
He also said that The Metals Company had been working with DHI, a water and marine environment research group, on an extensive plume monitoring campaign. DHI’s software tool enables it to predict the impact of a dredging-related sediment spill plume, and to project how it will disperse through a 3D model of the plume.
“We want to be transparent,” Barron said, “and we want to figure out the best ways to lift these seafloor nodules with minimal impact, and we want to do it responsibly.”
In terms of next steps, Barron said that The Metals Company could put in a mining application in July, as permitted by the ISA’s governing rules and the Law of the Sea. “But we would prefer to see regulations in place first,” he said. He noted that the ISA has scheduled meetings in July and October.