1. What are seabed minerals?
There are three main types of deep-sea minerals: polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts. GSR is focused on the development of polymetallic nodules found in the international seabed area (i.e., beyond national jurisdiction) on the surface of the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ) requiring conventional dredging techniques to recover them.
As their name suggests, polymetallic nodules contain a variety of metals, including amongst others nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese. These are the same metals required to power the Green Economy, including important battery technologies, to help society make the transition to a low carbon future.
2. How big is the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ)?
The CCFZ is an area in the North Pacific Ocean, located between Hawaii and Mexico. It measures approximately 6,000 km by 1,000 km.
As of 2018, 16 Contractors have been granted 15-year exploration contracts of approximately 75,000 km2 each. The first contracts were signed in 2001 and extended for 5 years in 2016. During the exploration phase, contractors explore the deep seabed and assess the nodule deposits within their claim area, looking for high abundance nodule fields. The exploration process involves a great deal of marine scientific research, resulting in valuable data and knowledge.
3. How do you get permission to exploit minerals in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ)?
Getting permission for exploitation is quite a careful process.
As the area is managed by the International Seabed Authority, interested organizations need to be sponsored by a nation that has ratified the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), imparting additional oversight responsibilities to those sponsoring states.
Furthermore organizations need to go through an exploration phase which includes environmental baseline and impact studies.
Before organizations can apply for an exploitation contract, responsible exploitation needs to be proven through a prefeasibility study and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. Public participation of interested stakeholders is an essential part of this EIA process.
4. What is the amount of metals in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ)?
According to a paper by Hein et al. (2013), the CCFZ contains more nickel (Ni), manganese (Mn) and cobalt (Co) than all land-based reserves combined. Polymetallic nodules here also contain significant amounts of copper (Cu) and molybdenum (Mo).
Hein, J. R., Mizell, K., Koschinsky, A. & Conrad, T. A. Deep-ocean mineral deposits as a source of critical metals for high- and green-technology applications: Comparison with land-based resources. Ore Geology Reviews 51, 1–14 (2013).
5. How big is the area that GSR intends to harvest?
Although GSR has signed an exploration contract for almost 77,000 km2, only 30% of this area may be economically mined (e.g. containing a high abundance of nodules), leaving the remaining 70% untouched (areas which contain nodules in a lower abundance). Harvesting would occur over a period of 50 years.
6. How will the plumes be managed?
When the nodule collector moves along the seabed, it will stir up a cloud of fine sediments known as a plume. Furthermore, separating the nodules from the surrounding sediment creates another plume. Hydrodynamic forecasting models, along with data from DEME’s extensive dredging experience in other environments, predict the finest particles of these plumes (0.1 mg/L contour) to travel 3 to 10 km from the collector before resettling, while most of the sediment settles close to the collector.
GSR will be conducting a scientific component test of a pre-prototype of its collector (Patania II) in 2019 to validate and better quantify the distance, duration and effect of the plumes. The test will take place within GSR’s exploration area and represents an important step in the environmental impact assessment process. The data obtained during the test will help GSR improve the hydrodynamic forecasting model and develop techniques and equipment that minimizes the extent and dispersal rate of the sediment plumes. By taking into consideration current direction and modifying the order and style of harvesting (e.g. in ‘patches’ or ‘strips’), it may well be possible to contain the sediment plumes near the harvesting site.
7. Will there be toxic plumes?
There is no indication that the sediment plumes will be toxic. They involve natural sediment that gets lifted by other natural processes from time to time.
GSR plans to recover the nodules from the seabed and lift them to a surface vessel. There the nodules will be separated from seawater and sediments. The nodules are stored whereas the water-sediment mix will be returned to the ocean. GSR is collaborating with research institutes to determine the depth at which this mix can be discharged with minimal environmental impact.
8. Will nodule harvesting affect fisheries?
There is no indication that fisheries will be adversely affected.
GSR’s license area is located more than 1,200 km from land and does not occur within major fishing grounds. In addition, polymetallic nodule harvesting will occur at a depth of 4500m, far below any commercial fish stocks. Modeling and initial at-sea trials indicate that the plumes generated by the nodule collector will have limited vertical dispersion and will resettle on the seafloor instead.
9. Is there a lot of life in the deep sea?
The majority of the biomass in nodule-rich areas on the abyssal plains consists of micro-organisms like bacteria, whilst the remainder consists of macrofauna (300 to 500 microns) and meiofauna (32 to 300 microns). Megafauna (animals larger than 2 cm) represent less than 1% of the biomass. However, although the biomass per square meter is low (up to 300 times less than the biomass found in a desert), the biodiversity of this fauna is relatively high.
Galéron, J (2012), Environnement profond, in: Fouquet, Y., & Lacroix, D. (Eds.). Les ressources minérales marines profondes: Etudes prospective à l’horizon 2030. Matière à débattre et décider, Edition Quae, Versailles, France, 175p.
Since 2014, GSR has been collaborating with the Marine Biology Research Group of Ghent University in Belgium to map the biodiversity of the GSR license area. DNA-barcoding is being used to compare the collected organisms with those found in neighboring contract areas to examine genetic connectivity on a regional scale.
It is expected that overall ecosystem health and function can be maintained by the implementation of preservation references areas and the Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs) already established by the International Seabed Authority. These areas are to remain unaffected from any commercial harvesting.
10. What is the precautionary approach?
Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration states: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
A precautionary approach basically calls on nations to anticipate and to ensure that economically-viable measures are in place to prevent and minimize the environmental impact of an activity. GSR considers that applying the precautionary approach requires precautionary management, i.e.:
1 | effective risk assessment, including the identification and examination of uncertainties,
2 | risk management measures, including, e.g., environmental standards and proactive management during operations ,
3 | adjustment of these measures and standards as necessary to effectively and proportionately protect the environment when new scientific information is formally accepted as the basis for adapting the applicable regulations.
GSR implements a precautionary approach by conducting environmental baseline studies and environmental impact assessments, including risk assessments, prior to any harvesting. GSR also works with the scientific research community to develop environmental management strategies aimed at preventing adverse environmental effects where possible and minimizing them where needed.
For a new activity like deep-sea harvesting, governments, regulators, contractors, scientists, NGOs and other stakeholders are cooperating to develop a state-of-the-art regulatory framework. Though they represent different positions, they all agree on the need for a precautionary approach to minimize the environmental impact of the operations and thereby maximize the benefit to humankind as a whole, including future generations.
11. How will these operations be monitored?
Similar to the monitoring techniques of the dredging industry, the vessels will be equipped with sensors, logging all activities of the harvesting process. Environmental monitoring during operations will focus on quantifying the impacts and effects of harvesting operations. For example, sensors positioned on and near the seafloor will monitor the effects of sediment plumes in near-real time to inform the environmental management. Further monitoring through water, sediment samples and ecological surveys to determine the health of the marine environment will be performed to assess compliance with applicable regulations. While actual harvesting will not commence for several more years, the monitoring plan is under development. Detailed plans will be incorporated into the project’s Environmental Management and Monitoring Plan (EMMP) for ISA review.
12. What does Best Available Techniques (BAT) mean?
The EU defines Best Available Techniques (BAT) as:
“Techniques" includes "both the technology used and the way in which the installation is designed, built, maintained, operated and decommissioned."
"Available Techniques" means "those developed on a scale which allows implementation in the relevant industrial sector, under economically and technically viable conditions, taking into consideration the costs and advantages”.
“Best" means "most effective in achieving a high general level of protection of the environment as a whole."
13. What is marine spatial planning?
Marine spatial planning is a process that brings together various ocean users and stakeholders to make informed and coordinated decisions on how to use marine resources responsibly.
The ISA is implementing marine spatial planning through the establishment of Regional Environmental Management Plans (REMPs). The CCFZ REMP, for instance, establishes nine Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) totaling 1,444,000 km2 that will remain protected from environmental effects of mining. These areas will be supplemented by preservation reference zones established by all Contractors.
14. When will nodule harvesting occur?
There are several conditions which need to be met before commercial nodule harvestingcan occur.
First and foremost, there needs to be an economically viable and environmentally responsible regulatory framework for exploitation. Due to the high capital expenditures, no system integration tests or harvesting system can be built until an exploitation contract has been obtained. Market conditions also need to be favorable, and further refinement of the collector technology is required. Once such a framework for exploitation is in place, GSR will be conducting system integration tests to validate the environmental performance of the technology and envisages that its actual harvesting operations will not start before 2026.
15. What about recycling?
While recycling rates are increasing, several reports* reveal that mining of primary sources will remain necessary for the foreseeable future. For instance, even if we could recycle all the copper mined to date, consumption forecasts (linked to estimated population increases) indicate that within 15 years society would run out of copper. This confirms the need for additional sources, even when all materials are perfectly recycled.
*for example, see:
T.E. Graedel, J. Allwood, J.-P. Birat, M. Buchert, C. Hagelüken, B.K. Reck, S.F. Sibley, G. Sonnemann, What Do We Know About Metal Recycling Rates?, Journal of Industrial Ecology. 15 (2011) 355–366. doi:10.1111/j.1530-9290.2011.00342.x.
O. Vidal, B. Goffé, N. Arndt, Metals for a low-carbon society, Nature Geosci. 6 (2013) 894–896. doi:10.1038/ngeo1993.
T.E. Graedel, E.M. Harper, N.T. Nassar, B.K. Reck, On the materials basis of modern society, PNAS. 112 (2015) 6295–6300. doi:10.1073/pnas.1312752110.
S.H. Ali, D. Giurco, N. Arndt, E. Nickless, G. Brown, A. Demetriades, R. Durrheim, M.A. Enriquez, J. Kinnaird, A. Littleboy, L.D. Meinert, R. Oberhänsli, J. Salem, R. Schodde, G. Schneider, O. Vidal, N. Yakovleva, Mineral supply for sustainable development requires resource governance, Nature. 543 (2017) 367–372. doi:10.1038/nature21359.
16. How does nodule harvesting fit within the circular economy?
While land-based mining has been the principal source for metals inserted into the circular economy, high-grade land deposits are becoming increasingly difficult to access, often requiring increasing amounts of energy to extract the metals. Hence, alternative primary sources, including marine deposits, need to be seriously considered and evaluated.
17. According to the 2016 report of the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) in Australia (1), we do not need seabed harvesting to meet the metal demand for a low-carbon future. What does GSR think about this?
Although significant increasing demand is coming from the transition to a low carbon future, the most important driver for metal demand remains urbanisation and increasing living standards.
Furthermore, in 2017, the World Bank commissioned a predictive analysis of future metals demand to support the transition to a low carbon future (2). The study examined the renewable technology implications of meeting 2°C, 4°C and 6°C global warming scenarios.
Using wind, solar and energy storage batteries as proxies, the World Bank study examined which metals will likely rise in demand to be able to deliver a low carbon future. The list of metals required to meet the demand includes cobalt, copper, nickel, manganese, and molybdenum – all of which are found within polymetallic nodules. The study showed that demand for battery metals is expected to rise more than 1,000 percent under the 2°C warming scenario.
18. Is nodule harvesting economically attractive?
GSR has been investigating and evaluating polymetallic nodule harvesting since 2010. Although metal market conditions play an important role in assessing its economic viability, polymetallic nodules provide the opportunity to extract 4 different metals in the same process. A polymetallic nodule deposit can therefore be seen as two, or possibly three, land-based mines in one (e.g., a copper mine, a nickel mine and a manganese mine). Not only does this consolidate mining and processing, it also generates less waste and pollution than mining operations on land. GSR believes, and aims to demonstrate, that the footprint per kg extracted metal can be not only economically, but also environmentally and socially better than that of comparable land-based sources.
19. Benefits of nodule harvesting ?
Unlike many land-based deposits, there is no overburden that needs to be removed, no deforestation to take place, no drilling or blasting, no destruction of coral reefs, no use of fresh water and no social displacement. Seabed harvesting vessels can be re-located and re-used. No roads, railways or new ports are required to export the ore, thereby minimizing the total production infrastructure. The ore can be transported to practically any port and processing location, focusing on the availability of renewable energy.
As the seabed minerals in international waters are the Common Heritage of Mankind, a fair share of the proceeds from exploitation will be shared will all member States. In addition, a great deal of marine scientific research is continually undertaken during the exploration phase, significantly increasing our understanding of the deep sea.
20. What is GSR’s next step?
In 2017, GSR successfully completed testing of the track system of the tracked soil testing device (Patania I). In 2018 GSR is building its successor -- Patania II. In April 2019 the vehicle will be deployed in the GSR and BGR (German) exploration areas, using a test area measuring 100m x 900m (0.09 km2). Patania II will be equipped with a suction head to collect the nodules. The vehicle will temporarily store these nodules in a hopper and re-deposit them on the side of the test area. GSR will use this test to validate the performance of the technology and to assess the environmental impact of the test operations. In accordance with existing regulations, a prior environmental impact assessment (Prior EIA) has to be submitted to the International Seabed Authority.
GSR is pleased to be collaborating with an EU-funded scientific environmental monitoring program. Scientific experts will independently monitor the Patania II test and the results will be made publicly available. Progress will be reported in a transparent manner through workshops, scientific papers and other forms of information dissemination. The results will inform the ISA, other Contractors, member States and stakeholders on the impact of seabed harvesting .