Deep on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, amidst one of earth’s greatest unexploited reserves of valuable minerals, are ecosystems of otherworldly creatures.

There are fast-moving sea urchins; anemones that perch like flowers atop long sponge stalks; translucent, tentacled sea cucumbers that look like something from Pokemon, and yellow gelatinous critters that University of Hawaii oceanographers have nicknamed “Gummy Squirrels.”

This swath of ocean between Hawaii and Mexico for years has been the focus of a United Nations agency, not because of the region’s psychedelic aquatic life, but because of its enormous mineral wealth. The floor of the Clarion Clipperton Zone, as the area is known, is scattered with billions of rock-like nodules containing valuable metals.

It soon may open up to mining.

The Gummy Squirrel, also known as Psychropotes longicauda, is one of the otherworldly creatures living in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which also contains a vast supply of metals like cobalt, which is used for electric car batteries.

Craig Smith/University of Hawaii

The UN’s International Seabed Authority says it’s on the verge of finalizing regulations to exploit the area. That will create a path for more than a dozen companies lined up to collect the nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. No commercial exploitation has taken place yet, Michael Lodge, the authority’s secretary-general, told a German business organization in September.

“But,” Lodge said, “the pace of activity has increased dramatically over the past several years and we are seeing rapid development in all sectors of the industry.”

Lodge’s stated goal is to have exploitation regulations in place by 2020.

While the tension between mining and conservation is nothing new, the stakes are unusually high because of the potential size of the resource, the number of international firms involved and the remoteness of the site.

The minerals on the ocean floor include substances like copper, manganesecobalt and nickel, which are used in many of the consumer products driving the 21st century economy, like batteries for cars and cell phones, as well as steel.

The concern is that exploitation regulations will fail to protect the environment. Current regulations allowing mineral exploration are inadequate, some legal scholars say, in part because the definition of “exploration” is ambiguous.

“They’re using ‘exploration’ as a veneer to go in and do what they want,” said Andres Tobar, a third-year student at the University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law, who’s part of a three-student team working on a law review paper on the regulations.

“The Clarion Clipperton Zone probably is the most pristine wilderness on the planet,” said Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii Manoa, who recently led a month-long expedition to research the zone’s abyssal plain some 4,000 to 5,000 meters below the ocean’s surface.

“If there’s a pristine environment on the planet, this is it.”

There’s a simple reason firms have lined up to collect the nodules, despite the regulatory hurdles and technical challenges of working more than two miles below the ocean’s surface. Kris Van Nijen, who runs deep-sea mining operations for Belgium-based Global Sea Mineral Resources, earlier this month explained the appeal of mining the deep ocean to The Economist.

“For the same amount of effort,” he said, “you get the same metals as two or three mines on land.”

Below: Lockheed Martin explains the technology it has developed to collect manganese nodules from the ocean floor

Scientists have known about manganese nodules since the late 1800s, when they were collected during a British expedition. But, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the nodules became the focus of economic interest.

The Clarion Clipperton Zone is considered the area of the greatest economic potential because of the dense distribution of nodules with high concentrations of valuable metals, according to the USGS.

The zone is located in international waters, which means it is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In 1994, the UN set up the International Seabed Authority to manage and mine the ocean minerals.

Attracting Global Companies

In a report last week, the Financial Times of London estimated the seafloor contains 121.5 million metric tons of cobalt, nearly five times the 25.5 million on land. Proponents of ocean mining say it’s safer than land-based mining, pointing to reports of child labor being used to mine cobalt in hazardous conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the main terrestrial source of the material.

The ocean resources bearing metals include parts of the ocean crust and undersea rock formations, but the nodules get the most attention because they’re just lying on the ocean floor.

The metals rush involves companies from economic powerhouses like China, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, India and South Korea, as well as developing nations like the Cook Islands, Tonga and Kiribati, all of which have contracts to explore the Clarion Clipperton Zone for nodules.

The United States is not a member of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and therefore is not eligible for a contract.

The technology to mine the nodules already exists, the companies say. For example, a London-based unit of Lockheed Martin, the U.S. military contractor and aerospace company, is working with two enterprises that have exploration contracts: UK Seabed Resource Ltd.and Ocean Mineral Singapore Pte. Ltd.

One possible method is outlined in an animated Lockheed Martin explainer video featuring a massive yellow collector vehicle. The film shows a fleet of the 100-ton machines sweeping nodules and piping them to a support ship, which takes them to a processing facility.

The video makes it all seem innocuous, like giant iRobot Roombas sweeping the floor.

But, says Smith, the UH oceanographer: “It’s not just picking up dust in your carpet. It’s picking up nodules and the whole habitat.” And charismatic creatures like Gummy Squirrels. Lockheed Martin did not return phone calls.

Below: Michael Lodge, Secretary-General of the United Nations International Seabed Authority, discusses deep sea mining.

Meanwhile, the International Seabed Authority appears intent on moving forward. Driving the push is Lodge, the authority’s general-secretary. A British barrister with a master’s degree in maritime policy from the London School of Economics,  Lodge has cast the unease among environmentalists as a product of misunderstanding.

“This unease may be in part attributable to the word ‘mining’, which conjures up images of destruction taken from controversial practices ascribed to some land-based operations,” Lodge wrote in an October 2018 article in the mining journal Elements. “When this is juxtaposed with the popular − but alas erroneous − image of the deep seabed as a pristine wilderness, then alarm does result.”

Lodge was more pointed in his September speech to the business club of Hamburg, Germany, which is the home of the world’s ocean court, known as the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. The popular perception of deep sea mining is “increasingly subject to wildly inaccurate and distorted scenarios portrayed by some sections of the media and interest groups,” Lodge said.

“Suggestions that deep seabed mining will inevitably cause large-scale irreversible damage and ecosystem collapse,” he said, “appear to be grossly exaggerated and lack any basis in fact.”

Some Are Dubious Of The Prospects

Despite such rhetoric and a flurry of recent press, some doubt that ocean mining is imminent.

Allen Clark, director of professional development for Honolulu’s East West Center, is the founder and former director of the International Institute for Resource Development and has worked as consultant to international economic development entities like the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Asian Development Bank.

Clark, who started his career as a geologist exploring the jungles of Papua New Guinea for copper, predicts it will be at least a decade before the regulatory framework is fully set up. He said ocean mining is technically feasible and “marginally profitable.” But he questions whether companies will ever be allowed to mine the ocean floor.

Will creatures like this sea cucumber upend development of one of the world’s greatest untapped natural resources?

Craig Smith/University of Hawaii

He pointed to the discovery years ago of a deep-dwelling ocean octopus that got the nickname Casper. The discovery of such animals can be the death knell of mining projects, he said.

“If you think for a minute you’re going to be able to go down and tear up the ocean floor and disturb all those cute little Caspers, you’re out of your mind,” he said. “The chance is somewhere south of zero.”

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