Deep seabed mining is not currently technologically viable
Deep seabed mining has not taken off because the technology to exploit the seabeds is not at a state where it would be economically viable to do so.
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Although the ISA has issued several self-serving statements that the “21st century is likely to see systematic efforts worldwide to develop the resources of the deep seabed,”4 the fact remains that it is questionable whether deep seabed mining will ever become economically viable, at least in the Area. With regard to cobalt-rich crusts, according to ISA fact sheets, prospective miners will first have to develop “detailed maps of crust deposits and a comprehensive, small-scale picture of seamount topography, including seismic profiles.” Yet, very few of the seamounts in the Area that potentially contain the richest deposits of cobalt crusts have been mapped and sampled in detail. More importantly, it has been determined that crusts containing the greatest concentration of minerals are found in shallow waters in areas under coastal state, not ISA, jurisdiction.5 Similarly, according to ISA fact sheets, only five percent of the 60,000 km of oceanic ridge worldwide that could contain deposits of polymetallic sulphides has been surveyed in any detail.6 Moreover, ISA fact sheets acknowledge that most technology for exploring and exploiting the seabed has been developed for use in shallower waters.7 This is particularly true for cobalt-rich crust mining, which is much more difficult than manganese-nodule mining – research and development of mining technology for crusts exploitation is in its infancy.8 Finally, proposed environmental standards being developed by the ISA to minimize the effects of deep seabed mining on the marine environmental will undoubtedly significantly raise the costs of deep seabed mining operations.
Kato says that he doesn't know whether the resource is commercially viable. "I'm a geoscientist, not an economist," he notes.
But Gareth Hatch, an industry analyst and founder of the Technology Metals Research consultancy in Carpentersville, Illinois, is sceptical. "People talk about mining on the asteroids or the Moon. This isn't that hard, but it's similar," says Hatch. Current on-land mines, and sites picked out for future mines, have rare-earth concentrations of about 3–10%, he points out. The much lower concentrations at the Chinese clay mine mentioned by Kato and his colleagues are only economically viable because the material is much easier to access than it would be in hard rock. That's not true for mud located below 4 or 5 kilometres of water, which would require expensive ship time and equipment to pull up. "There are better options," he says.
Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, notes that companies are exploring the idea of mining manganese nodules from the sea floor to exploit their commercially-valuable contents, including copper and nickel as well as rare earths. Commercial mining of nodules is "probably a decade away", says Smith. Ocean mud could prove another possible source of the increasingly valuable elements.
Although several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Sudan, have recently shown renewed interest in tapping mineral resources on the deep seabed, the costs of operating in the difficult environment deep waters pose will likely preserve subsea basins for a little while longer.
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