Green cosmetic makers know their audience. One manufacturer, in addition to the standard lines about how long-lasting and colorful their product is, says that their lip tint is “cruelty-free,” vegan, and made from wholesome ingredients like coconut oil and shea butter.
Missing from the product description is any reference to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or “PFAS” — although one tube of that particular liquid lipstick contained 865 parts per million of the PFAS indicator fluorine, according to a new investigation from the environmental wellness community and blog Mamavation.
The ocean floor contains vast quantities of critical minerals vital for many applications, such as aircraft components and rechargeable batteries. Increased demand for such minerals has driven technology development for exploration and extraction from deep-sea mining. However, the long-term environmental effects from deep-sea mining are as yet unknown.
What is it? Deep-sea mining is the process of exploring for and retrieving minerals from the deep seabed. Three types of deposits hold most of these minerals: polymetallic nodules, also called manganese nodules, which are lying on the seabed; sulfide deposits around hydrothermal vents; and ferromanganese crusts, which are rich in cobalt and manganese and line the sides of ridges and seamounts.
These sources hold a wide variety of critical minerals, including cobalt, manganese, titanium, and rare earth elements, as well as gold, copper, and nickel (see fig. 1). Many of these minerals are in international waters. For example, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which spans 1.7 million square miles between Hawaii and Mexico, holds trillions of polymetallic nodules. Mining for sand, gravel, and aggregates is underway nearer to shore, but these areas hold only limited critical minerals.
These minerals play an important role in the U.S. economy, contributing to industries such as transportation, defense, aerospace, electronics, energy, construction, and health care. The International Energy Agency expects demand for cobalt, copper, nickel, and rare earth elements to at least double (or possibly more than triple) within the next 20 years. Researchers continue to develop technologies for locating and extracting mineral samples and for establishing deep-sea mining operations.
How does it work? Private companies have developed several technologies and designs for both exploration and systems to deliver extracted material to ships or surface-based mining platforms. For example, underwater remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) can be used to locate prime extraction sites and collect samples from the seabed.
Companies are also developing technologies to collect material from the seabed. Designs to gather polymetallic nodules include a vacuum to systematically dredge large swaths of the seafloor, along with hydraulic pumps and hose systems that lift the extracted materials to surface vessels or platforms. Extraction of sulfide deposits around hydrothermal vents or the slopes of undersea ridges could involve drilling and cutting into the crust, breaking up the materials, and transporting the pieces to the surface in a similar system (see fig. 2).
What are some concerns? These deep-sea mining methods may have environmental effects. Specifically, extraction processes create sediment clouds at the seabed or in the water above. These clouds, which could contain toxic heavy metals and spread over long distances, would eventually settle back to the seabed. Furthermore, disturbing the seabed may destroy habitat, with unknown effects on sea life. Researchers are studying these and other effects. For example, in August 2020, a collaborative program involving more than 100 U.S. and international researchers was established to study the potential environmental effects of Pacific Ocean polymetallic nodule mining.
How mature is it? Advances in several technologies have made it possible to explore and sample wide areas of the ocean floor. These advances have generated improvements in undersea imaging, software for predicting the locations of mineral fields, and guidance for ROVs.
Multiple companies are designing and testing technologies for retrieving material, including hydraulic pumping and conveyance systems. Some of this testing has occurred to depths of approximately 21,000 feet.
To date, there are no deep-sea commercial mining operations though several companies are progressing in that direction. For example, a Canadian company reported that it is retrofitting a former ultra-deep-sea drilling vessel as the first sub-sea mining vessel. It anticipates beginning a pilot mining project in mid-2022 to retrieve polymetallic nodules.
Technology applications. Minerals found in the seabed, such as cobalt, manganese, nickel, and rare earth elements, are important components of smartphones, steel, and green technologies including solar cells, electric vehicles, and wind turbines. Some of these minerals are rare on land; deep-sea mining could provide a valuable source.
Access to critical minerals. According to a 2019 Department of Commence report, the U.S. needs to mitigate the risk of being heavily dependent on critical mineral sources under foreign government control. Currently, such sources include China, Russia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mining deep-sea minerals could provide an alternative source for critical minerals.
Less reliance on land-based mining. Land-based mining can adversely affect the terrestrial environment. For example, acid rock drainage (created by the exposure of crushed rocks to air and water) can release harmful contaminants, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead. Advances in deep-sea mining may decrease those effects by reducing the demand for land-based mining.
Environmental effects. Researchers currently lack data on the extent to which sediment plumes from deep-sea mining could affect ecosystems or spread to other countries on ocean currents.
International relations. U.S.-based deep-sea mining companies could face uncertainties when operating beyond the U.S. exclusive economic zone (which generally extends up to 200 nautical miles from shore), according to industry experts. The U.S. has agreements with some countries but is not a party to the 1982 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea and its related International Seabed Authority, which regulates and controls mining of the international seabed area between member countries.
Policy Context and Questions
With increased demand for critical minerals and the unknown long-term environmental effects of deep-sea mining, key questions for policymakers include:
What analyses of incentives and barriers might help clarify the viability of private sector deep-sea mining as an alternative to land-based critical mineral resources, especially those under foreign control?
What are the trade-offs for the U.S. in ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea?
What research is needed to understand the environmental effects of deep-sea mining and ways to mitigate those effects, and who should conduct this research?
For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov
Industrializing countries around the world — from Europe and the United States in past centuries to southeast Asia in the 21st century — drained vast areas of peatlands, drying them and releasing immense wafts of carbon dioxide as well as smaller quantities of nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. The mass conversion of peatland into farmland over the centuries is estimated to have released as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Congo wants what the rest of the world got from its peatlands: an economic development boost. The enormous Central African country is near rock-bottom on key development indicators, including life expectancy, access to education and electrification.
But herein lies one of the great paradoxes of our age: Industrialization has already irreversibly and harmfully changed our climate, and the countries responsible for most of those emissions are tasked by the United Nations with helping the rest of the world develop without repeating the mistakes of the past.
If Congo were to drain its pristine peatlands, it is near certain that hundreds of millions or even billions of tons of carbon dioxide would be emitted into the atmosphere.
OneZoom is a one-stop site for exploring all life on Earth, its evolutionary history, and how much of it is threatened with extinction.
The OneZoom explorer—available at onezoom.org—maps the connections between 2.2 million living species, the closest thing yet to a single view of all species known to science. The interactive tree of life allows users to zoom in to any species and explore its relationships with others, in a seamless visualisation on a single web page. The explorer also includes images of over 85,000 species, plus, where known, their vulnerability to extinction.
Aquaculture is the practice of breeding and harvesting fish, shellfish, and plants in freshwater or saltwater environments for human use. Aquaculture supplies more than 50% of all seafood produced globally for human consumption, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association considers it one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein.
Diseases can occur in these farmed fish communities just like they can among other animal populations. But factors including climate change are contributing to worsening aquaculture disease outbreaks, creating a major threat to production, food security, and environmental health.
Minnesota startup Nucleic Sensing Systems, or NS², is developing patent-pending, cloud-based sensing and analytics technology to automatically detect environmental DNA that signals the presence of troublesome organisms in the water.
In the decade since the record-breaking use of oil dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, science shows they’re dangerous, potentially deadly, and rarely useful. A new court case is forcing the US EPA to reconsider their use.
When an oil spill occurs, responders have several options to manage the environmental effects, including using chemical dispersants (see figure). Chemical dispersants used on a surface oil slick can be effective at breaking up floating oil, which can help prevent the oil from reaching shore and harming sensitive ecosystems, according to studies GAO reviewed and stakeholders GAO interviewed. However, the effectiveness of applying dispersants below the ocean surface—such as in response to an uncontrolled release of oil from a subsurface wellhead—is not well understood for various reasons. For example, measurements for assessing effectiveness of dispersants applied at the subsurface wellhead during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had limitations and were inconclusive. In addition, there are limited experimental data on the effectiveness of subsurface dispersants that reflect conditions found in the deep ocean.
Chemically dispersed oil is known to be toxic to some ocean organisms, but broader environmental effects are not well understood. Dispersants themselves are considered significantly less toxic than oil, but chemically dispersing oil can increase exposure to the toxic compounds in oil for some ocean organisms, such as early life stages of fish and coral. Other potentially harmful effects of chemically dispersed oil, especially in the deep ocean, are not well understood due to various factors. These factors include laboratory experiments about the toxicity of chemically dispersed oil that use inconsistent test designs and yield conflicting results, experiments that do not reflect ocean conditions, and limited information on organisms and natural processes that exist in the deep ocean.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other agencies have taken some actions to help ensure decision makers have quality information to support decisions on dispersant use. For example, the Coast Guard and EPA have assessed the environmental effects of using dispersants on a surface slick. However, they have not assessed the environmental effects of the subsurface use of dispersants. By assessing the potential environmental effects of the subsurface use of dispersants, the Coast Guard and EPA could help ensure that decision makers are equipped with quality information about the environmental tradeoffs associated with decisions to use dispersants in the deep ocean.
Why GAO Did This Study
In April 2010, an explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in 11 deaths and the release of approximately 206 million gallons of oil. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, responders applied dispersants to the oil slick at the ocean surface as well as at the wellhead more than 1,500 meters below the surface. The subsurface use of dispersants was unprecedented and controversial.
GAO was asked to review what is known about the use of chemical dispersants. This report examines, among other things, what is known about the effectiveness of dispersants, what is known about the effects of chemically dispersed oil on the environment, and the extent to which federal agencies have taken action to help ensure decision makers have quality information to support decisions on dispersant use. GAO reviewed scientific studies, laws, regulations, and policies. GAO also interviewed agency officials and stakeholders from academia and industry.
For the past nine months, the Online Duke team has been working on a new course series on unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS or drones), UAS Applications and Operations in Environmental Science, in partnership with the Nicholas School of the Environment (NSOE) and instructor Dave Johnston. The goal of the three-course series is for learners to be able to plan and fly successful drone missions that collect and analyze accurate environmental data.
The $67 million project is in partnership with the University of Illinois, and researchers will work to prove that carbon dioxide released by CWLP can be captured, instead of released into the air.
Now, there’s a plan for what to do with that captured carbon. It will be used to grow algae, which can then be converted into food for livestock. Algae ponds will be constructed at CWLP, and will operate for 2.5 years.