Utah’s largest coal company will relinquish two mining leases and apply the social cost of carbon in the environmental analysis of a third lease as part of a settlement agreement reached last week with environmental groups and the federal government.
The deal, which also includes the state of Utah, would see environmentalists drop their lawsuit challenging the expansion of a coal mine on federal land.
Environmentalists said an agreement involving Canyon Fuel Co. LLC, the Interior Department, the state of Utah and two green groups marks the first time a coal company has voluntarily agreed to calculate the climate damages of its mining operations on federal land.
As companies race to expand renewable energy and the batteries to store it, finding sufficient amounts of rare earth metals to build the technology is no easy feat. That’s leading mining companies to take a closer look at a largely unexplored frontier – the deep ocean seabed.
A wealth of these metals can be found in manganese nodules that look like cobblestones scattered across wide areas of deep ocean seabed. But the fragile ecosystems deep in the oceans are little understood, and the mining codes to sustainably mine these areas are in their infancy.
A fierce debate is now playing out as a Canadian company makes plans to launch the first commercial deep sea mining operation in the Pacific Ocean.
The Metals Company completed an exploratory project in the Pacific Ocean in fall 2022. Under a treaty governing the deep sea floor, the international agency overseeing these areas could be forced to approve provisional mining there as soon as spring 2023, but several countries and companies are urging a delay until more research can be done. France and New Zealand have called for a ban on deep sea mining.
As scholars who have long focused on the economic, political and legalchallenges posed by deep seabed mining, we have each studied and written on this economic frontier with concern for the regulatory and ecological challenges it poses.
What’s down there, and why should we care?
A curious journey began in the summer of 1974. Sailing from Long Beach, California, a revolutionary ship funded by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes set course for the Pacific to open a new frontier — deep seabed mining.
Widespread media coverage of the expedition helped to focus the attention of businesses and policymakers on the promise of deep seabed mining, which is notable given that the expedition was actually an elaborate cover for a CIA operation.
The real target was a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk in 1968 with all hands and what was believed to be a treasure trove of Soviet state secrets and tech onboard.
Manganese nodules are roughly the size of potatoes and can be found across vast areas of seafloor in parts of the Pacific and Indian oceans and deep abyssal plains in the Atlantic. They are valuable because they are exceptionally rich in 37 metals, including nickel, cobalt and copper, which are essential for most large batteries and several renewable energy technologies.
These nodules form over millennia as metals nucleate around shells or broken nodules. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone, between Mexico and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, where the mining test took place, has been estimated to have over 21 billion metric tons of nodules that could provide twice as much nickel and three times more cobalt than all the reserves on land.
Mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone could be some 10 times richer than comparable mineral deposits on land. All told, estimates place the value of this new industry at some US$30 billion annually by 2030. It could be instrumental in feeding the surging global demand for cobalt that lies at the heart of lithium-ion batteries.
Yet, as several scientists have noted, we still know more about the surface of the moon than what lies at the bottom of the deep seabed.
Deep seabed ecology
Less than 10% of the deep seabed has been mapped thoroughly enough to understand even the basic features of the structure and contents of the ocean floor, let alone the life and ecosystems therein.
Between 70% and 90% of living things collected in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone have never been seen before, leaving scientists to speculate about what percentage of all living species in the region has never been seen or collected. Exploratory expeditions regularly return with images or samples of creatures that would richly animate science fiction stories, like a 6-foot-long bioluminescent shark.
Environmentalists have questioned whether seafloor creatures could be smothered by sediment plumes and whether the sediment in the water column could effect island communities that rely on healthy oceanic ecosystems. The Metals Company has argued that its impact is less than terrestrial mining.
Given humanity’s lack of knowledge of the ocean, it is not currently possible to set environmental baselines for oceanic health that could be used to weigh the economic benefits against the environmental harms of seabed mining.
Scarcity and the economic case for mining
The economic case for deep seabed mining reflects both possibility and uncertainty.
On the positive side, it could displace some highly destructive terrestrial mining and augment the global supply of minerals used in clean energy sources such as wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and electric vehicles.
Terrestrial mining imposes significant environmental damage and costs to human health of both the miners themselves and the surrounding communities. Additionally, mines are sometimes located in politically unstable regions. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces 60% of the global supply of cobalt, for example, and China owns or finances 80% of industrial mines in that country. China also accounts for 60% of the global supply of rare earth element production and much of its processing. Having one nation able to exert such control over a critical resource has raised concerns.
Deep seabed mining comes with significant uncertainties, however, particularly given the technology’s relatively early state.
First are the risks associated with commercializing a new technology. Until deep sea mining technology is demonstrated, discoveries cannot be listed as “reserves” in firms’ asset valuations. Without that value defined, it can be difficult to line up the significant financing needed to build mining infrastructure, which lessens the first-mover advantage and incentivizes firms to wait for someone else to take the lead.
Commodity prices are also difficult to predict. Technology innovation can reduce or even eliminate the projected demand for a mineral. New mineral deposits on land can also boost supply: Sweden announced in January 2023 that it had just discovered the largest deposit of rare earth oxides in Europe.
In all, embarking on deep seabed mining involves sinking significant costs into new technology for uncertain returns, while posing risks to a natural environment that is likely to rise in value.
It allows countries to control economic activities, including any mining, within 200 miles of their coastlines, accounting for approximately 35% of the ocean. Beyond national waters, countries around the world established the International Seabed Authority, or ISA, based in Jamaica, to regulate deep seabed mining.
Critically, the ISA framework calls for some of the profits derived from commercial mining to be shared with the international community. In this way, even countries that did not have the resources to mine the deep seabed could share in its benefits. This part of the ISA’s mandate was controversial, and it was one reason that the United States did not join the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
With little public attention, the ISA worked slowly for several decades to develop regulations for exploration of undersea minerals, and those rules still aren’t completed. More than a dozen companies and countries have received exploration contracts, including The Metals Company’s work under the sponsorship of the island nation of Nauru.
Much of the coverage of deep seabed mining has been framed to highlight the climate benefits. But this overlooks the dangers this activity could pose for the Earth’s largest pristine ecology – the deep sea. We believe it would be wise to better understand this existing, fragile ecosystem better before rushing to mine it.
On Nov. 16, the Biden Administration announced a $74 million funding package to advance domestic battery recycling and reuse that will strengthen the nation’s battery supply chain. Michigan Technological University and Eagle Mine are co-recipients of part of this funding. $8.1 million will be used to prove new research technologies that develop sustainable processes to supply critical minerals for electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturing.
An additional $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy grant program was also awarded to Michigan Tech and Eagle Mine, which will enable the University to study carbon dioxide mineralization opportunities in Eagle Mine’s tailings facility. The money will be used to develop new technologies that enable accelerated carbon mineralization using mine tailing minerals.
The Biden Administration through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently issued a Request For Information (RFI) to inform a $500 million program funded by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to place clean energy demonstration projects on current or former mine lands across America.
Operated through DOE’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, the Clean Energy Demonstrations on Current and Former Mine Land Program will fund clean energy projects – such as geothermal energy – on mine land to benefit communities and their economies, create good-paying jobs and reduce carbon pollution. The revitalization of mine land to deploy cheaper, cleaner power to more Americans will further the objective of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities which seeks to deliver federal investment to revitalize hard-hit energy communities. It will also advance the Justice40 Initiative which aims to deliver 40% of the benefits of clean energy and climate investments to disadvantaged communities.
“Developing clean energy on mine lands is an opportunity for fossil fuel communities, which have powered our nation for a generation, to receive an economic boost and play a leadership role in our clean energy transition,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The investments in the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help America’s mining workforce apply their skills to grow and deploy cheaper, cleaner energy across the country.”
Located in geographically diverse regions across the U.S, mine land offers an important opportunity to spur economic development and create jobs in clean energy industries. A recent EPA analysis found approximately 17,750 mine land sites located across 1.5 million acres in the United States. If all of these current or former U.S. mine land were to be redeveloped with clean energy projects, up to 89 gigawatts of clean electricity could be deployed, enough to power millions of American homes.
The Clean Energy Demonstration Program on Current and Former Mine Land will demonstrate innovative mine land conversion to clean energy projects with a goal of replication across the country. The program will support projects that demonstrate one or more of the following clean energy technologies on mining sites:
Direct air capture
Fossil-fueled generation with carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration
Energy storage, including pumped-storage hydropower and compressed air
Two of the clean energy demonstration projects funded under this program must include solar energy and DOE is seeking information from respondents about opportunities to use domestically-manufactured solar for these projects.
DOE is seeking feedback from a wide range of stakeholders, including industry, community organizations, environmental justice organizations labor unions, and state and local governments. Public input is sought on how to design the program such that it will best encourage private-sector investment in similar projects leading to economic development for underserved communities located near current and former mine land while advancing environmental justice. The selected projects will chart a course to navigate federal, state, and local rules and regulations for siting and grid interconnection, mine remediation, post-mining land use, environmental safety and other important processes to successfully develop and operate clean energy projects on current or former mine land.
In addition to this DOE program, President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a total of $11.3 billion in abandoned mine land grant funding at the Department of the Interior to eligible states and Tribes to help communities eliminate dangerous environmental hazards and pollution caused by past coal mining while creating jobs and providing opportunities to revitalize coal communities. These reclamation projects enable economic revitalization by rehabilitating hazardous land so that it can be used for recreational facilities or other economic redevelopment uses like advanced manufacturing and renewable energy deployment being funded by this DOE program.
DOE expects to announce a funding opportunity to solicit project proposals in 2023.
The Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) at the University of Kansas has been awarded $1.5 million for a two-year project to study the feasibility of recovering minerals critical to advanced and defense manufacturing as well as the clean energy industry from coal deposits, associated rock layers and legacy mining wastes found in Kansas and neighboring states. Critical minerals are defined as raw materials that are vital for the economic or national security and come predominantly from foreign sources that are prone to disruption.
Some of the world’s biggest mining companies have withdrawn requests to research and extract minerals on Indigenous land in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, and repudiated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to legalize mining activity in the areas.
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