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We need to mine deep-sea metals to power the energy transition: DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron

Environmentalists say mining the deep sea will irreparably damage nature's last frontier. The man leading one of the world's biggest deep sea mining companies argues it is needed in the fight against climate change.

Gerard Barron, according to his biography, is on a mission to help wean humanity off fossil fuels and transition to a circular resource economy.

He is the chief executive and chairman of DeepGreen Metals, a deep-sea mining company that aims to scour the ocean floor for minerals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper. These minerals will be used to make solar panels, wind turbines and batteries, important weapons in the fight against climate change.

Mining advocates like Barron argue that there are insufficient stocks of these metals to provide enough clean energy to support a human population projected to grow by another three billion people this century.

The sort of deep-sea mining DeepGreen does involves scooping nodules of these metals off the ocean floor in a way that limits impact, says Barron, who grew up on a dairy farm in Australia, started his first business while at university, and founded an advertising technology firm before helping to set up and finance DeepGreen in 2011. There will be no deforestation, use of explosives, drilling, grinding or child labour—issues commonly associated with land-based mining.

Negotiations to lay the regulatory foundations for commercial deep-sea mining have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and collection of polymetallic nodules can begin without the International Seabed Authority — the United Nations authority that governs the sea bed — and its 167 member states having finalised the regulatory framework. But Barron is keen to push ahead with deep-sea extraction, while environmentalists are opposed to any sort of mining of the ocean floor.

On the Eco-Business podcast last month, Sian Owen, global coordinator of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a group of NGOs that campaigns for the protection of the seabed, argued that deep-sea mining will do irreversible harm to pristine habitats and affect the ocean’s oxygen-providing capacity, and is not necessary to power the energy transition.

Recent scientific studies, such as a paper published in May for MiningWatch Canada and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, have disputed DeepGreen’s claim that deep-sea mining will create great wealth with minimal environmental impact, and benefit the livelihoods of Pacific Island communities.

In 15 years’ time, I don’t think we will be in this industry, because there will be sufficient material in the system. But at the moment, it’s just impossible — you can’t recycle what you don’t have. 

Gerard Barron, CEO and chairman, DeepGreen Metals

Barron counters these claims, and wants to start mining the Pacific seabed no later than 2023. “When you jump into the data of climate change and understand the crisis that confronts us, you realise what would happen if we didn’t find a new supply of the metals we need [for the energy transition],” he said.

Though confronted with obstacles, Barron is determined to realise his ambitions. “We are facing technological, fundraising, regulatory and NGO [non-government organisation] challenges. You’d have to be a little bit crazy to take this on,” he said.

In this interview with Eco-Business, the DeepGreen boss talks about why deep-sea mining is needed, how it is greener than land-based mining, and what the future of the underwater world could look like.

A range of scientific studies, including one released in July that found that deep-sea mining would generate sediment plumes and noise pollution, point to the potential environmental harm of mining the sea floor.  What’s your response to these studies?

I read a recent study from Germany that questioned why humanity would leave its footprint in a pristine landscape, and proposed that we should continue [to mine] where we’re already active.

Firstly, the seafloor is not pristine. It’s heavily impacted by what we do on land, whether it’s burning fossil fuels or polluting rivers with plastic that ends up in our oceans, or deep sea tailings [the disposal of mining waste in the deep sea via pipes]. Continue where we’re already active? Try telling that to some poor kid down an artisanal mine in the Congo. Try telling that to the families affected by the Córrego de Feijão mine disaster last year. 

Most of us agree that we need to move away from burning fossil fuels. But it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. We whack down fossil fuels and up pops [the need for] metals [to power the energy transition]. We don’t fully understand what the impact of getting all these metals is, but we are aware of the impact of destroying biodiverse ecosystems [from land mining] and dumping the waste in the ocean.

This is the conversation that society needs to be having right now: What are the decisions that need to be made that will lead to a more sustainable planet?

A number of environmental groups, fisheries organisations and conservationists such as David Attenborough are calling for a moratorium or a pause on mining until the biodiversity of the deep sea is better understood. What do you say to these groups?

If only we had the luxury of time. We do know a lot about the deep sea. There’ve been more than 6,000 studies done on it. People say that more is known about the moon than the deep ocean — but that’s just wrong. Much is known about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone [an area spanning 4.5 million hectares of sea floor between Hawaii and Mexico, where the metallic nodules of greatest interest to miners are found]. And if there was a moratorium [on deep-sea mining], the funding for research [from commercial players] would dry up, as my investors would not wait around. 

We need to ask ourselves where the best place to collect the materials we need to make batteries is. Is it some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet [on land], or is it 4,000 metres below sea level where there’s an abundant resource, and misconceptions about how biodiverse it is. It isn’t like we’re knocking coral reefs down. We set up a camera near a mooring as part of our environmental baseline studies, 4,230 metres below the surface, in the Pacific. It recorded images every eight hours, from mid-October 2019 to mid-February 2020. 

There were no fish swimming by at regular intervals. Most of the organisms live in the sediment. 

What about the argument that deep-sea mining will threaten the viability of land-based mining, and so put lots of people’s jobs at risk in resource-rich developing countries?

The problem with that argument is that a lot of the benefits from land-based mining do not stay with the people in developing countries that are doing the actual work — they’re exploited.

Our concessions are sponsored by developing countries [DeepGreen’s contracts are sponsored by Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga, small South Pacific islands], which do not have an abundance of natural resources — they’re dependent on foreign aid and fishing rights. They contribute the least to climate change, and yet are among the most heavily impacted by rising sea levels, particularly Kiribati, an island nation seriously threatened with inundation. They will benefit through sponsoring us through jobs, education, and mining royalties; the supply of these commodities that will form the basis of industrialisation for these nations.

As a producer of these battery materials, we want to have really clear visibility into what the environmental and social impacts are, because consumers increasingly want to know more about where these metals come from. 

Some studies show that we don’t actually need to mine the deep-sea floor; sufficient stock of the materials we need for renewable energy is already available on land. What’s your response to this?

That would mean recycling the material we already have. We still need a massive injection of materials to build hundreds of billions of batteries. One of our commitments is that that every atom of materials we put into the system, we will require back for recycling. In 15 years’ time, I don’t think we will be in this industry, because there will be sufficient material in the system. But at the moment, it’s just impossible — you can’t recycle what you don’t have. The World Bank has estimated that we’ll need about 500 per cent more of these important metals. People sometimes say, there are enough resources on land. Yes, there are. That’s not our argument. Look at where these resources are. They’re in some of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. 

As recycling starts to meet some of the future needs, supply will increase, and demand for virgin ores will decrease. The beauty of ocean metals is that they’re of particularly high quality, so the destructive practices of land-based mining will disappear first.

The impacts of deep-sea mining sediment plumes

The potential impacts of mining-generated sediment plumes (click to enlarge). Source: Drazen et al, 2017, PNAS

A study from July suggests that deep-sea mining, which collects metal nodules from the ocean floor, pumps them to the surface and discharges unwanted water back into the ocean, could seriously threaten the midwater ecosystem, polluting it with vast sediment plumes. How will your mining operations look to avoid this impact on the midwater ecosystem?

We are engineering our system so that the impact is minimal. The rumours that sediment will travel for hundreds of miles are nonsense. We have done sufficient studies, as having other science programmes before us, to show that the majority of the sediment—more than 95 per cent of it—settles very quickly.

We’ll get more answers through a study we have just undertaken, which is the world’s largest ever ocean-floor-to-ocean-top environmental study, and one part of that is the midwater column. We are working out where the best place is to put the return-water. I assumed it would be where we took it from, but that’s probably not the case. There are more efficient places to drop it.

There are also concerns that deep-sea mining will irreparably damage ecosystems that have been untouched for millennia. What do you say to those concerns?

Not true. A study [in Science Advances from April 2020] found that an area of the Peru Basin that had been disturbed 26 years ago had since restored about half of the marine biodiversity. You could ask why hasn’t it fully recovered in that time. But in the context of a planet that is 4.4 billion years old, that’s a phenomenally fast recovery. So biodiversity does recover from deep-sea mining.

Tell us about what happened with the failed Solwara I project deep-sea mining project, which you were involved in. The company behind the project, Nautilus, has gone into administration, and the government of Papua New Guinea has been left in debt.

I was the original seed investor in Nautilus, I never actually worked for them. I knew nothing about mining and had never invested in a mining company, but I was fascinated to learn that the ocean is full of metal. It seemed like an interesting project. I provided some seed capital, and helped the CEO at the time to raise some more money. We’re not ashamed of what happened then. They say that the pioneers end up with arrows in the back — and that was Nautilus.

Had Nautilus not happened, the industry wouldn’t have got started. But they made a lot of mistakes. First, they were focused on a resource that was less than ideal: Sulphides and seafloor crusts, which require heavy equipment — big, angry rock grabbers that fill me with horror. By contrast, the machines we use are gentle giants.

Nautilus deep-sea mining machines

Deep seabed mining machines manufactured by Nautilus Minerals. Image: Nautilus Minerals

Secondly, they were operating in Papua New Guinea, and one of the challenges of the resources industry is dealing with developing nations (I had pretty much sold out of the project by the time they came into invest). And third, they just never found much of the resource they were looking for.

What was there to learn from that experience?

The benefit from that project for me was learning about polymetallic nodules. They’re the resource that we should be going after. They’re massively abundant, they’re in the deep ocean, 4,000 to 5,800 metres below sea level, whereas sulphides are about 2,000 metres below sea level. Nodules just lie on the ocean floor, so there’s no digging, blasting or tunnelling required — we just collect them in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

What do you say to the large number of concerned environmentalists who say that there is absolutely no need for us to be mining the deep seabed, because we have enough of the materials we need on land?

You’re wrong. When I took over as chairman and CEO of DeepGreen, I imagined that I would be able to sit down with the leading NGOs and have sensible conversations. But I’ve lost faith in that and the people who work in those organisations. We need to let the science do the talking and think about this [deep-sea mining] from a planetary perspective. 

There’s not much we can do on this planet that has no impact. If it has no impact, it’s probably not worth doing.

What does the future of the deep sea look like to you in 10 to 20 years?

I think we’ll see floating island communities [living around seabed mines] and in time, vessels will be unmanned and operate autonomously. The floating islands will have ocean science parks and research institutions working and operating on them. Families that work on mining projects will live there, and their children will go to school there. It will be a closed-loop community where people will live off a plant-based diet, supplemented by fish. In time, there maybe a tourism element too.

People will also be able to see how we work. We want to give the world a real-time picture of what we’re doing on the ocean floor. I want people to see how we collect nodules, and how those nodules are turned into battery materials.

How will you allow people to see how deep-sea mining is done?

We’re developing a digital twin system, which provides a virtual replica of the deep-sea operating environment and allows us to adapt our operations on the go. They’ll be some commercially sensitive information that we won’t be able to make fully available, but we want people to see what we’re doing.

I’m absolutely certain that we are going to have the eyes of the world on us, and I’m totally fine with that. There will be some impact. But there’s not much we can do on this planet that has no impact. If it has no impact, it’s probably not worth doing.

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