Ecological hazards of ocean-floor mining

Spiralling prices for metals on the world market, especially those that are rare and involved in still-evolving technologies, together with depletion of onshore, high-grade reserves are beginning to make the opportunity of mining deep, ocean-floor resources attractive. By early 2018, fifteen companies had begun detailed economic assessment of one of the most remote swathes of the Pacific abyssal plains. In April 2018 (How rich are deep-sea resources?) I outlined the financial attractions and the ecological hazards of such ventures: both are substantial, to say the least. In Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Okinawa the potential economic bonanza has begun, with extraction from deep-water sulfide deposits of zinc equivalent to Japan’s annual demand for that metal, together with copper, gold and lead. One of the most economically attractive areas lies far from EEZs, beneath the East Pacific Ocean between the Clarion and Clipperton transform faults. It is a huge field littered by polymetallic nodules, formerly known as manganese nodules because Mn is the most abundant in them. A recent article spelled out the potential environmental hazards which exploiting the resources of this region might bring (Hefferman, O. 2019. Seabed mining is coming – bringing mineral riches and fears of epic extinctions. Nature, v. 571, p. 465-468; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02242-y).

ocean floor resources
The distribution of potential ocean-floor metal-rich resources (Credit: Hefferman 2019)

Recording of the ecosystem on the 4 km deep floor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) began in the 1970s. It is extraordinarily diverse for such a seemingly hostile environment. Despite its being dark, cold and with little oxygen, it supports a rich and unique diversity of more than 1000 species of worms, echinoderms, crustaceans, sponges, soft corals and a poorly known but probably huge variety of smaller animals and microbes inhabiting the mud itself. In 1989, marine scientists simulated the effect on the ecosystem of mining by using an 8-metre-wide plough harrow to break up the surface of a small plot. A plume of fine sediment rained down to smother the inhabitants of the plot and most of the 11 km2 surrounding it. Four subsequent visits up to 2015 revealed that recolonisation by its characteristic fauna has been so slow that the area has not recovered from the disturbance after three decades.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), with reps from 169 maritime member-states, was created in 1994 by the United Nations to encourage and regulate ocean-floor mining; i.e. its function seems to be ‘both poacher and gamekeeper’. In 25 years, the ISA has approved only exploration activities and has yet to agree on an environmental protection code, such is the diversity of diplomatic interests and the lack of ecological data on which to base it. Of the 29 approved exploration licences, 16 are in the CCZ and span about 20% of it, one involving British companies has an area of 55,000 km2. ISA still has no plans to test the impact of the giant harvesting vehicles needed for commercial mining, and its stated intent is to keep only 30% of the CCZ free of mining ‘to protect biodiversity’. The worry among oceanographers and conservationists is that ISA will create a regulatory system without addressing the hazards properly. Commercial and technological planning is well advanced but stalled by the lack of a regulatory system as well as wariness because of the huge start-up costs in an entirely new economic venture.

The obvious concern for marine ecosystems is the extent of disturbance and ecosystem impact, both over time and as regards scale. The main problem lies in the particles that make up ocean-floor sediments, which are dominated by clay-size particles. The size of sedimentary particles considered to be clays ranges between 2.0 and 0.06 μm. According to Stokes Law, a clay particle at the high end of the clay-size range with a diameter of 2 μm  has a settling speed in water of 2 μm s-1. The settling speed for the smallest clays is 1,000 time slower. So, even the largest clay particles injected only 100 m above the ocean floor would take 1.6 years to settle back to the ocean floor – if the water column was absolutely still. But even the 4,000 m deep abyssal plains are not at all stil, because of the ocean-water ‘conveyor belt’ driven by thermohaline circulation. An upward component of this flow would extend the time during which disturbed ocean-floor mud remains in suspension – if that component was a mere >2 μm s-1, even the largest clay particles would remain suspended indefinitely. Deepwater currents, albeit slow, would also disperse the plume of fines over much larger areas than those being mined. Moreover such turbidity pollution is likely to occur at the ocean surface as well, if the mining vessels processed the ore materials by washing nodules free of attached clay. Plumes from shipboard processing would be dispersed much further because of the greater speed of shallow currents. This would impact the upper and middling depths of the oceans that support even more diverse and, in the case of mid-depths poorly known, ecosystems Such plumes may settle only after decades or even centuries, if at all.

Processing on land, obviously, presents the same risk for near-shore waters. It may be said that such pollution could be controlled easily by settling ponds, as used in most conventional mines on land. But the ‘fines’ produced by milling hard ores are mainly silt-sized particles (2.0 to 60 μm) of waste minerals, such as quartz, whose settling speeds are proportional to the square of their diameter; thus a doubling in particle size results in four-times faster settling. The mainly clay-sized fines in deep-ocean ores would settle far more slowly, even in shallow ponds, than the rate at which they are added by ongoing ore processing; chances are, they would eventually be released either accidentally or deliberately

A mining code is expected in 2020, in which operating licences are likely to be for 30 years. Unlike the enforced allowance of environmental restoration once a land-based mining operation is approved, the sheer scale, longevity and mobility of fine-sediment plumes seem unlikely to be resolvable, however strong such environmental-protection clauses are for mining the ocean floor.

Resource snippets

Wasted natural gas

Much attention has centred on fracking shales to release otherwise locked-in gas, while production of liquid petroleum by the same kind of process is also increasing with little publicity, especially in the US. From a purely economic standpoint wells that yield oil and gas from fractured shale might seem to be quite a boon. Well, they probably are, if the gas can be sold. One of the biggest shale-oil targets is the Late Devonian to Early Carboniferous Bakken Shale in the Williston Basin that stretches across 360 thousand km2‑ beneath parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana in the US and Saskatchewan in Canada. This shale is the source rock for most of the conventional oil production from the Williston basin since the 1940s. At the start of the 21st century direct production of oil from the Bakken began in North Dakota, unleashing a major drilling boom and a ten-fold increase in land-leases for production. The state is now the second largest US oil producer after Alaska warranting a major feature National Geographic. Trouble is North Dakota is not well served by pipelines of any kind and oil is shipped by rail, much as it was in the early days of the US oil industry.

Flame at PTT (ปตท.) (Map Ta Phut, Rayong, Thai...
Typical natural gas flare with black-carbon plume (credit: Wikipedia)

The natural gas released by fracking is simply wasted, partly by flaring at the wellhead but an unknown volume of pure methane is simply vented to the atmosphere. At rough 25 times the greenhouse warming capacity of CO2 the perverted economics of waste methane is, unsurprisingly, becoming scandalous and increasingly dangerous. Such is the magnitude of shale-gas production in the US the price of natural gas has fallen dramatically so that from the Williston Basin simply carries no profit and therefore has nowhere to go except up in flames or directly to the air. The US Environmental Protection Agency apparently can do little to halt the venting. British onshore source rocks, such as the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Shale,  which has a hydrocarbon content up to 70% and is regarded as the most important rock in Europe being the source for much of the petroleum beneath the North Sea and other oil provinces, are likely targets for fracking now the UK government has given the go-ahead in a new ‘dash for gas’. Chances are it may become a dash for onshore shale-oil .

Manganese nodules finally tagged for production

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the...
Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the Pacific. (credit: Wikipedia)

Almost 40 years ago my desk was almost buried under tomes of information about dull black nodules looking like blighted potatoes as I worked on the now abandoned Level-2 Open University course on The Earth’s Physical Resources. Made mainly out of manganese and iron minerals they also contain ore-grade amounts of nickel, copper and cobalt together with other metals. Were they beneath the crust they would be mined eagerly, but such manganese nodules litter vast areas at the surface of the oceans’ abyssal plains. Such was their potential that around half a billion dollars was spent on oceanographic and geochemical surveys to map the richest nodule fields. Part of the attraction at a time when the non-renewable nature of conventional metal deposits was touted as a threat to civilisation as we know it, as in The Limits to Growth, was that the nodules were zoned and clearly growing: they appear to be renewable metal resources.

Mining them is likely to be hugely costly: they will have to be dredged or sucked-up from the deep ocean basins; intricate metallurgical methods are needed to separate and smelt the paying metals and the risks of deep-sea pollution are obvious. As with shale gas, the UK Tory premier David Cameron has leapt onto Lockheed Martin UK’s announcement that it is finally profitable to get at the nodules, in the manner of the proverbial ‘rat up a drainpipe’. Cameron believes that the venture to harvest one of the most metalliferous patches on the east Pacific floor off Mexico may rake the UK’s economic potatoes out of the fire to the tune of US$60 billion over the next 30 years. Lockheed Martin is an appropriate leader in this scramble having designed some of the equipment aboard a ship financed by Howard Hughes, the 50 thousand tonne Glomar Explorer. A curious vessel, the Glomar Explorer was widely publicised in the mid-70s as the flagship for a manganese nodule pilot project. In fact it was built to snaffle a Soviet submarine (K-129) and its contents of codebooks, technical equipment and nuclear missiles that sank to the abyssal plains in the Pacific about 2500 km to the north-west of Hawaii. It did grapple the submarine, some cryptographic equipment, a couple of nuclear tipped torpedoes and six of the dead crew members. It is still operational, but as an ultra-deep water drill rig.

We will have to wait to see if nodule mining is a ‘go-er’, and very little information has emerged about methodology. The target metal is probably nickel with its importance in rechargeable batteries, plus rare-earth metals that are in notoriously short supply. Whether or not raking, dredging or sucking-up the nodules will have insupportable environmental impact depends on the amount of on-board processing; the nodules themselves are pretty much insoluble. Extracting and separating the metals will probably involve some kind of solution chemistry rather than the beneficiation common in most on-shore metal mines. Such hydrometallurgy has considerable potential for pollution, unless the raw nodules are shipped to shoreline facilities, at a hefty cost. One thing occurred to me while writing about manganese nodules as a major resource was that their blends of metals would not match the proportions actually required in commerce. On a grand scale their exploitation could well play havoc with currently booming metal prices and drive on-shore mining to the wall. But, to be frank, I think this is a bit of tropical sea-bed bubble fraught with legal tangles connected with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.