Last week, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved a Deep Ocean Mission proposed by the Ministry of Earth Sciences at a cost of Rs 4,077 crore over a period of five years, with funding of Rs 2823.4 crore for the first three years (2021-24). An allocation of Rs.4,000 crore had earlier been announced in the Union Budget.
The major objectives of the Mission are to develop technologies for the exploration of the ocean floor and ridges at depths of up to 6000 metres and act as a precursor to deep sea mining (DSM), whenever permitted under international agreements. Specifically, a three-member crewed Submersible Vehicle with a site of sensors, probes and other instruments capable of operating at such extreme depths would be developed, along with autonomous prospecting vehicles and an Integrated Mining System. Such technologies are considered strategic, since they are currently at various stages of highly protected development and deployment by only a handful of mostly developed countries such as the US, China, Russia, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea and companies there, which are engaged in this frontier area of science and technology with the allure of opening up a whole new and vast resource base for industrial raw materials.
Its other objectives are to study and prospect for deep-sea flora and fauna, towards understanding ocean bio-diversity and potential utilisation of bio-resources. The Mission also includes development of technologies for production of renewable energy through Ocean Thermal Conversion Technology and linked desalination plant for fresh water, and a proposed Advanced Marine Station for Ocean Biology and engineering aimed at translation of research into products and industries through on-site business incubators.
Each objective is explicitly linked to one or another element of the Blue Economy Initiative, one of the ten core areas of growth identified in the Vision of New India by 2030 enunciated in 2019. Even the proposed studies of deep-sea climate change impact leading to related advisory services are, somewhat peculiarly, linked to the coastal tourism dimension of the Blue Economy plan!
While some of this Blue Economy linkage may be a nod to the present Government’s business orientation, or even an often-used bureaucratic device for tapping into funding sources, the industrial and commercial thrust of the Mission in its present form, even if aimed at the medium term, are unmistakable.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that almost all elements of the Mission, in one form or another, have been around since the early 1980s, having been taken up by different agencies. At earlier times, India’s entry into this sector was primarily strategic and aimed at technological self-reliance in a frontier area analogous to space science and technology. Over the years, however, the prospects of industrial and commercial activities have grown sharply in salience internationally.
The existence of minerals on the ocean floor has been known for a century and a half, but it is only since the 1970s and 80s when the technological means to exploit it have appeared to be feasible. Since, serious exploration, technology development and preparation for commercial extraction has been pursued in earnest.
The British three-masted and sailed warship HMS Challenger, during its scientific expedition during 1872-76, dredged up some black matter composed almost entirely of pure Manganese oxide. This expedition incidentally also identified the world’s deepest – over eight km deep – Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. In the 1960s, the publication of US geologist John Mero’s 'The Mineral Resources of the Sea' highlighted the potential of the seabed to become a major source of minerals. Between 1967 and 1982, the UN General Assembly pursued efforts to regulate these resources which were designated a “common heritage of mankind,” resulting in Resolution 2749 (XXV) of 1970 adopting the Declaration of Principles Governing the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and the Subsoil Thereof beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction. The adoption in 1982 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), with 168 member States including the EU, and the establishment of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) under the UN with its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1994 with the same parties as UNCLOS, saw a regulatory machinery come into being. The area covered, that is the area beyond the continental shelf of individual countries, represents a little over 50% f the planet’s seabed.
The ISA has to approve, monitor and regulate all applications for activities on the seabed which are currently restricted to exploration and studies, in parallel covering studies of impacts on the environment and bio-diversity. ISA is expected to formulate codes and procedures for mining, and then consider approvals for seabed mining (SBM) in the years or decades to come, until which time no commercial or industrial scale resource extraction can take place from the seabed.
New Interest in Ocean Minerals
In the early 1970s, a sharp drop in metal prices combined with the oil shock resulted in a drop of interest in seabed minerals. A renewed interest since the 90s has been driven by several factors. Technologies for mineral mining and processing, especially in marine environments, have advanced considerably, including in minimising waste and reducing the ecological footprint, howsoever limited. Demand for minerals has also expanded considerably, particularly in emerging economies and large, developing countries. Simultaneously, terrestrial mineral deposits are under severe pressure from dwindling reserves, increasing costs including due to environmental regulation and remediation. New technologies such as micro-processors, cellular phones, solar panels and wind turbines, batteries for energy storage in electric vehicles, power back-up and other applications, have sharply increased demand for specific and rare minerals, terrestrial mining of which has a scorched earth outcome in several less developed regions. Recycling of manufactured goods using such minerals is in its infancy, and is currently able to recover only a small fraction of the minerals used at a cost comparable with that of extraction. This is a less appreciated fact among proponents of “green” energy and the general public, an evasion made possible because these cost factors or “externalities” have yet to be reflected in prices of these minerals and resulting products.
Commercial interest is currently focused on three types of marine minerals and sites. Polymetallic nodules occur widely on the seafloor in abyssal plains i.e. relatively flat areas at depths of 3000-6000 metres at the base of the continental rise, and are often found as fine sediments. Nodules contain metals such as manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper, iron, lead and zinc with small but important concentrations of rare metals like lithium, molybdenum, niobium and titanium. These nodules are believed to have been formed over geological time of hundreds of millions of years through multiple processes such as undersea volcanic eruptions, precipitation from seawater, other chemical reactions and biological processes. The largest concentration of sites of study and exploration is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the eastern Pacific, believed to contain more nickel, manganese and cobalt than all terrestrial resources put together. Other areas of interest are within the exclusive economic zones of the Cook Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia, besides the Central Ocean Basin where India was allotted exploration permits by ISA in 2002 covering several blocks over a 75,000 sq.km area almost due south of the Indian peninsular tip. The period of approval is due to end in 2022 but is fully expected to be renewed as almost routinely done in such cases.
Polymetallic sulphides rich in copper, iron, silver, gold and zinc are typically found at depths of around 2000m at tectonic plate boundaries along mid-ocean ridges and volcanic arcs. These deposits have been formed over thousands of years through hydro-thermal activity, especially from vents when metals are precipitated from underwater hot springs from the earth’s crust. These vents form unique ecosystems comprising chemical synthesising bacteria that use hydrogen sulphide as their energy source and a variety of organisms such as tubeworms, molluscs and crustaceans. Many species are considered to be unique to vent sites and hence of intrinsic scientific value. India has been allotted a block of sites of a total 10,000 sq.km area spread over 300,000 sq. km for exploration in an Indian Ocean region to the east of Madagascar, where several countries, including China, also hold blocks. India’s 15-year contract with ISA was signed in 2016 for a 15-year duration.
Cobalt crusts are found on the sides and tops of sea mountains at depths between 400 and 7,000 metres and are formed through precipitation from seawater. Deposits may contain manganese, iron, nickel, cobalt, copper and various rare earth elements. Most of the potential deposits are believed to be located in the Magellan Seamounts in the southern Pacific, in the Mariana Islands and seamounts east of Japan.
It is broadly estimated that seabed minerals may amount to several hundred billion tons, which explains the potential rush and strategic as well as commercial greed. However, this greed comes with grave risks and potential environmental hazards.
Environmental Hazards & Precautionary Principle
Till now, the regulatory mechanism embodied in the ISA has prevailed. By permitting only regulated exploratory activities along with environmental studies, this has implicitly incorporated the precautionary principle of not proceeding with a scientific or technological activity until sufficient knowledge is available enabling a judicious understanding of societal or environmental impacts. However, it is also clear than pressure from countries, corporations and other commercial interests, driven both by greed and by the various pressure factors discussed above, is growing. Very few mining projects have even been sanctioned in the name of enabling small, island developing countries to benefit from science and technology. It has happened, for instance, in the south Pacific, with unhappy social, economic and environmental results which puts the island states at the bottom of the value chain, while corporations from developed countries corner most of the economic benefits. Some observers predict that pressure to move from exploration to exploitation may soon become irresistible and lead to commercial waters as early as 2020-25.
The potential environmental damage could be enormous, with frighteningly, hitherto unknown consequences, thus screaming for application of the precautionary principle.
Some environmental effects are obvious and may be readily anticipated. Scraping of the ocean floor by machines, as would be required for mining nodules or polymetallic sulphides, would clearly cause substantial disturbance and may irretrievably change or destroy deep-sea habitats and ecosystems. Many species are believed to be endemic to such sites i.e. they do not occur anywhere else, and the total extinction of numerous hitherto undocumented species is likely. Some forms of deep-sea mining, including pumping up resources through risers to the surface, would stir up fine sediments and micro-organisms and disperse or deposit them over a wide area elsewhere with unknown impacts, including on other species feeding on these. Pollution caused by noise, lights, vibrations as well as wastes from fuels and possibly toxic processing substances is also highly likely.
Most of the types of potential deep sea exploration areas are least explored, leave alone studied. Polymetallic nodule areas were thought to be without life till just 40 to 50 years ago, but are now known to be highly bio-diverse. Scientists found that over 50% of species samples collected in the crowded eastern Pacific exploration zone are new to science. Even in relatively widely studied hydrothermal vents, many species found are extremely rare. The connections of these species to a wider global ecosystem are even less understood. It is therefore clear that the local and short-term impacts of deep sea mining, as well as the longer term and wider regional and global ecosystem impacts, are virtually unknown, not just poorly understood. A potential explosive release of huge quantities of methane trapped in the deep sea is another possible danger.
It also needs underlining that deep sea minerals have been formed over many thousands, or even many millions of years, and are therefore non-renewable or exhaustible resources just like fossil fuels that the world is now being called upon to eschew.
The voices of experts, environmental organisations and popular movements are building up to stop the movement from exploration to actual extraction. But can they overcome the enormous clout and pressure of powerful corporations and the States that protect their interests? The lack of concern of the present dispensation in India for terrestrial and coastal wildlife, bio-diversity and the ecosystem, is too well-known to need repetition here. As such, it would be too much to expect that official India not follow the lead of powerful, mostly developed countries representing global capital. Yet mounting efforts, both nationally and internationally, must be made to slow down if not entirely stop the race for exploitation of deep sea resources.
D. Ragunandan is with the Delhi Science Forum and the All India People’s Science Network. The views are personal.