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Deep Sea Mining: Gold Rush 2.0?

This year marks the long-planned closure of the Victor diamond mine. After a decade of excavation – and about 7 million carats – the Northern Ontario site is shutting down and focusing its efforts elsewhere. It’s the natural cycle of such businesses, who traverse the globe in search of the next hidden treasure trove. As of late, leaders are expanding their horizons to include the unexplored depths of the ocean. Compared to the rest of the industry, the practice of deep sea mining is the relative new kid in town. Interest began stirring in the 1960s but after a brief investment by Europe and the US, the idea was all but abandoned.

In recent years, the practice has experienced renewed attention, with experts buzzing about the possibility of undiscovered deposits. In some ways, the move is unavoidable, as the continued demand for minerals and metals inevitably requires new sources. The push away from fossil fuel and towards electronic and green technology in particular requires vast quantities of cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese – all of which are ripe for harvesting on the ocean floor. Nickel sources, in particular, are rapidly depleting and are only expected to last another 40 years unless ocean reserves are tapped.

Canada has been on the forefront of this push, with a Vancouver-based company receiving the first license to mine off the coast of Papua New Guinea back in 2011. The 20-year term allowed the company’s giant machinery to roam half-a-billion kilometers off the eastern coast of the tiny nation, past the Bismark Sea and into the vast Pacific. Right away, the project experienced setbacks with protests by local environmentalists and financial shortfalls and was eventually halted.

Still, this project is only the beginning. Supporters of the practice argue both the social and ecological benefits of the approach, especially in comparison to the well-documented drawbacks of traditional mining. Environmental contamination and ethical concerns in mining hotspots like the Democratic Republic of the Congo have long been a source of unease in the industry. Because the practice is still in its infancy, the long-term ramifications are not yet understood. Massive machinery would undoubtedly disturb the ecosystems of surrounding sea creatures, though the extent is unknown. The difficulty in speculating on such an impact lies in the lack of knowledge on the area as a whole. After all, scientists have more detailed maps of Mars than they do our own ocean floors.

Regardless, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has a fast-approaching deadline of 2020 to determine regulations for commercial mining. Countries across the globe gamble on what could be the next phase of the industry where early investment could provide a billion-dollar payoff. Right now there are 29 ISA-issued exploratory contracts in play, many of which are in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the north Pacific ocean, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from the nearest civilization in either direction of Hawaii or Mexico.

To understand the strong interest regarding the potential new practice, one only has to look towards the clear waters of the area, nicknamed CCZ. The space will likely become the epicentre of the boom once deep sea mining really gets underway on a commercial scale. It’s said to be among the world’s largest untapped sources of valuable minerals and precious metals. The area is scattered with trillions of nodules – deposits about the size of a potato and bursting with useable materials.

Regardless of the ISA’s eventual rules for interested parties, the buzz around these new mineral sources continues to grow with no signs of a slowdown. With the abundance of potential, any industry leaders who completely ignore the shift may end up having to abandon ship.