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Outright ban on deep-sea mining could have negative effects: DeepGreen CEO

Highlights

Not all DSM techniques equal

Divergence of views on DSM

World eyes sustainable future

New York — An outright ban on deep-sea mining would be more dangerous than carrying on with the research currently being conducted around its impacts, DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron told S&P Global Platts Nov. 18.

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Barron -- whose company is aiming to collect rocks from the deep ocean floor and process them to create metals such as nickel and cobalt, essential for the electrification of mobility -- said that recent calls from the Responsible Mining Foundation to ban deep-sea mining, until enough research has been concluded, was short-sighted.

Barron's vision is to create a metal production process that has a minimal environmental, social and governance footprint -- CO2 or otherwise.

Many critics of the move to electric vehicles bemoan the mining of raw materials, which they say can create mountains of waste. Barron said that collecting polymetallic nodules from the sea floor, although not perfect, is a much more environmental, social and governance-centric approach to moving to a sustainable future.

He noted the importance of differentiating between the three main types of deep-sea mineral deposits, which in addition to polymetallic nodules include sea floor massive sulphides and cobalt crusts. The latter two, said Barron, require more invasive methods that mirror terrestrial mining methods.

RMF seeks ban

A ban on deep sea mining should be enforced until the process is fully researched and understood, the Responsible Mining Foundation said earlier in November.

During an RMF webinar hosted Nov. 11, CEO Helene de Villiers-Piaget said that, until the full ramifications of deep-sea mining are understood, a "moratorium" should be enacted.

However, John Howchin, secretary-general of the council on ethics of the Swedish national pension funds, said he was "neutral" on deep-sea mining, noting that "it's coming whether we want it or not."

Barron responded by saying that people need to delve more into the details, and really look at the research that is already out there on polymetallic nodules.

He queried "what is responsible mining? Is it sticking with the same intensive mining practices we already have on land?"

The CEO is actively encouraging more discussions on the matter with NGOs, but feels like these talks hit a brick wall before they get properly started.

"I take offense at being called a sales person, I have a passion for the industry ... [we're embarking on] an important journey of discovery. Conversation is vital," he told Platts.

He said that he "totally understands" people's reservations when DSM is discussed, but that reservation comes from a lack of understanding about this resource, not knowing that the entire process is far less intensive than land-based activity.

Earlier this year Daniele La Porta, senior mining specialist at the World Bank, said that the world doesn't yet know enough about the impacts of deep-sea mining.

She suggested that what is needed is "precaution, precaution, precaution" before jumping in with both feet.

Transparency crucial

When S&P asked for Barron's reaction he said: "An extreme application of the precautionary principle underpins the makings of this industry. Environmental studies in the Area started in the 1970s. It's 2020 are we are still in the research phase. We have learned a few things over the last 50 years: abyssal seabed is extremely low on biomass -- 300 times lower than on land biomes on average or 1,500 times lower than Indonesian rainforests where most of future nickel growth is coming from."

He added, "most of that biomass are bacteria living in the sediment. Many more years of research to baseline and mitigate future impacts to this deep-sea fauna are ahead of us. What we can say with high degree of confidence is that the very nature of the resource makes it possible for us to build an electric vehicle battery with 80-90% less toxicity, zero solid processing waste, no tropical deforestation, up to 90% less climate change impacts compared to metal production from land ores."

Barron believes that through doing the right research, DeepGreen and others in the field can create a completely transparent raw materials supply chain.

Land-based mining is sometimes impacted by a lack of transparency around the supply chain, especially cobalt.

COVID-19 has defined the need for sustainability more so than any other event in history, especially for the metals and mining industry, Andrea Vaccari, the director responsible for production frameworks and sustainability at copper major Freeport-McMoRan, said back in October.

The pandemic had given people a chance to step back and look at how they wanted the future to look, portfolio manager at CalPERS Andrew Karsh said. For the metals industry in particular, sustainability was an evolving theme, "with transparency a key component," he said.