Clean Energy will drive Deep-Sea Mining to become a $100 billion plus industry, but U.S. can't participate
(Kitco News) - The U.S. has locked itself out from the next major mining frontier -- deep sea mining -- while China leads the world in it, said Alex Gilbert. Achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 would require six times more of certain minerals that are currently mined by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. This has led to a demand in deep sea mining.
Gilbert, who is a Fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, spoke to Michelle Makori, lead anchor and editor-in-chief of Kitco News.
There is a Law of the Sea Treaty set up in 1982 that regulates deep sea mining, but the U.S. cannot participate in deep sea mining because the U.S. did not ratify this treaty. "American companies cannot participate. American companies that are interested in deep sea mining have to go abroad and work as a multinational corporation with their foreign subsidiaries," Gilbert said.
"The country that has received the most exploration permits for deep sea mining so far is China. For the U.S., this is potentially a large concern from an economic competitiveness perspective, because currently China is the leading processor of metals around the world," Gilbert explained. "If you believe that we are going through this energy transition from a fossil fuel based energy system to one based on metals for clean energy, the U.S. plays a central role in the fossil fuel based commodity system."
The shift to clean energy is expected to drive a huge demand for many metals but the International Energy Agency reported that there isn't enough supply at current levels. "The U.S. doesn't have a central role in the supply chain for metals. China is quickly moving across the board, not just for deep sea mining, but around the world it has established claims and mines so it can dominate the supply chain of the future," Gilbert discussed. "The question is how broadly do we ensure critical mineral supply, but that's something the U.S. needs to figure out."
The lack of metal supply has led to a demand in deep sea mining. The global deep sea mining technologies market and equipment is expected to reach about $73 billion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.
"The potential size of the deep-sea mining market is really large. It is a huge question mark, it's an industry that we are just on the verge of really birthing. We are in the exploration phase. We are moving closely toward the exploitation phase," said Gilbert. "This could be an industry that's anywhere from a very small cottage industry up to a global industry that is a juggernaut. It could be a hundred billion plus industry by 2040 or later."
Gilbert discussed that in order to meet the decarbonization goals we set internationally, it is imperative that we significantly increase the amount of mining we are doing. "The current production levels are not going to be sufficient," Gilbert said. "We are going to have to find new sources, rapidly develop new technologies that are using resources more efficiently, and we are going to need to use more recycling technologies."
In terms of investing in deep sea mining companies, Gilbert emphasized that "This is still an early industry, and he cautions investors to be careful. We see a fair amount of action happening primarily with a Canadian based company called Deep Green. It is currently going public as part of SPAC, which will be called the Metals Company going forward. It is targeting polymetallic nodules for electric vehicle supplies."
Critics of deep-sea mining say that harvesting these nodules on the bottom of the sea could do more harm than good in terms of decarbonization, and this could disturb the ecosystem dramatically. "One of the big issues that we are struggling with is that we only just started exploring the deep seabed in a systematic manner in terms of looking at the biology there. If this is going to be a major source of clean energy we need to resolve these environmental uncertainties, "Gilbert said.
For more on Gilbert's view on metals mining, watch the full video above. Follow Michelle Makori on Twitter: @MichelleMakori