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Deep sea mining could provide materials to help us quit fossil fuels — but at a cost

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Building the things that we need to fight climate change - things like electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels - it's going to require a lot of metal. And as it turns out, there is plenty of metal lying on the ocean floor. But getting that metal is controversial. Daniel Ackerman is a climate reporter for Gimlet Media, and he's been covering international talks in Jamaica about deep-sea mining. Welcome.

DANIEL ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. OK, can you just first explain what deep-sea mining is?

ACKERMAN: Yeah. So there are these rocks about the size of potatoes that are scattered across the ocean floor, sometimes three miles below the sea surface, and these rocks are called polymetallic nodules. They contain a bunch of the metals used in batteries for clean energy. So mining companies have designed machines like huge underwater vacuum cleaners, and these would move along the seabed and suck up the top layer of sediment, including those nodules, and send the whole mixture up through a long pipe all the way to a ship waiting at the surface.

CHANG: Wow.

ACKERMAN: And just to be clear, this technology is still under development, so deep-sea mining is not actually happening yet.

CHANG: It's not actually happening yet. Then why are so many people talking about it right now?

ACKERMAN: Well, the short answer is electric cars. As more of them hit the road, the demand for materials used in their batteries is going to skyrocket. And the best batteries today use metals like cobalt, nickel and manganese, and analysts predict there could be a shortage of those metals. So some mining companies are starting to look at these nodules on the ocean floor because they're rich in those key metals, and in places like the Eastern Pacific, they are really abundant. So supporters of deep-sea mining say it can speed the switch to cleaner power, and they say that using these nodules is better for the environment than mining on land, which can cause tainted drinking water and deforestation.

CHANG: OK. So I understand that these talks have been going on in Jamaica for the last three weeks. They were about how to regulate deep-sea mining. What's coming out of those discussions?

ACKERMAN: Well, the prospect of deep-sea mining is becoming much more real. These talks are happening at the International Seabed Authority, and that's the group set up by the United Nations to regulate deep-sea mining. And the authority for years has been crafting regulations that mining groups would have to follow. But that work has suddenly been kicked into overdrive, and that's because Nauru, a Pacific Island nation, announced it may apply as soon as next year for a permit to mine in partnership with a Canadian firm. Now, Ailsa, they're not going to actually start mining next year. The technology and the finance are just not quite there yet. But the announcement has pushed the authority to quickly try and finalize those regulations. Now, meanwhile, environmental groups and even some carmakers are saying, hey; hold on. We're not yet ready to open this new frontier for mining. And so they're calling for a moratorium, basically a pause of about a decade before any deep-sea mining is approved.

CHANG: A pause for about a decade. But if we need electric car batteries right now, why are these groups calling for a delay?

ACKERMAN: So they're concerned that mining could harm an environment that scientists are still working to understand. It is really hard to study the deep ocean. It's pitch black, and the water pressure is 500 times greater than at the surface. And scientists discover new species almost every time they go down there. Deep-sea mining would likely destroy seafloor habitat. It would be loud, and it would create plumes of sediment that some describe like an underwater dust storm.

CHANG: OK. So all of this sounds very concerning. Where does this leave us, then?

ACKERMAN: Well, I'm watching to see how governments react. So far, six Pacific Island nations have joined the call for a moratorium. So have some in Latin America, and we'll see if more countries follow suit. But I think the big question we have to ask is, what tradeoffs are we willing to make to fight climate change? You know, moving away from fossil fuels means building a lot of new infrastructure, and deep-sea mining could provide some of the materials to do that. But it could also come at a cost to the health of the ocean.

CHANG: That is Daniel Ackerman. He covers climate change for Gimlet Media. Thank you so much for joining us.

ACKERMAN: Yeah. Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.