Last week, noted billionaire Richard Branson issued a call for more comprehensive protection of the Arctic, which in turn prompted some people to say rude things to him. Several pointed out that Branson's airline and space business ventures depend in no small part on fossil fuels — as Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted back at Branson, "You own an airline you mad cunt."
But the blowback was not the most notable part of Branson's statement. Because while he listed the usual threats like oil drilling and commercial fishing, he also snuck in a mention of seabed mining. And that's a threat you're going to hear about a lot more in the future.
Historically, resources like oil and gas and minerals have been easy, cheap, and safe to get at. These days, however, they are increasingly rare, expensive, and difficult to extract. Changes in technology — like fracking — have opened up new sources of those resources. Rising prices have made others — like previously unusable low-grade ores — newly profitable.
But going to faraway places for our resources is the new reality. If you'd asked oil company executives in the 1980s what the big pipeline projects would be in the year 2000, they probably wouldn't have said "Baku in Azerbaijan," and they definitely wouldn't have said "the Chad to Cameroon pipeline." Yet by the early 2000s, both of those projects were well underway, and the bars of Baku were filled with the Scottish, Texan, and Norwegian flotsam that inevitably collects around the world's big oil projects. (A few years back, the world's largest KFC opened in Baku's historic railway station.)
And if mining on land is too troublesome, you can always turn to the 70 percent of the planet that's covered in water.
De Beers Marine has been dredging for diamonds off the coast of Namibia at depths of around 400 feet for a decade — and at shallower depths for longer than that. An enormous 280-tonne "crawler" on tracks is deployed off the side of a ship where it sucks up diamond-rich material off the seabed. It's just like an M1 tank. Except four times the size. And underwater.
Next up will probably be Nautilus Minerals' Solwara-1 project in Papua New Guinea, which will use similarly massive seabed cutters and collectors to extract copper-gold ore from mineral-rich volcanic vents 5,000 feet down.
New Zealand appeared to be getting in on the seabed mining action when two companies, Trans-Tasman Resources and Chatham Rock Phosphate, came up with projects to mine for iron ore and phosphate respectively. Local NGOs, Maori iwi [tribes], and the fishing industry fought back, and recently the government's Environmental Protection Agency declined to grant environmental permits.
The fights that are lining up over seabed mining are pretty massive, and that's why people like Branson and Cameron — and a host of environmental NGOs — have been mobilizing. Google seabed mining and you'll find a wealth of groups that are campaigning hard against it, and the EPA's decisions in New Zealand has given them hope. The principal concern of those who oppose the industry is that no one really knows enough about offshore ecosystems and the species that inhabit them to understand what the impact of such mining is going to be. Plumes of disturbed material or pollution could smother corals and severely impact sea life.
To fully understand the economic and environmental values of what's down there is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars of research and exploration. Governments seem inclined to fund only tiny bits of that research, and while mining companies may be able to afford it, no investor is going to put money down without being certain mining will result. And there's a fair amount of skepticism in the NGO community about the quality and integrity of the environmental studies commissioned by mining companies.
This dilemma has pushed the debate to the extremes. On one side sit the developers — who in their right mind, some of them argue, would not want to even try to develop resources that could be worth billions of dollars? Offshore mining companies also point out that undersea mining won't take place literally or figuratively in anyone's backyard. On the other side, environmentalists look at how some resources have been developed on land, and they see any moves into less regulated offshore mining as a particularly steep and slippery slope to the degradation of the rest of the planet.
Who will win the debate? A relatively plentiful mineral may actually hold the answer to that question. Twenty years ago, the 5.7 billion humans on the planet consumed on average about 4 pounds of copper per person each year — in their electronics, in their buildings, etc. Today, there are 7.25 billion people, and we each use more than 5.5 pounds of copper per year. The reality of those numbers — and others like them — are going to make mining companies awfully eager to exploit the ocean, and make it awfully difficult for environmental interests to stop them.
Follow Sefton Darby on Twitter: @SeftonDarby