The technology and investment are ready, and the world is hurtling toward commercially extracting rare minerals thousands of feet beneath the ocean's surface.
Deep sea mining is one of those long-held commercial dreams that just decades ago seemed to be a sci-fi fantasy. But now that firms and international groups are preparing to shift their very costly exploratory projects into lucrative operations, environmental groups are pushing to get the right international regulations in place to protect deep sea ecosystems.
One group of international scientists submitted its proposal for environmental protections this week to the International Seabed Authority, the governing body that oversees activity on the seafloor in places not governed by individual countries. The scientists argue that mining should be prohibited in specific areas of the ocean floor throughout the world.
"There need to be areas that are protected," said Larry Crowder, a contributor to the proposal and science director at the Center for Ocean Solutions. "Things are speeding up here. They have to be in place before actual mining happens."
Mining groups have been eyeing enormous deposits of rare metals on the seafloor. The rolling abyssal plains of the ocean have been found to harbor nodules of nickel, copper and lithium. Hydrothermal vents and massive seafloor sulfides contain copper and an estimated $150 trillion in gold, while seamount crusts house cobalt, manganese and other rare-earth minerals that are increasingly in demand to make cell phones, computers and other technology. The ISA developed this nifty map to show where it's all located.
But the untapped resources reside in the fragile ecosystems of depths that have remained largely unexplored by people. Mining, researchers warn, could not only upset a part of the world that's essential to the absorption of carbon dioxide, but also damage the environment in ways that would not be easily undone.
"These ecosystems do not recover — they just don't," said Jack Kittinger, another contributor of the proposal and director of Virginia-based Conservation International. "We're talking geologic time here because it's so deep and so cold."
To mine the seafloor, high-tech vessels often use equipment based on what's been developed by the offshore oil and gas industry. They drill with remotely operated vehicles and then lift the raw materials up to the surface with a series of conveyor belts.
Previous interruptions to these environments, like deep sea fishing, have proved to be devastating to some marine populations. Kittinger said many areas affected by human industry still haven't returned to normal, even given decades of time to recover.
The researchers say there need to be buffer zones to protect marine populations against any threats from the industry, such as sediment plumes shot up into the water while drilling. They also suggest that boundaries be established with straight lines, to make it easier for miners to stay within legal borders when they drill.
"It's not mining versus environmental protection," Kittinger said. "This is good for business because it would remove regulatory uncertainty. It's OK to mine sustainably, we just need the framework to do that."
Setting aside protected zones in the ocean wouldn't be anything new for the international sea law. The ISA has already designated areas to remain untouched while granting permits to explore the ocean floor for possible exploitation in the years to come. Making official protected zones would, however, expand regulations to areas across the world and could influence how the ISA develops its regulations beyond exploration.
But time is of the essence. Researchers estimate that mining could be ready to go under ISA supervision within the next five years.
There is also a project to mine vents underway off the coast of Papua New Guinea, regulated by the island nation. The project, operated by Toronto-based Nautilus Minerals Inc., was approved after years of an equity dispute between the country and the company.
So far, 26 permits have been doled out by the ISA — some to governments or coalitions of countries, and others to private groups sponsored by governments. Most permits are designated for an immense area in the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, covering an area slightly smaller than the entire contiguous United States. Other permits have been granted to explore parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
The ISA's legal authority extends to most of the ocean floor, covering any area of the sea not specifically under the control of governments. The Common Law of the Sea, set up by the United Nations in 1973, gave countries control of the ocean extending 200 nautical miles from their shores. Everything else is under international law, designed to protect the ocean as a "common heritage of mankind."
The U.S. never actually ratified the treaty to be a signatory of the legal system, but it generally follows the rules anyway — often more rigorously than required by international groups, authors of the proposal said.
While the U.S. hasn't sponsored any groups for permits under the ISA, it has worked with the international body to grant its own exploratory permits through the Department of the Interior. Only two U.S.-issued licenses are currently in effect, and both are held by Lockheed Martin Corp. for exploration of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.