While more and more cities plan an end to sales of vehicles powered by fossil fuels and car manufacturers announce goals to go all electric, there’s a major complication. Where will all the metal for EV batteries come from? Some companies are looking toward deep-sea mining, which could have a whole new set of dire consequences.
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“These spaces out in the high seas, which include undersea mountain ranges, are really quite biodiverse and they’re full of very unique species,” said Douglas McCauley, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative. “Many species are still unknown to scientists, and some have been newly identified.”
For instance, there’s a newly found white octopus species, as well as black corals that live for thousands of years and the sea pangolin, which has the unwanted distinction of being the first marine species assessed as officially endangered, thanks to deep-sea mining.
The need for lithium-ion batteries to power all these promised EVs may be the sticking point that thwarts the whole electrified future. A 2019 study determined that lithium demand could outrun supply by next year. Cobalt and nickel, other crucial battery components, may also be running low within a decade.
“Cobalt is the metal of most concern for supply risks as it has highly concentrated production and reserves, and batteries for EVs are expected to be the main end-use of cobalt in only a few years,” according to a study by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney.
China is claiming most of the world’s cobalt, which is mined primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The global lithium supply is concentrated in Chile, Australia and Argentina. In addition to the negative environmental impacts of this mining, there are also major concerns over human rights abuses.
Businesspeople are turning to areas beyond national jurisdiction in the high seas. The International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental body, has already approved 28 mining contracts totaling more than 1 million square kilometers. Investors are getting excited about profits. One deep-sea mining group expects to have a $2.9 billion market value once it goes public.
Environmentalists aren’t happy about putting profits over sea pangolins; neither are some manufacturers. BMW and Volvo have both come out against deep sea mining.
“There are a lot of conversations about the real risks and unanswered questions about ocean mining,” McCauley said. “There’s now more than 90 NGOs that have come out and said that we need a moratorium on ocean mining and we shouldn’t be sprinting to do this until we are able to answer some of the serious questions about the impact of mining on ocean health.”
Image via Andrew Roberts