The oceans are suffering from chemical pollution, Texas-size patches of swirling plastic, acidification from climate change and overfishing. To that litany of environmental horrors we may soon add subsea mining. Blame the rise of electric vehicles and their voracious demands for “critical” metals.
Norway, the oil powerhouse whose output helped keep hundreds of millions of cars and trucks rolling on European roads, now wants to do the same for EVs. The government plans to submit a proposal this month to parliament that would allow mineral exploration and extraction near Svalbard, its archipelago in the Arctic. Amund Vik, state secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, told the Financial Times that subsea mining would help Europe meet “the desperate need for minerals, rare earths to make the [energy] transition happen.”
Plans by Norway and other countries to dig up the seabed are more grim evidence that automotive utopia is a myth – there is no such thing as an environmentally friendly car, no matter the propulsion system, and EVs are certainly dirtier than advertised. Manufacturing them may result in wrecking entire ecosystems that had gone largely untouched.
Cars powered by internal-combustion engines have been around since their invention in Germany in 1886. For the sake of the planet, they are being phased out – about a quarter of energy-related emissions come from transportation. In the European Union, the sale of cars with gasoline and diesel engines will be banned from 2035.
About 14 per cent of all new cars sold in 2022 were electric, said the International Energy Agency, up from 9 per cent in 2021 and 5 per cent the year before. In Europe, one in every five new cars was electric. Their sales will continue to soar as prices come down, charging networks are built and governments issue death sentences for internal-combustion engines. The 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which will throw hundreds of billions of dollars at the green transition, plus California’s Advanced Clean Cars II regulations, are expected to deliver a 50-per-cent market share by 2030.
Where will the critical metals be found to build these machines?
A typical EV, according to the IEA, uses more than 205 kilograms of minerals, mostly copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and graphite. A regular car uses only about 30 kilograms, almost all copper and manganese.
The rush for these metals is triggering another round of global mining mergers and acquisitions aimed at shedding coal assets and bulking up on the metals required for the touted energy revolution. For instance, Glencore of Switzerland is trying to merge with Canada’s Teck Resources in an effort to create a formidable copper player. Glencore, which saw the EV craze coming, is already one of the world’s top cobalt producers and, a few years ago, tried to persuade Tesla boss Elon Musk to invest in the company to keep his EV supply chain secure (he passed).
As the demand for metals picks up along with the EV market, a few governments, eager for royalties, and a few companies, eager to cash in on the first significant overhaul of automotive technology in more than a century, are digging up regions that are of vital importance to the health of the planet. Forests in Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries are being razed to develop nickel, copper and cobalt mines, plus the smelters and the roads that go with them. The Washington Post recently reported that the high-pressure, acid-based nickel-leaching process used in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of the metal, generates 20 tonnes of planet-warming carbon dioxide for every tonne of nickel.
Oceans next? The International Seabed Authority, established in the 1980s under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, is under pressure from several countries to issue licences to search and mine undersea resources (Nauru, a Pacific microstate, has formed a partnership with the Metals Company of Canada to vacuum up polymetallic “nodules” from the seabed).
Almost certainly, the great expense of undersea mining, the nascent technology and the uncertain international regulations that govern it, will ensure the industry will not take off overnight. But digging up the seabed seems inevitable. Huge parts of it have rich deposits of metals for the taking, and there may not be enough mines on terra firma to meet EV production. Herein lies potential environmental calamity.
The enormous tank-like machines that would grind their way along the seabed to find the nodules would kill any life, such as coral and nematodes, in their path. The massive plumes of sediment would cloud the waters for kilometres in every direction. Scientists fear mining could release the massive amounts of carbon on the ocean floor. Some 700 marine scientists have signed a petition calling for a “pause” in the rush to mine the seas until the potential extent of the environmental damage can be determined.
EVs over their lifespan would no doubt improve air quality in cities. There is little evidence they will slow the rise in global temperatures, partly because most of the world’s electricity required to charge EV batteries comes from fossil-fuel-fired plants. There is more evidence that EVs could trigger massive environmental destruction on land and on the seabeds. That EVs are promoted as part of the solution to climate change is fraud on a global scale.