China’s controversial search for rare earth minerals under the sea

Environmental group condemns mineral mining on the ocean floor, fearing ‘devastating consequences’

China has been scouring the seven seas for rare earth minerals that are the building blocks of a high-tech society.

Government-funded surveys in the past decade have illustrated the depth of Beijing’s ambitions to launch major underwater mining operations.

Research vessels have mapped out areas in the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the highly-contentious South China Sea.

But the move has triggered condemnation from a leading environmental group.

“The health of our oceans is closely linked to our own survival. Unless we act now to protect them, deep-sea mining could have devastating consequences for marine life and humankind,” Louisa Casson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said.

The facts:

  • Beijing’s extensive surveying operations were revealed in a white paper published by the Chinese-language Bulletin of Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry as reported by the South China Morning Post.
  • They were signed off by the United Nations-backed International Seabed Authority or ISA, which is based in Jamaica.
  • China is likely to become the first country in the world to start mining seabed minerals.
  • At least 30 contracts have been handed out by ISA.
  • They cover more than a million square kilometers of the international seabed, an area roughly the size of France and Germany combined.
  • Other nations involved include Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom.
  • Deposits of nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese and rare earth minerals can be found in polymetallic nodules on the seabed.
  • They are crucial for smartphones and electric car batteries, as well as the technology that will run smart factories and smart cities.

What was said: “I do believe that China could easily be among the first [to start exploitation]. The demand for minerals is enormous and increasing, there is no doubt about the market,” Michael Lodge, the general-secretary of ISA who visited China 2019, said at the time.

Reaction to deep-sea mining: “In the middle of a climate and wildlife crisis, why on earth are we even considering ripping up the seabed for profit? Deep-sea mining would be terrible news for the climate, disrupting crucial carbon sinks in the ocean, and jeopardizing food security and livelihoods. The deep ocean, the world’s largest ecosystem, must remain off-limits to the mining industry,” Casson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said in December.

China Factor comment: Beijing will point to futuristic projects such as robot-maned underwater bases to mine the minerals. But China hardly has an internationally-renowned reputation when it comes to environmental protection. The world’s second-largest economy also has the largest deposits of rare earths. Again, they are dirty to mine, scaring the landscape and releasing pollutants if unregulated. The last thing the planet needs now is a toxic wave wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystem of the world’s oceans.