Value Trade Off
Will short-term financial profit over long-term social and ecosystem loss be worth it?
The current solutions for a carbon-free future require batteries, and batteries currently rely on rare metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and molybdenum being extracted from the sea floor in the central Pacific Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone, threatening biodiversity and the nearby Pacific small island states. Will the short-term gain over the long-term loss be worth the trade off?
As we transition from one value system to another, past and future, old and new thinking inevitably conflict. One way to arbitrate this stand-off is to compare the financial realities of one option to another. An excellent example is deep-sea mining, a controversy that has been growing for several years as the world welcomes and considers the idea of new energy systems requiring new capacity for storage and delivery by new technologies such as cell phones, mega-computers, electric cars and other innovations on which it seems we will all depend.
A main focus of the need is batteries that require rare metals in short supply and urgent demand if we are to sustain a carbon-free society into the future. The focus is on poly-metallic nodules deposited on the ocean floor and extractable by mechanical harvest, not by explosion or drilling, but by large rake-like frames scraped along the bottom, with inevitable disruption of the ocean floor and related biodiversity. The most active interest (and dispute)is located in the central Pacific Ocean, in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone — in 1.7 million square miles between Hawaii and Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of potato-sized nodules containing nickel, copper, cobalt, molybdenum, and other rare metals are deposited among seamounts and ocean organisms. The area is situated in the open ocean, but adjacent to the exclusive economic zones of the United States, Mexico, and Kirbati. Jurisdiction for mining falls to the International Seabed Authority, a program of the United Nations. According to the ISA website, there is commercial interest in such extraction proposed the area by companies from Singapore, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Germany, China, Japan, Belgium, South Korea, France, Nauru, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and other international consortia. Permits are requested, and tentative contracts exist, but controversy reigns.
The dispute is predictable: the development and employment opportunity value versus the loss of destroyed habitat value — financial profit versus social and ecosystem loss. A primary advocate for mining is Gerard Barron, President of DeepGreen Metals, a Canadian company, and former employee/investor in Solwara 1, a deep sea mining project in Papua New Guinea, that was defeated by a coalition of opponents including indigenous islanders and environmental activists based in Australia and New Zealand. In a recent article by Johnny Blades, in RNZ Pacific, a news organization that covers politics in the Pacific region, Mr. Barron is quoted describing the nodules: “They grow a little bit like a pearl grows. And it’s like Mother Nature made this resource for us, for the times we’re entering now, because of course the world is on a massive push away from fossil fuels, and what do we need to do if we want to do that? We need to build a lot of batteries.” Pearls indeed. Just like oil. You wonder if Mr. Barron sees the irony in such remarks. We have certainly heard his justifications before.
The lines are drawn, with the Pacific Small Island States, Nauru, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga walking a fine line of compromise, further exploration and study, while Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea, fortified by allies in Australia and New England, appear steadfastly opposed and interested in alternative economic strategies such as fisheries and tourism as the more rewarding return for local health, employment, and environmental sustainability.
There seems to be no middle ground, with both sides committed to the predictable conventional positions. But what if decision-makers used ecosystem services accounting to calculate the value proposition? What if you estimated the financial and social cost of the mining option, projected actual returns, to whom, over what period of time, including the loss of productive value of the ocean floor disrupted? Would islanders really be hired for the few jobs required? Beyond a negotiated royalty, who would benefit from exported profit until the resource was exhausted and the company moved on to more fertile ocean ground?
What if similar resources were invested in island infrastructure and eco-tourism, facilities and services that would require island employees and retain wages and profits within the local economy? What if the abundant local fisheries were designed and facilitated by regional or cooperative investment, best practices, sustainably managed, to maximize existing skills, expand the work force, engage the ensuing generations to perpetuate the well-being and continuity of long-standing practices and traditions?
Make those calculations. Apply the logic of short-term profit over long-term loss. Trade off one value set against another, and send the extractors home. In the meantime, a moratorium is a useful pause, the process will be prolonged, hopefully in time enough for the world to have discovered another technology to store energy and avoid re-making the same mistake over, then over again. As we shift to new values, structures, and behaviors, we must have the reason and fortitude to opt against the past paradigm, and commit to the new.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.