Sunday, January 3, 2021

"With valuable metals on the ocean floor, speculators are circling"

 From The Baffler:

Deep Sea Rush

Gerard Barron aims to be the first person in history to succeed in commercial deep sea mining, and he is growing frustrated with his detractors. “If you read some of the commentary from some of the environmentalists, it’s so sensational,” he says. “And it’s so bullshit, you know?” Barron is a talkative man, with the good looks of a bit character on a prestige television series. He speaks to me over Zoom from Portugal, where he’s working remotely from an Airbnb. “It’s art,” he tells me, when I ask him about the hooks and pegs on the wall behind him. He is wearing a lot of leather bracelets. The weather, when I glimpse the sky outside, looks beautiful.

Barron belongs to a fledgling class of new capitalists trying to build “compassionate” and eco-conscious corporations. He grew up on a dairy farm in Queensland, Australia, the youngest of five children, and founded his first company while he was still in college. Eventually, he moved to Canada, where he got involved in the automotive battery industry. But Barron’s greatest success has been in marketing: in 2001, he started a company called Adstream that has since expanded to thirty countries and helps brands like Mastercard, McDonald’s, Nissan, and Warner Brothers develop campaigns that will reach a global audience. “When an ad is delivered outside its country of origin there’s a risk that certain aspects of it may be out of step with the cultural customs and traditions of its new viewing audience,” an Adstream blog explains. “Generally speaking, a broader message crosses borders more clearly.”

Barron knows what sells around the world, which is not altogether comforting given his current ambitions. He is now the CEO of a mining outfit called DeepGreen, hailed for creating “mining’s Tesla moment” by, that aims to trawl the ocean floor for metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel—all of which the world will need in vast quantities if we hope to decarbonize the global economy.

“I liken it to a game of whack-a-mole,” says Barron of a green transition. “So, we whack down fossil fuels and up pops metals. . . . We’re not just talking about car batteries—we’re talking about grid storage, home storage, industrial storage, and heavy transportation. The demand for those metals that we’re currently using to build batteries is going to go off the charts.” We haven’t come anywhere close to whacking down fossil fuels, but otherwise Barron is right: the European Union released a report in early September warning that it was facing a critical shortage of rare metals. The Financial Times suggests that in order for the EU to meet its climate goals, “it will need up to eighteen times more lithium and five times more cobalt in 2030. The forecasts rise to sixty times for lithium and fifteen times more cobalt by 2050.”

Cobalt and lithium are key components of lithium-ion batteries, which are used for electric cars; copper is needed to conduct wind power. While these metals can be obtained through terrestrial mining, their extraction is arduous, carbon-intensive, and environmentally damaging. Scaling up current operations wouldn’t be simple. “Lithium isn’t rare,” Simon Moore, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told Al Jazeera in 2019. But “it takes anywhere between eight and ten years to build a lithium mine from scratch and to get it ramped up without any problems.” Deep sea mining, some believe, could offer a shortcut. The question is whether opening up a new extractive industry on the seafloor is an easy answer to the looming metals shortage, or an oceanic death march.

The Twilight Area

We know next to nothing about the ocean: a lawless, recondite mass, over 80 percent of which remains unmapped, that covers more than 70 percent of the planet; absorbs a third of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat generated by increased greenhouse gas emissions; and contains some of the largest mountain ranges on earth. Go down two hundred meters—the equivalent of two and half city blocks—and you start to lose sunlight, entering the twilight zone where the only illumination is bioluminescence. At a thousand meters you’re in the midnight zone, home to blind, gelatinous animals and the frill shark—a prehistoric-looking creature with teeth like fraying lace. At four thousand meters, you hit the abyssal zone, where most life feeds off the falling detritus of the dead and relies on the heat of hydrothermal vents to survive. Clustered around those vents are polymetallic nodules—small, black rocks each about the size of a potato. These potatoes are what DeepGreen is gunning after.

Polymetallic nodules were first discovered in 1868 in the Kara Sea, off the coast of Western Siberia, but deep sea mining expeditions first captured worldwide attention in 1974, when the U.S. government dispatched a large ship from Long Beach in California, in what they claimed was a deep sea mining expedition. In reality, it was a CIA cover story for an attempt to recover a Soviet submarine, known as Project Azorian. Billionaire Howard Hughes provided a civilian front for the mission and a ship—the Hughes Glomar [sic]—so that the United States could do covert recovery work on the sub while being monitored by international observers. A handful of recovered nodules were presented to engineers and corporate executives to bolster the cover story, but when it was revealed that no actual mining was taking place, and there would be no vast deep sea mining profits forthcoming, a public outcry followed. Investors felt they had been defrauded. In response to this compromised mission, as well as to international deep sea fishing rivalries, the Law of the Sea was written and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) formed....


It was the Glomar Explorer, not the Hughes Glomar. I had a mentor who was doing the accounting for the spooks. Years afterward when I learned of his role for Hughes/CIA I asked if he had any of the books.

He said "which set?"

Previously on DeepGreen:

June 2012

Screw the Asteroids: "DeepGreen strikes deal with Glencore for undersea mining metals"
I'm a bit late getting to this but when you see "Glencore" and a privately held Vancouver company in the same headline it gets my attention....

May 2018

Maersk Begins Support Operation for Deep Sea Mining Company, DeepGreen

June 2019

Mining the Sea: DeepGreen Raising $150 million

December 2019
"History’s Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin"

June 2020
"A billion batteries’ worth of rare metals lie on the bottom of the sea"
And we don't know what happens when we roil up the seabed.
E to the S to the G, it's complicated....