India plans deep dive for seabed minerals


Mains Paper 3: Economy | Infrastructure: Energy, Ports, Roads, Airports, Railways etc.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: ISA and its license grants to India

Mains level: India’s deep sea missions


Exploring oceanic beds

  1. The floor of the world’s seas is scattered with vast beds of black potato-shaped polymetallic nodules comprising copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, iron and rare earth elements.
  2. These natural goodies are key to making modern gadgets, from smartphones and laptops to pacemakers, hybrid cars and solar panels.
  3. As expanding technology and infrastructure fuel, global demand for these resources — whose supply is dwindling fast onshore — more and more countries are eyeing the ocean.

Deep sea explorations now a reality

  1. Once thought to be too costly and difficult, industrial-scale sea mining could begin as early as 2019.
  2. Canada’s Nautilus Minerals is on track to become the first company to start operations, which it plans to launch near the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea, according to a company statement.
  3. All countries are as yet in the experimental or exploratory phase, and the ISA is still hammering out regulation and royalty terms for commercial mining.

Indian exploration initiatives

  1. Over the next decade, the Indian government plans to pump in more than $1 billion to develop and test deep sea technologies like underwater crawling machines and human-piloted submarines, according to the earth sciences ministry.
  2. If it works, the equipment will be able to reach depths of up to 6 km (3.7 miles), where metals can be 15 times more concentrated than in land deposits.

ISA Licenses and India

  1. India, Asia’s third-largest economy, is going full steam ahead in anticipation of the International Seabed Authority (ISA).
  2. ISA is a U.N. body that oversees mining on the high seas giving the green light for commercial exploitation.
  3. The ISA allows India to explore an area in the Indian Ocean of 75,000 square kilometres (about 29,000 square miles), equal to roughly 2% of the country’s size.
  4. The prospect has excited India, which depends heavily on China, the world’s biggest producer of elements.
  5. China provides about 90% of rare earths, which are used in aviation and defence manufacturing.
  6. It has four of the 29 licences awarded by the ISA, and Beijing controls more exploration areas in the high seas than any other country, according to the Jamaica-based agency.

Why India needs seabed minerals?

  1. India is most interested in copper, nickel and cobalt, as it ramps up clean power generation.
  2. Cobalt, also produced in Democratic Republic of Congo, is used to make batteries that can store energy from renewable sources, including solar and wind.
  3. These metals are not widely available in India, so they have strategic importance.
  4. India’s goal is to become self-reliant in the minerals, and it is “not in a race with anybody”.

Environmental Challenges

  1. Experts warn that in the absence of a clear international charter, deep sea mining operations could cause irreversible damage to a little understood ecology.
  2. The seabed is home to a unique ecology where colonies of organisms and creatures have evolved over millions of years, free of wild currents, sunlight, vibrations and noise which mining would bring.
  3. Environmentalists fears private players could sound the death knell for Earth’s “final frontier”, which he said has been explored only 0.0001%.
  4. It could also have long-term effects on how the ocean, which absorbs carbon dioxide and heat, regulates the world’s climate.
  5. While the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) already includes regulation of mineral-related activities, environmentalists say the rules are not good enough.
  6. It urged countries to put vested interests aside in agreeing the new ISA framework, given the damage humans have already done to the planet’s atmosphere, land and surface water.

India to minimize its mining footprint

  1. India’s deep ocean exploration programme dates back more than two decades, during which it has been surveying the sea floor and testing environmental impacts.
  2. India believes that sediment kicked up by underwater mining would dissolve and resettle, and there would be no carbon emissions, unlike on land.
  3. There would be no need to build roads, infrastructure or relocate communities nothing major like we see on land.
  4. But some experts warned even minor alterations could cause substantial harm to marine habitats and sea creatures.
  5. With the plan only to scoop up mineral nodules rather than digging into the sea floor, flora and fauna would not be destroyed.

Way Forward

  1. Deep sea mining will be pure commerce, but there are certain situations where we cannot put profit before people.
  2. We should not rush it, otherwise we will head towards another disastrous environmental damage.
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