There is a wave of interest in ocean metals. Sitting unattached atop the deep seafloor can be found copious amounts of nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, and some rare earth elements—metals the International Energy Agency says are critical for global green energy transition. Indeed, demand for battery minerals alone will become so great that the IEA recommends nations begin stockpiling them.
While the business case for ocean metals is apparent, policies are preventing supplies from helping markets, which suffer from shortages.
Mining for minerals on land hasn’t panned out. Supplies cannot meet demand and operations are riddled with environmental, social, and labor issues. Years of underinvestment and a lack of new high-grade discoveries have caused certain metal commodity prices to soar. Copper prices have skyrocketed amidst various supply issues. And the price of nickel – the most important metal in an electric vehicle battery – has again risen over fears of shortages from EV-focused automakers.
Increasing supplies by garnering more metals offshore would seem to make a lot of good business sense.
But there are roadblocks. For one, there are only 22 contractors licensed to explore areas rich in ocean metals, with each of these state-sponsored organizations holding the rights to explore only select ocean zones. As it stands, the International Seabed Authority – which oversees all mineral-related activities in international waters “for the benefit of mankind” – has yet to finalize its mining code. The code was close to completion before COVID hit. Without this framework, the exploitation of polymetallic nodules, the technical name for the potato-sized rocks that sit on the seafloor and contain the most ocean metals, cannot proceed and contractors can’t take any materials away for commercial purposes.
The Biden administration is even further behind on commercial ocean metal exploration. To forge ahead, the United States would have to belong to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and join more than 160 signatories, including Russia, China, and the European Union. It hasn’t. Legacy issues and political bureaucracy stand in the way.
Despite a broad array of climate change commitments, and an executive order to assess and stabilize critical supply chains, the Biden administration has yet to focus on and support source materials.
By 2040, six times as many metals will need to be produced to power the world on renewable energy alone, according to the IEA. It calls the day-by-day lessening of supply a global hazard that governments should act quickly to address.
“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA. “The challenges are not insurmountable, but governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action. By acting now and acting together, they can significantly reduce the risks of price volatility and supply disruptions.”
Meanwhile, businesses will suffer from higher metals prices in their supply chains, based on the basic economic principle of supply and demand. In turn, consumers will suffer from higher prices for end products too. Investors could reap returns on the increased commodity prices, but there is a catch to that — volatility. Take the prices of silver, for example. The metal traded relatively flat for years until the pandemic. Then prices fell due to supply disruptions. Then they bounced, fell again, and have soared in 2021.
A steady supply can smooth metal prices across the board, in relative terms. In other words, ocean metals can help calm market waters. With more stable supplies, metal prices could settle and trade in more predictable patterns. Most importantly, a huge source of input materials for the green energy transition can be had. With 250 million electric vehicles expected to be manufactured by the end of this decade and the net-zero requirements of countries calling for a massive overhaul of legacy energy and transport systems, the need for metals has never been greater.
If the world can fast track a shift away from fossil fuels, it can pivot quickly to extract from the oceans what it needs. Policymakers should move responsibly to allow the global economy to go green and prosper.
Investors take note: the future is based on a metals economy.