WOR 1 Living with the oceans. A report on the state of the world’s oceans | 2010


Marine minerals and energy
> Our appetite for energy and mineral resources seems insatiable. As landbased resources become increasingly scarce, those in the oceans are attracting greater interest. The fuels and ores in the deep sea are particularly tempting. But wind and wave power could also meet a proportion of our energy needs.

Fossil fuels

> Oil and natural gas are the key resources powering industrial societies. But deposits are dwindling and prices are rising. For this reason oil companies are turning their attention to resources which were previously thought too difficult and expensive to tap: the oil and gas deposits deep in the oceans. Already, more than a third of the oil and gas extracted worldwide comes from offshore sources.

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Marine minerals

> Natural gas and oil have been extracted from the seas for deca­­des, but the ores and mineral deposits on the sea floor have attracted little interest. Yet as resource prices rise, so too does the appeal of ocean mining. The excavation of massive sulphides and manganese nodules is expected to begin within the next few years.

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Methane hydrates

> Until 10 years ago, hardly anyone had heard of methane hydrates. But now these chemical compounds in the sea floor are mooted to be an energy source of the future. The amount of hydrate-bound u far exceeds the reserves in conventional deposits. However, methane hydrates are not only a potential energy source; they also pose a considerable climate risk.

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Renewable energies

> Until now, the expansion of renewable energies, such as wind and solar power, has mainly taken place onshore. The energy in the oceans has remained largely untapped. But things are changing. The production of environmentally friendly energy from the oceans is now being promoted worldwide. Expectations are high. It is hoped that wind, waves and ocean currents will meet a substantial share of the world’s electricity needs.

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Pressure on the ocean floor is growing

For centuries the oceans provided a single resource – food. Only during the past few decades have technologies been developed which can extract more from them – for instance drilling technology to extract oil and gas. Until now drilling has been in relatively shallow waters, but companies are now penetrating greater depths. It is a complex and expensive process, but is becoming more feasible as land-based reserves become scarce and prices rise. The same applies to the metal reserves which are embedded in manganese nodules, cobalt deposits, massive sulphides and ore slurry in the sea. As metal prices rise, mining from the depths will become more attractive – although this will only apply to valuable metals such as copper, nickel and gold. As yet, however, no mining technology is gentle on the environment.
With respect to methane hydrate, it is unclear to what extent it is possible to mine the ocean floor without harming people or the environment. Also, virtually no technology exists for the purpose. Many basic principles must first be clarified, such as whether laboratory results can be applied to mining practice. If it were possible to extract methane and at the same time safely store carbon dioxide from the burning of oil and gas, harnessing methane from the ocean bed might even prove to be a climate protection option.
The most sustainable system of marine energy production in terms of climate protection is probably from the ocean currents, waves and wind. In most cases there is considerable need for research into the impact of energy systems on the marine environment. Some technologies are ready for operation, while others are still in the pilot phase. Some nations have reduced the bureaucratic hurdles that planners and developers face. Before facilities can be utilized on a large scale, however, countries must decide whether and how they wish to promote ocean energy, because without initial governmental support none of the current technologies can be stablished in the medium term.