Energy and resources from the ocean
WOR 7 The Ocean, Guarantor of Life – Sustainable Use, Effective Protection | 2021

Energy and resources from the ocean

Energy and resources from the ocean
> Today, industry and business are interested in a wide range of resources found in the ocean, including sand, crude oil and natural gas, while preparations are under way for the industrial exploitation of vast ore deposits in the deep sea. At the same time, governments and corporations are expanding the production of green electricity from the sea. Both of these developments will result in even more large-scale human interventions in the ocean environment.
Deep-sea mining – plans are taking shape - fig. 5.4 Science Photo Library/Charles D. Winters

Deep-sea mining – plans are taking shape

> The presence of valuable resources such as nickel, copper, cobalt and rare-earth metals in the ocean has been known for more than 140 years. So far, mining them was technologically scarcely possible and was unprofitable. However, climate action is causing demand for these metals and minerals to surge. The question arises whether they will continue to be mined only on land or can soon be extracted from the sea as well. Initial production tests have been carried out in the deep sea, but the environmental impacts have not yet been studied sufficiently.

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The ocean as energy source – potential and expectations - fig. 5.20 Abstract ­Aerial Art/Getty Images

The ocean as energy source – potential and expectations

> The ocean is being promoted as a component of the energy transition. The principal advocates for this include large oil corporations. They are investing in the expansion of offshore wind energy and developing concepts for storing carbon dioxide beneath the sea floor. These technologies provide a ray of hope in efforts to shift away from coal, oil and natural gas. But for the ocean, this development means that many of its regions will be even more intensively and permanently exploited by humans in the future.

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Our oceans – full of energy

Humankind is facing a huge task. If limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius is to succeed, the energy supply of the world, including transportation and heating, must be converted to low-emission or emission-free technology. According to our present knowledge, such a transformation is absolutely impossible without the world ocean. The world’s oceans must be exploited for two pro- cesses simultaneously – almost certainly as a direct source of energy, and likely also as a source of raw materials.
Regarding the idea of energy production from the sea, mankind is now at a fork in the road. New oil and gas deposits are still being developed offshore. These new reservoirs mostly lie at greater depths than before, and at greater distances from the coasts. While the global production of oil from the sea is high but fairly static, natural gas production is steadily increasing. More than a quarter of global fossil resource production now comes from the sea.
At the same time, the primary investors in large offshore wind farms are oil producing companies. The wind farms are also being built at increasing distances from the coasts to take advantage of better wind conditions on the open sea. Technological advances have helped to build modern wind turbines much larger than their predecessors, and thus able to produce much more power. As a consequence, the prices for green offshore wind power are falling and demand is growing.
Because of the high potential of offshore wind energy, its production is one of the most important pillars of national and international strategies for sustainable energy production. Other systems, such as wave and current power plants, offshore photo- voltaic arrays, or biofuels from algae are all still in the developmental stages. But, over the long term, these too must be employed to meet the increasing electri- city requirements of modern societies.
However, the expansion of renewable offshore energy, as well as the distribution and storage of electric power, can only succeed if the necessary power plants, power lines and battery systems are installed. These require increasing amounts of raw materials, whose extraction on land destroys habi- tats for mankind and animals on a large scale. The mining of large raw-material deposits in the ocean, especially in the deep sea, which contain a greater variety of metals and minerals than the deposits on land, would be a conceivable alternative. Our know- ledge of these deep-sea occurrences has grown signi- ficantly over the past 20 years. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) with headquarters in Kings- ton, Jamaica, has awarded 31 contracts for exploring the sea floor for mineral raw materials since the year 2002. Preliminary designs in mining technology have been tested on site. These were accompanied by extensive expert investigations of the environ- mental consequences of possible deep-sea mining and the development of monitoring systems. The ISA is presently drafting and negotiating a set of rules for deep-sea mining in international waters. This could commence, according to experts, within five to ten years.
Environmentalists are calling for a general ban on mining in the seas. They point out that in view of the tense situation regarding resource supply, deve- loping further natural resource deposits is not a solu- tion. Instead, the enormous consumption of resour- ces must be reduced to a minimum. This, however, would require a fundamental restructuring of the consumption-based economic system and significant changes in the behaviour of each individual con- sumer.