China Stops at Nothing to Find Valuable Metals: Not Even the Deepest Seas

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As soon as we begin thinking that the Chinese government and industry couldn’t get any wackier, they surprise us once again.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese oceanic administrations are undertaking a major push to explore deep-sea trenches for minerals. This exciting “treasure hunt began on July 1, when explorers shuttled a submersible named after a sea dragon out to the northeastern Pacific to begin some record-setting dives.

According to the article, Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, quoted the director of the State Oceanic Administration as saying that “a Ëœmarvel’ of Chinese manned submergence would occur in the next 15 days.

Well, we’ll see about that.

Eastern Promises

There have been some pretty heavy indications that the Chinese are skilled at overstating their claims. Another Chinese “marvel, so to speak, is going on in the Western hemisphere right now and by that, of course, we mean the delays in the building completion of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

While technically an American project (funded with taxpayer dollars), the metal and fabrications for the bridge were almost entirely sourced from China, which evidently made promises during the bidding process that it couldn’t keep, and now the endeavor is behind schedule and over-budget.

[Whether there’s a case to be made for sourcing from US producers to gain greater accountability at the cost of longer lead times remains to be seen¦that’s for a follow-up post on another day.]

Now China continues with more activity in its Bold Claims Department, and seeks to supplement its voracious demand for copper, gold, silver and zinc with tapping the ocean to give up its rich resources. To boot, the US blazed the deep-sea trail with Alvin in 1960, and it turns out the Chinese benefited from Alvin training dives through the US Navy.

The Deep-Sea Mineral Race

We’ve seen the same deep-sea rush with oil why not with minerals?

Maybe because, frankly: it’s kind of a pain.

Take the US, for example. They fell behind in deep-sea commodity exploration after leading the world in the 1960s and 70s, when commodity prices weren’t quite high enough in the 80s and 90s to merit the laborious process of exploration and extraction.

Notwithstanding the miles upon miles of water that a deep-sea mining operation would have to hurdle, there’s the sticking point of where the metal ores are located. According to the WSJ article, polymetallic sulphide deposits, each of which could contain 110 million tons of metal ore, are what explorers are after but these generally lie on oceanic ridges, only 5 percent of which have been explored so far.

Finding it is one thing, and creating the infrastructure necessary to suck it up to the surface and refine it is another altogether. That is not deterring China and Russia from applying for permits to explore these mineral-rich ridges all over the world’s oceans.

However, the US is not a member of the International Seabed Authority, the UN-based organization that grants oceanic exploration rights, and some are saying that the country could fall further behind in the race to get their hands on these raw materials.

Even though it may take China a while to gain any worthwhile ground, with metal prices reaching historical highs, now may be the time for the US to get in on the game.

–Taras Berezowsky

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