When is a race to the bottom actually a race to the top?
While that sounds like a riddle from the old Batman TV show, it’s actually the most pressing national security issue almost nobody’s talking about: the underseas mining land rush.
The new land rush for minerals extraction has taken to the seas, as it were. Modern technology has opened up vast, new frontiers of mineral wealth deep below the ocean surface.
What’s at stake is deep sea polymetallic nodule exploration – yes, that’s a mouthful – where clumps of iron and other valuable metals clump into mineral concretions at the bottom of the sea, waiting patiently to be mined by the first brave souls to get to them. They’re like a battery in a rock in the ocean.
It’s estimated that, according to this piece in The New Yorker, that seabed nodules contain “six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel, and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land.” Moreover, they are estimated to contain 6,000 (!) times as much of the ultra-rare element tellurium.
As nations and interests continue competing for resources, the precious metals in our oceans cannot be ignored.
These resources can spell the difference in the mineral arms race of the 21st century, with applications in military hardware, computers, phones, medical devices and so forth. The aforementioned minerals are particularly important in the batteries that will be needed to power the electric vehicles of the future.
That’s right – EVs don’t just magically allow us to get everywhere like The Jetsons. They require about six times the minerals as traditional gas-powered cars, so we need to prepare for their future.
The race to the bottom of the ocean is one that China is currently winning. China is unfettered by environmentalist obstructionism, an onerous contracting process and a competitive political process. In our cold war with China, we cannot let them win the upper hand in on the ocean floor.
If American industry and innovation are unfettered, there’s nothing that can stop them. So our federal government must find opportunities to make it easier for companies to capitalize on the 21st century deep-sea land rush, whether those companies are based in America or allied nations, like Canada’s The Metals Company.
In the coming months, Congress will release its annual defense budget – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). National security in this case means resource security as well: if we end up at war with China we don’t want to have to buy our war machine from them as well.
Defense readiness demands access to all critical mineral wealth. Ergo the Pentagon needs to incorporate polymetallic nodule mining into a holistic strategic plan. As it stands now, America is facing a mineral deficit which threatens both military superiority and technological preparedness over adversaries who openly want to overthrow us.
This year, the U.S. will set a record for mineral imports, as global supply chain issues have been shown to be fragile and unreliable. We won World War II, in part, because our industrial base outstripped our enemies. Let’s not lose WWIII because it doesn’t.
With the NDAA, Congress can enact those policies that allow America to supplant domestic mineral wealth with those lying in wait just off the shore.
Naval superiority has long been a hallmark of America’s military dominance. Indeed, our Navy has been “criticized” for being larger than the next 13 navies combined, though there are those warning that the time of our maritime dominance is over.
But it doesn’t have to be. To stay on top, let’s make a race to the bottom.
Jared Whitley is a longtime politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. Read Jared Whitley’s reports — More Here.
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