Space may be the final frontier, but here on Earth the ocean depths are one of the few places still shrouded in mystery. Though offshore drilling for oil and natural gas has gradually crept farther and farther from the coastlines since its advent in the late 1800s, many of the resources found beneath the world's salty waters remain relatively untouched. And although several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Sudan, have recently shown renewed interest in tapping these resources, the costs of operating in the difficult environment deep waters pose will likely preserve subsea basins for a little while longer.
Mining the ocean floor first became popular in the 1960s, when claims of the "near-limitless" metals and minerals to be found there gave rise to a flurry of extraction projects. Those in shallow waters, including the search for diamonds off Africa's coast, saw some success. But two decades and more than half a billion dollars later, as commodity prices came crashing down, mining of the globe's deeper waters ground to a halt.
Over the past 15 years, rising demand for natural resources and concerns about securing supplies have revived international interest in deep-sea deposits, especially in the Pacific and Indian oceans. By early 2013, a few pioneering efforts near Papua New Guinea and Namibia had inspired optimism that seabed mining could be made feasible on a broad scale in the near future.
The country best positioned to lead that effort is Japan, thanks to its technological prowess and lack of indigenous resources. The island nation has already made steady progress in developing the technology needed to exploit unconventional deep-water materials, and it expects to begin trial operations in Japanese waters by the end of 2017. Though the viability and practicality of larger commercial operations have yet to be proven, they are projected to start in the 2020s. Meanwhile, China and India have also passed national initiatives to encourage work on deep-sea mining technology, though they continue to lag behind Japan.
But despite this apparent progress, similarly promising projects once touted as the next stage of mining have stalled in the past few years, facing numerous roadblocks. Whether it is an outright ban on mining in Namibia or regulatory disputes and delays in Papua New Guinea, the viability of deep-sea mining has been increasingly called into question. And as commodity prices dip low once again, the momentum behind such projects is slowing.
A Similar Fate Awaits Red Sea Mining
But not everywhere. On May 4, Saudi Arabia and Sudan announced plans to resuscitate their shuttered Atlantis II drilling project in the Red Sea. In its latest iteration, the project's exploration phase is scheduled to begin by 2020.
Deep-sea deposits of minerals and metals were first discovered in the Red Sea, as they were in many of the world's other oceans and seas, in the 1960s. Saudi Arabia and Sudan struck a deal in 1974 to share any assets found in the Red Sea, establishing the Saudi-Sudanese Red Sea Commission in the process. With the help of a German company, the two drilled exploratory wells and brought mud to the surface to evaluate the seabed's contents. But the falling commodity prices of the 1980s forced them to abandon the project.
Once global fervor for deep-water mining was restored, the Red Sea venture reopened in 2010, this time in partnership with Canada's Diamond Fields International. According to current estimates, the Red Sea holds about 3 million metric tons of zinc, 500,000-740,000 metric tons of copper, 6,500 metric tons of silver and 46 metric tons of gold. Together, these metal stores could be worth billions of dollars, though perhaps not the $20 billion that the Sudanese government has frequently quoted.
Sudan and Saudi Arabia originally expected Red Sea production to begin in 2014, but a sluggish commodity market and contractual disputes between Diamond Fields International and its Saudi partner, Manafa, have sidelined the project once again. In addition to sharing global deep-sea mining's history, the Red Sea project appears poised to share its fate as well.
Economic Constraints Outweigh Political Will
This raises the question: Why would Saudi Arabia and Sudan choose to revisit their endeavor now, in light of their recent setback? For Riyadh's part, the answer is relatively simple. The government reached a tipping point of sorts in 2015 as various demographic, economic and security pressures converged. Depressed oil prices and heightened military spending — in part to meet Saudi Arabia's perceived need to become more self-reliant in the face of a changing U.S.-Iran relationship — have left the kingdom searching for alternative sources of income. And a growing population looking for employment makes the country's need for funds all the more pressing. Indeed, Atlantis II is not the only rusty idea to be restored in the past year as Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken the reins of economic development. For instance, taxation reforms that have been floated periodically over the past three decades have now been brought back to the table. Red Sea mining would simply be one part of Saudi Arabia's much larger vision for economic development and diversification.
Sudan's interest is more political in nature. In recent years, Khartoum has begun to distance itself from its traditional military backer, Iran, a shift made clear in its 2014 expulsion of Iranian diplomats. By moving away from Iran, Sudan has in turn gotten closer with its other partners in the region, including Saudi Arabia. The restoration of the Red Sea Commission constitutes yet another tie binding the two nations together.
Yet despite Riyadh and Khartoum's latest announcement, the legal, economic and technical constraints to drilling in the Red Sea have not changed in any notable way, and neither have Atlantis II's chances for success. Although some technological improvements have been made, the Red Sea's high salinity levels create an extremely corrosive environment that operators will have to find a way to adapt to. Furthermore, international cooperation will be necessary from a technical standpoint to ensure the project's success, but the foreign company currently involved is tied up in legal negotiations. Until the negotiations are complete, any collaboration will likely be put on hold. Moreover, unless commodity prices rebound — an unlikely prospect in the near future — the project will continue to be economically unfeasible, especially since the ore found in Red Sea deposits contains a lower percentage of metals and minerals than does ore in similar formations elsewhere. Regardless of Saudi and Sudanese intentions to push the Atlantis II project forward, mineral production in the Red Sea probably will not come online anytime soon.