In a bid to shore up his eco-legacy, President Barack Obama announced the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument. The protected area, first created by President George W. Bush in 2006, lies in the vicinity of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and now includes 582,518 square feet of land and sea.

Obama’s declaration expands the monument by 350 percent and cordons off the newly protected areas from commercial activities such as fishing and mining; recreational fishing and scientific research are permitted, conditional on federal approval.

Interest-group reaction to Obama’s initiative falls largely along the predictable “environment versus economy” debate fault-lines. Organizations such as the Sierra Club lauded the action as instrumental for marine-life conservation, while trade groups such as the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council worry about the impact on commercial fishing.

Lost in these debates, however, are the unintended consequences to the environment stemming from area protection initiatives. Amid the murky deep of the monument’s waters lie rich deposits of minerals such as manganese, nickel, zinc, cobalt and titanium. Many of these elements are instrumental to developing renewable technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines and car batteries. Researchers are rapidly improving rechargeable nickel-iron battery technologies; rapid charging times could make these devices useful complements to lithium iron phosphate batteries, which take hours to charge.

Additionally, nickel can serve as an inexpensive substitute for gold in the absorption of light in solar cells. Nickel can also cheapen the cost of metal plating for solar panels, and estimates suggest that nickel and copper-plated solar cells will comprise a third of the market by 2035. Cobalt can also revolutionize renewables; researchers at Universität Basel have found that replacing the super-rare element iodine with cobalt in electron-transport systems could lead to a cheaper, more durable system.

Unfortunately, many of the minerals critical in the development of renewable technologies are rare and have many competing uses. Prices fluctuate wildly based on the decisions of a handful of Southeast Asian countries responsible for the majority of mineral extraction. Nickel prices soared in 2014, for example, when Indonesia instituted an export ban on nickel ore in order to ensure the metal was processed domestically. The Chinese saw their supply of raw reserves plummet, leading to a roughly 50 percent increase in prices over the summer of 2014.

While the high price lured Filipino extractors into the market, an early-summer environmental crackdown by President Rodrigo Duarte once again exerted upward price pressure. Prices are still low by historical standards, but three major price hikes of the past 10 years point to fairly limited supply and unpredictable source regimes.

While zinc has more potential supply sources, the inability of supply to keep up with burgeoning demand has led to skyrocketing prices. Easing supply pressures for these minerals by deep-ocean extraction could alleviate such pressures, and provide more stable input costs for renewable development.

Even if the environmental costs of extraction are deemed to be high, the administration could allow mining, contingent on federal approval. It could then approve the projects if they were anticipated to have net-positive environmental impacts; scientific-research projects are currently subject to this kind of permitting process. At least partially liberalizing the extraction process could allow the market to find cheaper, more durable inputs to renewable technologies, and set a precedent for future undersea mineral discoveries.

Featured Publications