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Deep Sea Mining and the Apollo Project

The Chinese are gathering resources we won't allow ourselves to.

By Will Offensicht  |  September 23, 2010

Despite the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and the frenzied bleating of the environmentalists, deep-water drilling will continue.  To name but one possibility, Petrobras, the oil giant owned by the Brazilian government, has found many million barrels of oil very deep under water and very deep under the sea bottom off the Brazilian coast.  The challenges of getting at the oil are great, but the rewards will be high if the Brazilian politicians will let the oil companies have a decent chance at a profit.

As usual with matters pertaining to energy, the issues are as much political as technical.  Petrobras is trying to raise money by selling stock to the public.  The Brazilian government is considering a law which will give Petrobras a monopoly on extracting deep oil.  Other oil firms are lobbying to be included in the expected profits, and so on.

The deep Brazilian oil fields may or may not be developed depending on how the politics unwinds.  Regardless of what happens in Brazil, there are shallower undersea discoveries in other parts of the world which are less challenging.  Oil demand is going up, other energy sources are inadequate, so deep oil will be pursued because the profits are simply too alluring to be ignored.

A Challenge to find a Solution

In "Don't Give up On Deep Sea Drilling," Fortune magazine argued:

We charge the oil companies billions for the right to drill. Why not invest some or all of this public money into creating a common global store of technology, processes and risk assessments needed to achieve a high level of environmental safety and then require that this knowledge be used by private industry? Like the moon program, it would require several years to do basic research, experimentation and invention. It would also require investments in engineering and scientific education to develop new skills. And, it will require a deliberate system of checks and balances to channel the narcissism, arrogance, short-termism and failure to fully appreciate consequences that have bedeviled human endeavors for thousands of years. Could a deep sea exploration program be a way of re-engaging a generation's imagination and commitment?

The difficulties with Americans doing this are that a) we don't have a charismatic leader like JFK to get the process rolling and b) we've lost our mojo because innovation is being regulated and taxed into oblivion.  Our funding and approval processes have become too political for engineers to get anything done.

One might think that all the hooraw about the Gulf oil spill would release some research funds, but in modern America, politics trumps fact-finding any day of the week regardless of the importance of the issue.  The New York Times reports:

A $500 million initiative for independent research promised by BP, which was to be awarded by an international panel of scientists, has become mired in a political fight over control[emphasis added]

... Governors of the Gulf States still wanted more local control of the money, and in mid-June the White House backed them up, announcing, "As a part of this initiative, BP will work with governors, and state and local environmental and health authorities to design the long-term monitoring program to assure the environmental and public health of the gulf region."

As natural processes continue to clean up the Gulf, the opportunities to find out how oil spills are handled naturally recede in a fog of political infighting over control of the money.

The mere existence of NASA's dying space shuttle stalled commercial development of space for years.  Nobody can agree on how to spend $500 million researching the Gulf oil spill.  Does anyone think that a deep-sea version of NASA would be any more effective given the observed political realities of our day and age?

The Chinese Solution

Not to worry; the goal-driven Chinese have taken up the challenge of going after deep-sea resources.  The New York Times reports:

When three Chinese scientists plunged to the bottom of the South China Sea in a tiny submarine early this summer, they did more than simply plant their nation's flag on the dark seabed.

The men, who descended more than two miles in a craft the size of a small truck, also signaled Beijing's intention to take the lead in exploring remote and inaccessible parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil, minerals and other resources that the Chinese would like to mine. And many of those resources happen to lie in areas where China has clashed repeatedly with its neighbors over territorial claims. [emphasis added]

We used to be more dominant beneath the surface than we are now.  In 1973, the CIA asked Howard Hughes to help them recover the remains of the K-129, a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk in 16,000 feet (4,900 meters) of water, well within this new Chinese submersible's design depth of 7,000 meters.  The Hughes organization put out a cover story that the ship was designed to harvest manganese nodules from the sea floor.  It's estimated that there are over a trillion dollars worth of high-grade minerals lying open on the deep sea bed, so this story was inherently plausible.

Instead of going after manganese, however, the ship recovered parts of the Soviet submarine.  Nearly forty years later, the Soviet sub languishes in a secret warehouse and the manganese nodules are still resting comfortably on the seafloor.

Hughes' ship, the Glomar Explorer, sat mothballed for most of that time and is now drilling for oil in Indonesia.  The fact that this successful high-tech project was tightly classified and wasn't subject to the usual government procurement mish-mash isn't talked about in polite company.

There's enough of our deep-water lead remaining that the Chinese sent their crew to the US for training on the Alvin, a famous submersible run by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, but at current rates, it won't be long before the Chinese deep water capability exceeds ours.

Being able to operate deep under water has a number of advantages.  One problem with drilling for oil from a surface platform is that there's no way to hide what you're doing.  It would be a lot harder to find and tax someone drilling for oil several miles below the surface, especially if it could be done from a submarine of any kind.

Having given up on their failed Communist ideology and switched to capitalism, the Chinese are looking for minerals all over the world to keep their economy humming.  What could be better than simply scooping resources such as manganese nodules off the sea bottom without having to bribe mineral-rich dictators or pay royalties to anyone?

We'll have to pay the Japanese to get into space, we'll have to buy oil and other minerals from the Chinese, but at least they'll be available, just as OPEC oil is available.  Available, but only at a price.