Features | Environment | Oceania

The Deep Sea Resources Rush

Exploitation of seafloor minerals appears imminent. But do we really understand the potential impact?

By Gemima Harvey for
The Deep Sea Resources Rush
Credit: Nautilus Minerals, Greenpeace and The Deep Sea Mining Campaign

Insatiable demand for minerals and rare earth elements, coupled with dwindling resources on land have stakeholders across the world looking to a new frontier: the deep sea.

Advancing mining technologies are making the prospect of exploiting seafloor minerals—including gold, copper, zinc, cobalt and rare earth elements (REEs)—not only possible but also imminent, with commercial licenses to be granted by the International Seabed Authority from 2016.

China has a stronghold on REEs, controlling a staggering 97% of global production. These finite elements and other precious minerals are used in the creation of a massive range of electronics devices, emerging green technologies and weapon systems, triggering a strategic scramble to exploit new sources.

In what has been described as a global race, governments and companies are keenly eyeing this emerging mining arena, eager to get their slice of the next “gold rush” as it’s made increasingly economically viable. In 2010, there were eight exploration licenses, currently there are 17 in the high seas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. There is also significant interest in the ocean’s resources within territorial waters, particularly in the Pacific Ocean, where more than 1.5 million sq km of the seafloor is currently under exploration license. This is an area roughly comparable to the state of Queensland in Australia.

The president of the International Marine Minerals Society, Dr. Georgy Cherkashov, was quoted last year linking the rush for licenses to the reality of “first come, first get,” saying the shuffle to secure the most promising sites represents “the last redivision of the world.”

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Three types of deep sea mineral deposits have drawn interest. These are seafloor massive sulphides (SMS), manganese nodules and cobalt-rich crusts. In the Pacific Ocean, currently the most commercially feasible are SMS, which are created by the activity of deep sea hydrothermal vents.

Canadian company Nautilus Minerals has more than 500,000 sq km licensed in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Zealand. Nautilus Minerals (NM) is forging the way for others in this frontier, already holding a 20-year license for the world’s first commercial seabed mining operation, 1.6 km beneath the Bismarck Sea in PNG. The company’s flagship Solwara 1 project involves exploiting SMS to extract ore containing copper and gold at a site 30km from the coast of New Ireland Province and about 50km from the town of Rabaul in East New Britain.

Between 2005 and 2011 the company spent $80 million USD on exploration programs for its PNG venture.

Greenpeace-report

For environmentalists and activists the idea of this emerging mining enterprise coming to fruition is concerning. Greenpeace released a detailed report last month stating that less than 1% of high seas (international waters) and 3% of oceans are protected. Little is known about the biodiversity that exists deep below; some scientists suggest it would take 10-15 years of extensive research before we can even begin to understand this ecosystem.

Hydrothermal vents, where SMS deposits form, are said to support one of the rarest and most unique ecological communities known to science, including creatures like two-meter long tube worms and armor-plated snails. An independent study of the Solwara 1 site found 20 new species and experts are worried that species will be eliminated from the mining site before they have been discovered.

What’s Happening in Papua New Guinea?

A respite for critics of the Solwara 1 project came in June 2012, when contract disputes emerged between the PNG government and NM. The commercial disagreement reportedly centers on the government’s share of investments costs that will lead to a 30% stake in the venture. This ongoing dispute stalled the project, which was expected to start by the end of 2013, and caused NM to suspend construction of its seafloor production system.

But these commercial issues could soon be ironed out, depending on the outcome of an arbitration hearing on August 26.

If the government becomes a shareholder in the venture, a conflict of interest is apparent that could compromise its ability to regulate the mining activities.

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NM’s interim president and CEO, Michael Johnston, who was quoted in Mining Weekly Online earlier this month, seems positive about the likelihood of moving forward with the mining plans saying, “I think we’ve turned the corner.”

With severely limited land resources—in many of the Pacific region’s islands as much as 99% of sovereign territory is ocean—some Pacific Islanders are enthusiastic about the emerging mining frontier and the economic potential of their expansive sea zones.

Others are not convinced.

The Solwara 1 project has been met with massive opposition from local communities and campaign groups.

A petition to “Stop Experimental Seabed Mining,” with more than 24,000 signatures was delivered to the PNG government last year. A coalition of groups against the project, aligned as the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, argue that PNG will be the guinea pig of an untested technique in an ecosystem that the world knows little about, representing an unacceptable level of risk to both local communities and marine biodiversity.

Anxiety over environmental risks and social division associated with the Solwara 1 project is evident in a video of testimonies put together by local non-government organization Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG). Patrick Kaupun, an activist from East New Britain Province said that companies like Nautilus are “resource poor” while many of PNG’s educated are “money poor,” continuing that the resource poor and the money poor have caused the rest of the population “to get caught up in this net of theirs.”

“When you look at the idea of seabed mining, gold is not the only thing found in the sea. We have fish, which are part of our everyday lives. We have no alternative because our lives depend on the health of the sea. ”

“The sea is of customary and economic value to us. Development alternatives should compliment our existing activities. The Government is interested in getting its revenue, it has no thought for our welfare or our future.”

Details of the Mining Process and Potential Impacts

The Solwara 1 mining process involves removing the surface rock and sediment with remotely operated vehicles (about 130,000 tons of sediment and 115,000 tons of rock over 20 months) and dumping this at adjacent tip sites. Hydrothermal vents are then leveled, a mining bench cut and slurry is piped to a vessel where the ore is separated; the remaining water is pumped back to the seafloor and the ore is sent to overseas processing facilities.

NM3NM expects to ship 1.3 million tons of material to shore each year and explains that the method uses technologies adapted from the offshore oil, gas and dredging industries.

Two independent reviews of NM’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) have raised alarms. Foremost, is the possibility for upwelling (vertical water movement), ocean currents and spillages from the mining system causing a spread of heavy metal pollutants in the form of sediment plumes, potentially poisoning marine species and entering the human food chain.

Oceanographic expert, Dr. John Luick, who authored the most recent review, explains that the EIA does not give basic information needed to assess the possible impacts of sediment plumes on marine ecosystems or local communities. “The People of PNG deserve better.They should be able to feel confident that the approvals process is open and based on the best available science.”

NM dismissed Dr. Luick’s findings.

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NM vice president of corporate social responsibility, Dr. Samantha Smith told The Diplomat that any extraction impacts would occur 1300m below the surface, well away from fish populations, adding that naturally occurring plumes from subsea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents don’t enter the food chain and neither will sediment plumes from mining.

Coordinator of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, is not satisfied with these assurances, as reflected in her report: Out of our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor in Papua New Guinea.

Not only are sediment plumes likely to smother seabed biodiversity, according to Dr. Rosenbaum the toxic effects on organisms, which would accumulate up the marine food chain, have not been tested. This is especially significant because of Pacific Islander’s reliance on seafood.

In the last three years, communities in New Ireland Province, have reported incidents like cloudy water affecting diving activities, schools of dead tuna washing up onshore and sharks not responding to an ancient tradition of shark calling to local non-government organizations, Act Now and BRG. Dr. Rosenbaum attributes these events to Nautilus’s pre-mining activities. She told The Diplomat that due to lack of resources there has been no independent scientific follow-up.

“I would suggest that the vessels involved in exploration and pre-operation activities have caused disturbance and noise that has affected sharks and other marine life. The dead tuna and cloudy water would suggest high levels of chemical toxicants, sufficient to cause an acute toxic affect. ”

She questions what would have happened if locals ate the dead tuna, saying this incident highlights the lack of accountability and transparency around impacts.

NM Dr. Smith said that “none of the local communities we have engaged with claim to have seen dead fish and there have been no concerns raised about out-of-the-ordinary shark response.”

She called the claims “outrageous” and “untrue,” urging alarmed members of the public to contact the company to discuss ways forward rather then causing “undue stress and worry for all concerned.”

NM vice president of strategic development and exploration, Jonathan Lowe, told The Diplomat that the company’s exploration license is for low impact activities and that the techniques are commonly used by marine researchers. These include mapping to locate volcanic activity, measuring properties of ash plumes, gathering rock samples and drilling to estimate the amount of metals and minerals at the SMS sites.

Mr. Lowe commented that the Solwara 1 site is dynamic and resilient shown by the way it recovered in the years between drilling campaigns, one in 2007 and the other in 2010/2011. “It became very difficult, nigh on impossible, to identify and recognize where we had drilled previously. ”

Pushing for Precaution and Participation

deepsea_campaign_largeMarine experts, government representatives and campaigners alike want to see the “precautionary principle” applied, citing the serious environmental risks seabed mining poses.

The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide supports this standard, stating in a report that the uncertainty surrounding deep sea mining warranted “unprecedented caution.” It added, “It is grossly uncertain whether the deep sea environment can withstand the assault of mechanized mining.”

Deep sea biologist, Dr. Kerry Howell, told The Diplomat that she is uneasy about mining taking place in an environment known to be vulnerable to disturbance and concerned about the cumulative impact if a gold rush ensued. “If we are to proceed it must be slowly and with the precautionary principle taking center stage. ”

“Deep sea scientists must be fully engaged with the process as this community has the greatest understanding of the deep sea ecosystem. This appears to be what has been happening with the Papua New Guinea project but whether this continues to be the case as this industry develops remains to be seen. “

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Dr. Howell attended the recent Deep Sea Mining Summit in London and said she was struck by the open dialogue between industry, scientists and NGOs. Industry representatives put forward the idea that deep sea mining would be less environmentally destructive than mining on land; while rejecting this argument, Dr. Howell believes that deep sea mining would be less socially problematic because no communities would be displaced.

As resources on land become scarce the demand for these materials continues to rise.

NM’s Dr. Smith insists deep sea mining would take pressure off land-use conflicts and that going to the sea makes sense. “Our planet is known as the Blue Planet, because 70% of its surface is covered in water.  Does it make sense to continue to look to the rarer part of our planet to meet our minerals and metal demands?  Or does it make sense to look to the more abundant part?“

In addition to the precautionary principle, activists want to see the principle of “Free Prior and Informed Consent” upheld, which means local communities should be involved in any decision-making process that could affect the areas they customarily own or occupy.

This gets more complicated when it comes to matters of the sea.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) framework advises that “coastal stakeholders” should be identified during the application process, their consent sought and compensation agreed to if mining activities are likely to impinge on fishing and other customary rights.

However, ocean borders are fluid and its resources for common use, making the definition of “coastal stakeholders” slippery. This definition is also complicated by the fact that PNG laws favor state control of the sea and ignore indigenous maritime tenure. This has proved a source of contention for the West Coast Central Seabed Mining Land Owners Association, which asserts its rights over the sea’s resources in its region.

The Pacific Deep Sea Minerals Project, an independent advisory body established by the SPC, is working to address the concerns surrounding deep sea mining by running public workshops and creating information resources.  It also circulated a video. In the video, SPC director general, Jimmie Rodgers candidly says “Is it urgent? Is it important now? Yes! Because multinationals are not going to wait to give Pacific Island countries time to look at all the studies, environmental analysis, before they come in—they push in.” He continues that some countries have the technical knowledge to withstand that pressure but many do not.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific

It recently emerged that the government of Vanuatu had issued 145 licenses for offshore mining exploration in the past five years, without any community consultation.

NM2Vanuatu Minister for Land and Natural Resources, Hon. Ralph Regenvanu, said at a workshop on social impacts, that the licenses were issued without any “proper national regulatory framework for seabed mining or for scientific research,” adding that he was overseeing reform efforts to have the principle of “Free Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in law.

He used Australia, where a three-year moratorium on underwater mining activities off the Northern Territory was enacted, as an example of the precautionary principle being correctly applied and advised Pacific Island states that have not yet issued licenses to follow suit.

Nautilus Minerals are far from the only group with seabed mining interests in the Asia-Pacific. There is also Australia-based Bluewater Metals prospecting in the Solomon Islands, U.S. company Neptune Minerals with a handful of licenses in the Pacific region, Chatham Rock Phosphate interested in phosphate mining in New Zealand, Japan with a license to explore for cobalt and nickel off the Okinawa Islands, South Korea surveying the seabed off Tonga and Fiji, and China filing the first application to search for mineral deposits in the deep seas of the Indian Ocean, to name just a few.

The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention designates the mineral resources in the high seas as the “common heritage of mankind.” It is not yet clear how this concept will work in effect. What is clear, however, is that our lack of understanding about deep sea ecosystems is as vast as the ocean. In the words of CSIRO’s Dr. Chris Yeats: “We know more about the surface of Mars and Venus than we know about the deep ocean floor, broadly speaking it is a great unknown.”

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So what will be next? Mining in space? Don’t be surprised. It’s already in the pipeline.