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