20 November 2013

Deep Sea Mining: Coming soon to an ocean near you

 Papua New Guinea Mine Watch

Carlos Duarte and Sophie Arnaud-Haond, IFREMER, France 

University of Western Australia 

The depletion of resources on land together with the increase in resource demand and the parallel development in technologies for deep sea exploration have brought the issue of deep-sea mining to the forefront of political, industrial and scientific debate, writes Carlos Duarte.


Shallow submarine mining is already a reality in coastal areas, such as the De Beers Marine diamond mining operation in Namibia, in depths up to 150 metres. The current challenge is to move these operations to the deep sea, which contains vast resources of minerals, including manganese, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, rare earths and gold, often associated with areas of volcanic activity. Whereas nations are sovereign to regulate seabed mining within their economic exclusive zones, the access to resources in the seabed and ocean floor beyond these national jurisdiction waters, referred in United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as “the Area”.is organized and controlled by the autonomous international organization called “International Seabed Authority” initially established under UNCLOS.

To date, the International Seabed Authority has entered into seventeen 15-year contracts for exploration for polymetallic nodules and polymetallic sulphides in the deep seabed with thirteen contractors. Eleven of these contracts are for exploration for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific, with two contracts for exploration for polymetallic sulphides in the South West Indian Ridge and the Mid Atlantic Ridge.

These contracts allow the contractors to explore specified parts of the deep oceans outside national jurisdiction, giving each contractor the exclusive right to explore an initial area of up to 150,000 km2. Russia, China, Korea, Germany and and France are the nations involved in most of these contracts, which include contracts for small nations, such as Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga, whom would likely open them up to tender by international companies.

Indeed, at a summit on Deep-Sea Mining in London two months ago Mark Brown, Minister of Minerals and Natural Resources of the Cook Islands, announced that the Cook Islands is embracing deep-sea mining as a pathway to multiply the country’s gross domestic product by up to 100 fold, as they assessed that the Cook Islands' 2 million Km2 exclusive economic zone contains 10 billion tons of manganese nodules, which contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals used in electronics. Negotiations are under way between the Cook Islands and companies in the UK, China, Korea, Japan and Norway, towards granting the first tenders within a year.

These facts suggest that we may soon face and underwater gold rush, but in most citizen’s minds deep-sea mining is still something for sci-fic movies. Much to the contrary, the technology for deep-sea mining is not something of the future but it is largely existing. A deep-sea mining operation consists of a mining support platform or vessel; a launch and recovery system; a crawler with a mining head, centrifugal pump and vertical transport system; and electrical, control, instrumentation and visualization systems. Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Soil Machine Dynamics, IHC Mining and Bauer or Nautilus Minerals are developing vehicles for deep-sea mining, pledging they are in the position to readily develop techniques to operate down to 5,000 metre depth. Indeed, the submarine vehicles required are already in existence and their operations are described in compelling animations.

Besides direct removal of parts of the sea floor during mineral collection, increased toxicity and turbidity is expected in the water column due to sediment resuspension during the extraction (ie near bottom) and tailings rejection after minerals are sorted on the floating plateform (ie near the surface) resulting in clouds of particles forming plumes.  Waste will represent most, 90%, of the volume of materials pumped to surface and, thus, seabed operations will deposit massive amounts of waste at the sea floor. 

This waste can, in turn, release massive amounts of metals and other elements to the surrounding water, impacting on the ecosystems that thrive near these deep sea mining sites. While near bottom resuspended sediment may cause a major threat to local communities, surface plumes generated by tailing may have a wider impact by affecting larger areas.

Here is, however, where the main problem lies. Deep sea communities are very poorly characterized and mapped, and even where a reasonable taxonomic knowledge could be claimed and communities mapped over accurate scales, their sensitivity to these impacts is unknown. Despite these uncertainties, there is little doubt that losses of fragile deep-sea communities during the operations will be unavoidable, and the focus of industry and scientists is placed in the ecological restoration of the deep sea from impacts of mining.

The International Marine Minerals Society has developed a voluntary Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining that recommends that plans for deep sea mining include at the outset procedures that “aid in the recruitment, re-establishment and migration of biota…”.

The first impact assessment for a deep-sea mining project has now been produced. This was commissioned by Nautilus Minerals Inc., incorporated in Canada but also present in Australia (Queensland). Nautilus was granted the first mining lease for polymetallic seafloor massive sulphide deposits at the prospect known as Solwara 1, in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, where it is aiming to extract copper, gold and silver. The company, which is likely to be the first one to implement deep-sea mining is also looking at operating in the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Zealand.

A workshop, promoted by Nautilus Minerals Inc., was held in Sète (France) in November 2012, including one of us (S.A.-H.) to consider the feasibility of ecological restoration of the deep sea following mining operations. The outcomes of the workshop are reported in a paper, including coauthors from Nautilus Minerals Inc, published in the journal Marine Policy (Van Dover et al. 2013). This exercise indicated that most of the direct costs (80%) for a deep-sea mining restoration programs would be associated with ship use, including use of remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles. 

The experts attending this workshop concluded that deep-sea restoration will be expensive, but that cost alone should not be a reason for inaction and that restoration should be included in project budgets. They concluded that where restoration costs are prohibitive, offsetting options can be explored but that neither restoration nor rehabilitation objectives or commitments should be taken as a ‘license to trash’.

A record of disasters in the offshore oil and gas industry, as well as deep sea fisheries, shows that there is a high price to pay in allowing industry to move offshore faster than scientific research does, yet only a handful of nations – which do not include Australia – are sufficiently equipped for deep sea scientific exploration as to keep pace with industry. 

The basic knowledge (taxonomic inventories, habitat mapping, characterization of faunal assemblages and dynamics of deep species interactions, …) of deep sea ecosystems and the evaluation of their vulnerability, recovery time scales and processes is a matter of urgency, but this goals cannot be met without significant investments in capabilities for deep-sea research. Providing the immediacy of deep-sea mining, the investment in scientific infrastructure and research to provide the scientific underpinnings for the safe and sustainable mining operations in the deep-sea is an imperative.

Van Dover, C.L., J. Aronson, L. Pendleton, S. Smith, Sophie Arnaud-Haond, D. Moreno-Mateos, E. Barbier, D.Billett, K.Bowers, R.Danovaro, A.Edwards, S. Kellert, T.Morato, E.Pollard, A.Rogers and R.Warner. 2013. Ecological restoration in the deep sea: Desiderata. Mar. Policy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2013.07.006i


Pacific Solution Exchange discusses Deep Sea Mining

                       by ramunickel
United Nations / PACNEWS

The deep sea a place mostly undiscovered and unregulated, is now facing large-scale industrial exploitation as mining of the deep seabed for minerals becomes a reality.

The knowledge-sharing forum, Pacific Solution Exchange is hosting an e-discussion across the Pacific on the potential trans-boundary environmental impacts given that deep sea mining operations may happen soon within sovereign Exclusive Economic Zones.

Prompting the Pacific-wide discussion is Pacific Political Advisor for Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Ms Seni Nabou.

“As terrestrial minerals become depleted and prices rise, the search for new sources of supply is turning to the sea floor and many non-governmental organisations remain concerned at the haste in which exploration and mining is taking place,” Nabou said. “While harvesting these resources could provide a much-needed economic boost to many Pacific Island countries, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and a coalition of Pacific Regional Non-Governmental Organisations are concerned about the rush to deep seabed mining and have called for a halt to it in the Pacific region.” Nabou explained, “This emerging industry, facilitated greatly by advances in technology, poses a major threat to our oceans, which are already suffering from a number of pressures including overfishing, pollution, and the effects of climate change.”

The discussion has received contributions from researchers, scientists, government officials, practitioners and experts from the Pacific and other parts of the world that have shared their thoughts on the environmental implications of deep sea mining.

Some commentators expressed concern about the potential impacts on species dependent on hydrothermal vents, where one type of seabed minerals is found. The need for better understanding about possible impacts of sediment plumes on marine life was also highlighted.

Deep Sea Minerals Project Legal Adviser from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Hannah Lily shared that deep sea environments have hardly been studied. She stated that there are different types of deep sea mineral deposits, each with different biological environments, and the extraction techniques will vary between types. It is therefore difficult to predict impacts without knowing the specific technicalities of the proposed operations and details of a specific site.

Lily noted that in some cases “Scientists predict the direct impacts of seabed mining are likely to be localised to the mining site, due to the high pressure and low current in the deep ocean, which will restrict sediment dispersal.”

She added, “If this is correct, then direct trans-boundary impacts may be considered unlikely, unless perhaps a mining site is allocated right next to a boundary and risk of dispute over mineral rights may well pre-empt that, but the probability of indirect impacts bears further investigation.”

A few members shared the view that mining can be done but in a safe manner with strict limits of damage to the environment and major penalties for breaches.

Others are critical of the fact that very little is known about what lies deep within the ocean and therefore prefer it untouched because the consequences are unclear.

The discussion continues until 4 October 2013, with people invited to join for free the Pacific Solution Exchange (PSE) community if they want to become part of the conversation.

PSE is an email-based knowledge sharing service that enables people across the Pacific to ask each other queries and share answers, insights, experiences and lessons learned to help each other in their climate change and disaster risk work. It has over 1500 members including practitioners, students, government, concerned elders, and community members in remote islands. PSE is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Centre with support from Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).