Seabed Mining: plunging into the depths of a new frontier


Mankind has explored deeper into the depths of space than it has into the murky depths of the ocean.

The reality that people actually have more knowledge of what lies at the end of the universe than at the bottom of the sea is an odd subject.

Mike Woodbourne, who was the chief executive of now defunct West Australian marine miner Bonaparte Diamonds, has previously explained that with mineral deposits beginning to run low on land, the ocean floor is where people will begin to look next.

"One could say we probably know more about the moon than the ocean floor, and as we can see, our impact on land has been quite substantial," Woodbourne told the ABC.

"This doesn’t mean we should go in and damage the area, but it is an indication to us, that the hydrosphere is the new frontier in mining."

But as this new frontier draws more and more to its potential deposits, the worry has arisen that people will replicate our heavy handed actions on land on the seabed.

This is despite the fact that no technology has been developed yet to effectively mine deep sea minerals at costs similar to land based mines.

Rich Pickings

While the economic costs seem prohibitive, there are rich pickings to found on the seabed.

The minerals are characteristically found near hydrothermal vents which form above cracks in the ocean floor, typically in volcanic areas of the seabed.

They are created when water seeps into the bowels of the earth, dissolving the minerals found under the crust which is then spewed forth once more into the ocean, bringing it with the metal rich fluids.

This creates massive plumes of debris that shoots upwards and then falls back to the ocean floor; gradually building up the vents, layer up layer, until they reach a height where they eventually collapse on themselves, creating the mineral rich and often high grade, sulphide deposits over the shell of the vent.

These deposits can be up to seven times the grades typically mined on the surface.

It just so happens that a high number of these vents are found near Australia and right around the Western Pacific’s rim.

Exploration licences have already been granted for seafloor exploration off New Zealand, Japan, Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Laws of the Sea

To ensure proper organisation and control of mining and minerals related actions in the international seabed area beyond countries’ jurisdiction (which covers essentially most of the ocean floor); the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established by the United Nations.

This group has created laws to regulate the exploration and potential commercialisation of manganese nodules, polymetallic sulphides (such as copper, gold and zinc) and ferromanganese crusts formed by hydrothermal vents, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

A number of countries are also looking to bring in laws to standardise seabed mining.

Japan is at the forefront of regulation, having already begun to make changes to its resources laws to allow for mining of the seabed.

With its potential seabed resources valued at as much as $3.6 trillion, the country’s new laws will increase Japanese control of the resources inside of its exclusive economic zone.

A recent discovery of a rare earths deposit that is reportedly 1000 times larger than any on land, laying between 3.5 and 6 kilometres under the sea, is expected to speed up this process.

These new regulations will include stricter approval processes, new tender systems and a mechanism to monitor projects from initial exploration and drilling work.

On the Australian front, Greens leader Bob Brown recently called for a Senate Inquiry into seabed mining and its effects on the environment.

He said that they want to know "what deep seabed mining means for the health of our oceans and our own country’s natural marine resources and fisheries into the future".

But just how many resources companies are actually digging in the depths of the sea?

Who, what, how?

Two companies currently exploring the ocean floor and its metallic potential are Neptune Minerals and Nautilus Minerals.

Greens leader Bob Brown singled out Nautilus in his call for an inquiry, stating that "Nautilus Minerals, which has the world’s first seabed mining operation controlled by robots in the ocean south of New Ireland (near Papua New Guinea), plans to extract minerals that are going to make somebody somewhere very wealthy and dump tailings straight into that marine ecosystem. The threats of the form of process are global".

When contacted, neither Neptune Minerals nor Bob Brown was available for comment.

Speaking to Nautilus Minerals vice president of investor relations, Joe Dowling, he explained to Australian Mining how the metals form, how and where the company mines it, and its impact on the environment both above and below the sea.

Nautilus’ main focus is its Solwara 1 project, located in the Bismarck Sea, just off Papua New Guinea.

At just over one and half kilometres under the ocean, it mines copper and gold from the sea floor.

"We have remote controlled machinery which operates on the sea floor and collects the material from these massive sulphide deposits," Dowling told Australian Mining.

The machinery first dislodges the minerals then collects it and sends it via pipes to a ship on the surface, after which it will be transported to an onshore processing plant.

The recovery system it uses to pump material to the surface is the same as that used in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Using this process, the miner actually produces no tailings "and almost no waste at all," he said, refuting Bob Brown’s claims.

Due to this, the seabed mining processes "has a minimal environmental impact" as compared to mining on land.

Dowling also said that per tonne of copper, it is actually cheaper than terrestrial mining "as we are dealing with very high grades, with our resource sitting at around 7% while some land based projects have grades of only .5%, so the amount of material needed to get more copper from the sea floor is much less than is required on land".

He said that "seabed mining has an image problem, and some people don’t fully understand what we are doing. We are trying to develop a project that will be in operation for many years, one that is environmentally sound, and we need to make sure we do that right".

Nautilus was granted mining licences from Papua New Guinea in January and according to Dowling, the miner plans to be in production by the end of 2013, and aims to generate around 80 000 tonnes of copper and 150 000 ounces of gold per year.

But while the impact is less than land based mining, it is still worrying many countries.

Environmental Implications

At a recent conference in Fiji concerns over the issue of seabed mining and the technology used to explore the ocean floor were raised.

The Pacific political advisor for Greenpeace, Seni Nabou told the conference that the process of seabed mining may cause irreparable damage to marine eco-systems.

"There are a whole lot of unknowns, there is a lot of work to be done … the environmental management of these ventures needs to be monitored, managed, and the data needs to be better," Nabou said.

She explained that one of the major issues in the Pacific is its impact on native fisheries.

"There could be conflicts over the use of marine resources, so there are decisions that governments need to make, in terms of which is a priority for our economy.

"We have to be extra prudent in how we view our resources and its management."

Samoa has already begun to act, and is moving to introduce legislation to control ocean floor mining.

The Samoan Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment stated that the current data on seabed mining needs to be reviewed and regulations put in place to protect marine resources.

However, speaking to Joe Dowling from undersea miner Nautilus Minerals, he explained that seabed mining is often carried out at such depths that it is unlikely to affect fish stocks.

"What we are doing at our project in the Bismarck Sea is at a depth of 1.6 kilometres, where as the vast majority of fish stocks are found at depths 200 metres or less, so it is not really impacting it.

"For the creatures which are actually located near the hydrothermal vents, where we mine, they already have a high metal content due to the surrounding environment," he added.

Environmental engineer and head of Australian firm Care Of Our Environment (COOE), Joe Mifsud, told Australian Mining "in terms of the environmental impact of submarine mining, it is hard to tell as it depends on the location. If it is located near the hydrothermal vents, and the species around them are endemic then it will have a major affect, but if the species are pandemic, such as tubeworms, then it will have minimal impacts".

Mifsud said the facts coming out of submarine work in Japan indicate that subsea mining may be less harmful on the environment than terrestrial mining, adding that subsea habits can cover very large areas and may be more resilient than coral reefs and rainforests.

This view that seabed mining operations will have less of an impact than those operations on land is supported by Dr. Jan Steffen, a reef ecologist and the marine co-ordinator for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Oceania Division.

In submarine mining "the first thought for environmentalists around the planet is what will the footprint be?

"And the surprising answer is, if you compare it directly with land-based mining, the footprint in most cases is much, much smaller," he told Australia Network News.

"Basically though we would want to see the same rigour (in mining legislation) applied on the seabed, and many countries are holding off from issuing (seabed) exploration licences until legislation governing deep sea mining is in place.

"I’m a reef ecologist and I would be the first person who would be very critical, but based on everything that I learnt from the deep sea geologists – the hydrothermal vent specialists – it is very unlikely that there will be any toxic effects further away than ten, twenty kilometres maximum from these mining sites." Steffen said.

"However, a detailed seabed organism inventory and a map over their extent over several hundred square kilometres are needed to ensure that there is sufficient ‘organic resources’ to avoid any extinction," Mifsud told Australian Mining.

The future?

Speaking about Senator Brown’s calls for an inquiry into the sector, Mifsud welcomed it, saying there is "a need for the inquiry to develop a greater understanding on the effects of submarine mining, the real question to ask will be ‘what price is society prepared to pay for mining’, and I think the answer will be positive for the industry.

"Seabed mining has a strong potential future, but care needs to be taken."

Greens leader Bob Brown took the motion to the Senate and called on the Government to report, by October, on the impact seabed mining will have on the marine environment and for greater regulation in the industry.

While miners await the outcome of a Senate report, the fact that this inquiry has been called for shows that as Steffen said, "there is no gold rush feeling" but seabed mining will be the new frontier for the industry.

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