Deep sea mining rush a step closer to reality

The United Nations has published its first plan for deep sea mining and says companies could apply for mining licenses as soon as 2016.

After a technical study by the International Seabed Authority, the UN body managing the industry, it is taking steps on how to move from bids handling mining exploration to considering how to license the first operations.

To date, the ISA has issued 17 exploration permits and another seven are being processed. They cover vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, BBC reported.

The ISA's legal counsel, Michael Lodge, told the BBC:

"We are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining."

The report comes amid what a spokesman describes as "an unprecedented surge" of interest from state-owned and private mining companies.

It is in the process of deciding how to handle the licensing for mining operations as well as how to share the proceeds, a portion of which are to go to developing countries.

The extraction of ‘nodules’ – small mineral-rich rocks from the seabed, has been around as a concept for decades but mining them has only recently become viable with advancements in technology.

An assessment of the Pacific Ocean has estimated more than 27 billion tonnes of rocks could be lying on its floor, including 290 million tonnes of copper and 340 million tonnes of nickel.

However, mining in the deep sea is a contentious issue.

Conservation experts have long warned that mining the seabed will be highly destructive and will have disastrous long-term impacts for marine life.

The ISA study itself recognises that mining will cause "inevitable environmental damage".

A key factor in the ISA's report is the need for environmental safeguards. The document calls for monitoring of the seabed during mining operation however critics are sceptical if activity in the ocean depths can be policed.

Seabed mining also remains a contentious issue in Australia.

After a spike in the number of seabed exploration applications off the Northern Territory coast, the state banned seabed mining until at least 2015, during which an assessment on the impact of underwater mining will be carried out.

However Northern Territory Mines and Energy Minister said the moratorium on seabed mining could be lifted before 2015 following discussions with traditional owners about their concerns over seabed mining applications.

The land owners, the Anindilyakwa Land Council, say operations between the island and mainland threaten sacred sites, with The Northern Land Council head Kim Hill adding that there is a lack of research regarding the method.

"It is an international concern and it is a concern for all Australians," Hill told the ABC.

"Importantly, it is a concern for traditional owners."

Last year, former Greens leader Bob Brown called for an investigation into Pacific seabed mining.

“The Australian Greens are calling for scrutiny of what deep seabed mining means for the health of our oceans and our own country's natural marine resources and fisheries into the future," Brown said at the time.

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