Seafloor mining a new frontier

Extracting rich deposits of minerals from Australia's seafloor are discussed in a new report launched in Sydney recently by the CSIRO.

The environmental, economic, regulatory and social issues raised as a result of the mining industry’s increasing interest in extracting rich deposits of minerals from Australia’s seafloor are discussed in a new report launched in Sydney recently by the Director of CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship, Dr Kate Wilson.

Dr Wilson says record world demand for minerals now means the seafloor around Australia is increasingly being seen as a new frontier.

“Two offshore mining operations are already working in Australian waters and there are 31 pending offshore exploration, mining, and retention licences in both state/territory and Commonwealth waters,” she says.

“But does this nascent industry have a social license to operate? Does it have the support of the wider community and, if not, why not? The Flagship’s report looks closely at these questions.”

The report identifies a particular concern with the levels of uncertainty about the environmental impacts of seafloor activity.

“Perceptions of risks are heightened when the risks are unknown,” Dr Wilson says.

“Building detailed scientific knowledge about the impacts of this activity is essential to any development of Australia’s seafloor minerals sector to ensure social and economic wealth while maintaining environmental integrity.”

Titled; Exploring the social dimensions of an expansion to the seafloor exploration and mining industry in Australia, the report recommends the creation of an improved information base, enhanced communication between stakeholders, and an improved understanding of the policy and legislative process.

According to the project leader, CSIRO’s Dr Joanna Parr, the message from industry, the scientific community, governments and the social sector is clear: “This is an exciting and challenging field. All parties realise that much work would be needed to build a socially, environmentally and economically acceptable foundation on which to develop seafloor exploration and mining operations in Australia.”

The Marine Campaign Coordinator of one of the organisations represented on the project’s advisory committee, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Chris Smyth, says knowledge and capacity building, community engagement and institutional and legislative reform are essential if Australia is to adequately protect its oceans and ensure their ecologically sustainable use.

“If our governments fail to deliver on these, then the future of Australia’s oceans is grim,” he says.

Dr Sam Smith, Environmental Manager of Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals, which was also represented on the project advisory committee, says the company has adopted a cautious scientific approach to its seafloor mining operations.

“We have supported this process and the subsequent report, and, as always, will continue to proactively address all environmental concerns in a transparent manner,” Dr Smith says.

CSIRO initiated the National Research Flagships (www.csiro.au/flagships) to provide science-based solutions in response to Australia’s major research challenges and opportunities.

The nine Flagships form multidisciplinary teams with industry and the research community to deliver impact and benefits for Australia.

Dr Joanna Parr

CSIRO Exploration & Mining

02 9490 8566

Joanna.Parr@csiro.au

Report available at: www.csiro.au/resources/SEMReport

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