Seven new underwater mining licences issued

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has gotten behind seabed mining after issuing seven new underwater mining licences.

The Authority, which is part of the UN, approved the applications earlier this week.

Three plans of work were approved for the exploration of polymetallic nodules for United Kingdom Seabed Resources, Ocean Mineral Singapore, and the Cook Islands Investment Corporation.

The Government of India, the Germany Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, as well as the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Brazil's Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerias had applications approved as well.

It comes after the United Nations published its first plan for deep sea mining.

The ISA's legal counsel Michael Lodge has stated "we are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining".

Underwater mining has been touted as the new frontier for the resources industry

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

However underwater mining has been a contentious issue.

Greenpeace has been vehement about stopping seabed mining, released a report last year in an effort to raise awareness. 

In its 20 page report, Greenpeace state that seabed mining "poses a major threat to our oceans", adding that "all types of seabed mining will kill whatever can't escape the mineral extraction operations".

It also highlighted the risk for accidents if an ore barge were to sink, as well as the potential of oil or hydraulic fluid leak from machinery on the seafloor.  

It is also 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.

New Zealand has also pushed back against underwater mining, with the NZ EPA refusing consent for seabed iron sands mining.

However Nautilus Minerals has progressed with its operations off PNG, and has begun building its underwater miner.

India is currently building a processing plant and investing in seabed mining equipment, spending around US$ 135 million in the process, while it has been reported the Sudan and Saudi Arabia are working together to start underwater mining in the Red Sea, where there is believed to be one of the largest hydrothermal polymetallic deposits in the world.

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