The Real Deal On Deep Sea Mining

By @vitthernandez on
Deep Sea Mining
(IN PHOTO) Flame shells are seen on the sea bed near Skye, in this undated handout photograph received in London on December 27, 2012. The colony, which was uncovered during a survey commissioned by Marine Scotland, consists of at least 100 million flame shells, and is located in Loch Alsh, which is a sea inlet between Skye and the coast of the mainland on the west of Scotland, local media reported. Reuters

For decades, deep sea mining has been flagged as a lucrative commercial opportunity for miners, considered as a new frontier in the quest for raw materials and precious metals needed for modern economies. According to United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, deep sea mining in the UK could be worth £40 billion over a 30-year period. The International Seabed Authority, or ISA, a United Nations agency, has already issued 26 exploration licenses to various state-owned and private companies from countries like India, Brazil, Russia, New Zealand, Singapore and Namibia, giving them permission to operate on international waters.

In Papua New Guinea, Nautilus Minerals has been granted the first lease to mine the deep sea for metals in a project known as Solwara 1. It is expected to begin production by 2018, using purpose-built machinery to extract precious metals from the seabed.

"Looking at the ocean, there are very large deposits of seafloor massive sulphides, copper, nickel, cobalt, and polymetallic nodules. And they are very high grade compared with land-based deposits," said Mike Johnston, CEO at Nautilus Minerals.

But in spite of the potential that deep sea mining holds, very few mining activities are being done. Environmental groups have long warned of the potential damage of this type of mining to marine ecosystems, prompting authorities in Namibia and the Australian state of Northern Territory to order moratorium on any seabed mining activities. Likewise, ISA has so far only issued licenses for exploration, and the first exploitation permits may not come until the next few years.

According to a Greenpeace report titled "Deep Seabed Mining: An urgent wake-up call to protect our oceans," seabed mining poses a major threat to the world's oceans. Aside from having detrimental effects on fish resources vital to coastal communities, waste released by mining companies may contain sediment and heavy metals that can smother sensitive marine species. Whales and other marine life will also be impacted by undersea noise.

These environmental concerns are basically the reason why seabed mining has not yet made any substantial breakthroughs in countries like New Zealand, which has already refused two mining applications this year. The latest one is a proposed project by Chatham Rock Phosphate off the coast of Canterbury.

Similarly, India has been resisting China's attempts to access the Indian Ocean for seabed mining. India is considering not just the risks of allowing access to the Indian Ocean, but also the fact that deep seabed mining is extremely expensive, with one mining site costing at least $1.6 billion.

For environmentalists, mining activities should be limited on land as much as possible. After all, there are hundreds of mineral deposits being developed all over the world, including the Kun-Manie project by Russian miner Amur Minerals Corporation (LSE:AMC), which is already awaiting its final authorisation from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Once production starts, the project is expected to become one of the largest nickel sulphide deposits in the world, having an estimated nickel content of 67 million tonnes. Such projects can generate a humongous amount of mining wastes as well.

"It is difficult to contain mining waste on land. Imagine the problems of stopping the spread of pollution in an ocean environment," said Richard Page, a contributor to the said Greenpeace report. "The local communities have every right to be, and indeed should be, concerned."

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