The article below draws its information substantially from ABC Radio National's Background Briefing program "Deep sea riches could spark Pacific mining boom" from October 20 last year by reporter Ann Arnold. You can listen to the program or read the full ABC Radio National Background Briefing program transcript.
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If you had to pick one place in the world that could be considered safe from the rabid expansion of the mining industry, you might choose the deep sea floor.
Surely there is no need for us to reach so far to provide for our needs? Even if it was being considered, surely we would stop and ask what other options there might be.
Unfortunately, the quest for profits has now driven us to the deepest parts of the ocean. ABC's Radio National Background Briefing reported last October that Australian mining company Nautilus has an exploration licence for Solwara 1, a site on the Bismark Sea floor off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
Nautilus has, or is, applying for the exploration rights to 534,000 square kilometres of the sea floor in PNG, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Zealand. Already, exploration rights now cover more than 1 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean floor.
Radio National reported that the main deposits in the Bismark Sea are copper, gold and silver. The new mining method they intend to use is called deep sea mining. The project, the first of its kind, may be up and running in less than five years.
Mining companies around the world are watching closely. The ocean floor, covering 70% of the planet's surface, holds huge amounts of precious metals in concentrated deposits far richer than anything found on land, the program said, meaning the potential profits are huge.
These deep sea minerals exist in two forms. Massive sulfide deposits (MSD) form from minerals expelled via deep sea hydrothermal vents.
Water is heated in the Earth's crust by magma and rises up through fissures, venting into the ocean and bringing with it many minerals.
The minerals form chimneys tens of metres high around the springs through thousands of years of accumulation. Rich beds of deposits form around them as the plumes settle.
Radio National explained that completely unique ecosystems have evolved around these vents. Some lifeforms that live there are chemosynthetic ― meaning they make their own energy from the chemicals that come out of the vents.
As such, they can only exist around the vents. Much like photosynthetic plants that make energy out of sunlight, these creatures form the basis of the ecosystem. Some scientists believe life on Earth originated in such conditions.
Other minerals exist in potato-sized rocks called polymetallic nodules. They are found on the sea floor, covering up to 70% of it in some places.
These nodules are much deeper, about four kilometres down. Mining them would involve vacuuming them up to a processing ship on the surface.
Radio National described how mining MSDs involves sending down remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to break up the deposits on the sea floor. The resulting debris is sucked through pipes to a ship or platform on the surface, where the precious minerals are extracted.
Up to 90% of the material is waste. These tailings are dumped back onto the sea floor. Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston told Radio National that Solwara will generate about 250,000 tonnes of waste ash, on a conservative estimate. Contaminated sea water would also have to be dumped.
Lockheed Martin, Soil Machine Dynamics, IHC Mining and Nautilus Minerals are developing ROVs, which they say can operate down to five kilometres.
Besides literally scraping away unique habitats, greater turbidity and toxicity will result around the extraction area as sediments are disturbed and tossed into the water column.
Speaking to Radio National, Rick Steiner, a retired professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska, said: “You know, what I find sort of a dangerous combination is the increased industrial interest, the poor scientific understanding of the systems, a very rudimentary management regime often co-opted by or corrupted by industrial interests, and very few protected areas.
“If the riser and lift system fails, with the ore slurry coming up or even the dewatering plume going back down, you will have a release of this relatively toxic ore and sediment in the upper water column which is extremely productive in that area with a lot of tuna swimming through the area, a lot of sea turtles, pelagic birds, whales, dolphins, a lot of other fish species.
“The [Solwara 1] EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] itself actually admitted that there would be severe site specific impact from the mining operation, there would likely be species lost due to the project, some rare and endemic species at the site. They had not done toxicity tests of the dewatered plume on actual vent species, they used surrogate species.
“They had not done a complete characterisation of the genetic diversity on site ... They had looked at the benthic, the seabed system on the sites, but nothing in the water column.
“I noticed in the EIS that Nautilus said we will consider the site recolonised when the dominant species ― Alviniconcha, and Bathymodiolus and Ifremeria, some of the snails and mussels ― are present again. That's about like saying that a redwood forest that is clear-cut has re-established a functional ecosystem when a few redwoods are growing there again.”
Very little is known about the deep sea ecosystem as only 1% of the oceans have been explored. Radio National explained the organisms themselves were only discovered about 40 years ago, and even less is known about the effects this mining would have on them.
But large corporations are not the only ones interested in this mining revolution. At a Deep-Sea Mining conference in London, Cook Islands minerals and natural resources minister Mark Brown said his South Pacific island nation sees deep sea mining as a way to multiply the country’s gross domestic product by up to 100 fold.
The Cook Islands' 2 million square kilometres exclusive economic zone contains 10 billion tons of manganese nodules, which contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals used in electronics.
Radio national pointed out that, for small Pacific countries, the potential revenue from deep sea mining would be a big boost to their economies, far outweighing any industry they have been able to cultivate so far on land or sea.
But their regulations are alarmingly underdeveloped. Nautilus founder Julian Malnic told Radio National how he basically fabricated a licence in Tonga: “When I got there, the mining act was only one and a half pages long. I realised they didn't have a substantial mining act, therefore no regulations.
“So I simply drafted a form, wrote 'Ancient Kingdom of Tonga' across the top, and for an application fee put $300 Tongan dollars … Then I made the forms, printed the forms out, filled them in by hand so that they looked the part, and took out eight and a half degrees of latitude of mineral potential, right through the Tongan exclusive economic zone.”
A petition signed by 25,000 Papua New Guineans was handed to that nation's mining minister expressing the public’s dismay at the lack of consultation.
The Bismarck Ramu Group, the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Pacific Network on Globalisation released a statement in May saying: “Pacific Civil Society argues that GDP is an inadequate tool on it’s own to measure wealth given that wealth is purely financial and disregards all other manner of value that make up a country’s well-being.
“The responsibility for demonstrating that deep seabed mining poses negligible, or at least reversible, threats to the environment rests with the entities that seek to profit from it.
“This burden has not been met; therefore, and in light of the precautionary principle, Pacific [civil society organisations] contend that the appropriate response is to prohibit seabed mining activities in our territorial waters.”
These small island governments are already locked in an unbalanced fight against some of the world’s biggest companies in the campaign against climate change. But the struggle against deep sea mining may pit these same governments against their own people.
Former director-general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community Jimmie Rodgers told Radio National: “For many of these countries, [deep sea mining] will be the only thing they have going forward, apart from fish.
“And I think because of that importance there will be continuous political and economic pressure, both from the countries plus investors, to make sure that will go ahead.”