Deep sea mining – out of our depth
Companies and governments from around the world are rushing to claim rights to explore and exploit minerals found in and on the seabed, such as gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and rare earths. There is already significant exploration interest to deep sea mine in both international and national waters, particularly in the Pacific Ocean.
The world’s first deep sea mining project to be given the green light has a very active and widespread opposition. Nautilus Minerals’ Solwara 1 project in the Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has galvanized the nation, with politicians, academics, students, church and community leaders loudly articulating their concerns over the uncertainties regarding environmental and social impacts. A petition signed by over 24,000 people to ‘Stop Experimental Seabed Mining’ was delivered to the PNG government in November 2012.
‘We recommend… in the absence of clear scientific evidence, that our respective national governments err on the side of caution and call for a stop to the issuance of further seabed mining licenses.’
Murray Isimeli, Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC)
Representing over six million people across the Pacific, the Pacific Conference Council has called for a moratorium on deep sea mining, as has the Vanuatu Minister for Resources and Lands, Ralph Regenvanu.
The application of the precautionary principle and Free Prior and Informed Consent will be essential to ensure a social licence for deep sea mining.
Put simply, local communities should have a say in decisions about whether deep sea mining should go ahead in their waters, and have the right to veto projects, and independently verified research must be conducted in advance of any mining being permitted, to demonstrate that neither communities nor ecosystems will suffer long-term negative impacts.
Three types of deep sea minerals are of interest to mining companies: seafloor massive sulphides (formed around hydrothermal vents); cobalt-rich manganese crusts; and manganese nodules. The methods proposed for seabed mining are likely to have significant direct and indirect impacts on the marine environment and, in many cases, coastal communities.
Two detailed reviews by independent scientists of the Nautilus Solwara 1 project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) have found that there is serious concern that marine ecosystems and coastal communities may indeed be at risk of exposure to heavy metals. Nautilus has not refuted the findings of these reviews.
What is certain about deep sea mining is that impacts are associated with each step of the mining process. The continuous nature of the ocean means that impacts will not be isolated to the mine site. They will spread far and wide, with liabilities to match. Impacts on marine life and local communities translate into liabilities and losses for companies and governments.
The world’s first deep sea mining project is struggling to get up and running and there is a clear absence of scientific evidence that this new ‘frontier’ industry will not harm the environment and communities. With such serious liabilities in the face of a new industry that is untested and untried, the question remains as to whether deep sea mining is a lucrative investment.
There is investment, however, in urban mining, the process of ‘reclaiming compounds and elements from products, buildings and waste’. A staggering 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver estimated to be worth $21 billion is used annually to make personal computers, cell phones, tablet computers and other electronic products worldwide. There is an abundance of gold and silver, rare earths and copper in the waste generated by the disposal of these products. It is estimated that electronic waste contains precious metal ‘deposits’ 40 to 50 times richer than the ores currently mined.
Urban mining will be more lucrative and will deal in a responsible manner with an otherwise intractable waste problem. The choice for investors should be clear. On the one hand there is the significant expense, technical uncertainties and environmental risks of deep sea mining – and on the other the relatively low-cost, low-risk, socially and environmentally beneficial profits to be made from urban mining. The responsible recycling of minerals would also create jobs and business opportunities.