Deep Sea Mining: In Too Deep?

The final frontier of mining is set to be explored in the very near future, as Nautilus Minerals of Canada has been granted a 20 year licence to extract copper and gold from the seafloor off the coast of Papua New Guinea. In some respects, this is an exciting new opportunity for the mining industry, with untapped, large scale resources becoming available. However, some environmental groups are opposed to this new development and believe that there has not been enough research undertaken to fully understand the repercussions of underwater mineral extraction. This article will outline the details of the proposed project and the possible advantages and disadvantages of mining under the sea.

A map showing Paupa New Guinea, just north of Australia, with the Bismarck Sea shown in red.

A map showing Paupa New Guinea, just north of Australia, with the Bismarck Sea shown in red. Image Source: CIA Factbook.

Project Details

The Solwara 1 project is the world’s first commercial deep sea mining operation. The operation will explore an area of seabed of around 1.6km. It will be undertaken under the Bismarck Sea, around 50km from the coast of New Britain, Papua New Guinea.

How are Deep Sea Deposits Formed?

The Volcanic Massive Sulphides that will be mined by Nautilus are formed via hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, sometimes referred to as ‘black smokers’. These form at divergent plate boundaries, where seawater circulates through the spreading crust, leading to hydrothermal fluids containing dissolved sulphur and metals. As these fluids reach the surface, they rapidly cool and lead to a ‘black smoke’ being precipitated. Over time, these precipitated minerals will build up to form minable deposits. 

Nautilus will primarily be exploiting submerged massive sulphides in order to extract copper, gold zinc and silver at high grades. Mining of these deposits usually involves the destruction of underwater hydrothermal vents and then collecting the sediment from these for processing. The project is hoping to start production by the fourth quarter of 2013 and is looking to produce roughly 1.2-1.8m tonnes of sulphide ore per year.

Advantages of Deep Sea Mining

Many will see the extraction of seafloor minerals as a natural progression from offshore oil and gas exploration which has been implemented for years. In fact, some of the equipment that Nautilus Minerals will be using has been modified from offshore oil and gas drilling equipment. With metals such as gold and copper in higher demand than ever due to the rise of affordable electronics, and resources on land becoming increasingly depleted, many will see the availability of new metal resources as a great boost to the mining sector and one which will buy some valuable time to implement sustainable practises.

Nautilus has undertaken environmental impact studies for the last 6 years and it has been concluded that deep-sea mining can have far fewer environmental issues attached than mining on land. As the cut off depth for fish is around 1000m, it is hoped that most ecosystems will remain relatively unharmed. Nautilus has a separate website, Nautilus Cares, which deals with the environmental and social concerns of the project.

Furthermore, no mining infrastructure roads and trains needs to be build, which means there is less disruption of the local environment and of course there are no communities that need to be relocated.

Issues with Deep Sea Mining

Some groups have argued that too much emphasis is being put on a new mining frontier that hasn’t been proven to be environmentally or socially viable, and there is concern that the Solwara 1 project could start a modern-day ‘gold rush’ on the sea floor.

Though the Solwara 1 project is at the latest stage of development, there are many sites on the sea floor that are under license for exploration mining, with Nautilus alone holding 534,000 km2 of sea floor around the Pacific region. It is thought that there is roughly 1million sqkm of sea bed currently set aside for mining exploration, and many large nations are now also looking towards deep sea mining as a viable option, including Japan, China Russia and the UK.

Furthermore, the 20 year length of the lease is a frightening prospect to some, considering the Solwara 1 project is the first of its kind.

A ‘black smoker’ hydrothermal vent, the origin of many rich, submerged sulphide deposits.

A ‘black smoker’ hydrothermal vent, the origin of many rich, submerged sulphide deposits. Image Credit: NOAA

The Deep Sea Mining campaign was started in 2011 in order to open up a dialogue between local communities and governments about the potential risks of allowing so much exploration so rapidly.

Moreover, it is impossible to say how large an impact deep sea mining will have on ecosystems on the sea bed. A recent report, written in part by a professor of Zoology at the University Oxford, discusses the possibility of underwater mining destroying populations of organisms as of yet unknown to science. Furthermore, the disruption of the chemicals at the seafloor could lead to contamination higher up the food chain, potentially affecting tuna and humans.

Recently there have been legal disputes between Nautilus and the government of Papua New Guinea, which have led to uncertainty surrounding the start of production, which was initially scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2013.

Deep sea mining will continue to be a hotly discussed topic in the following years and only time will tell if it is undertaken successfully.

Sources and Further Reading

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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