The Issue With Seabed Mining

We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the bottom of our oceans. What little we know about the deep sea may however lead to its destruction. Many deep see regions are rich in valuable metals. Vents in the ocean floor expel hot, acidic water, which when meeting the cold sea water leads to large sulphite deposits.These are full of valuable metals, like copper, gold, as well as manganese, nickel and cobalt nodules.

A hydrothermal vent in the deep sea (Copyright: World Ocean Review)

The existence of these deposits in the oceans was discovered about 150 years ago. In 1876 the HMS Challenger returned from its scientific expedition. It brought with it large, black, oval shaped chunks, which the crew had hauled out of the ocean. It was the discovery of polymetallic nodules, which is the technical term for one kind of mineral rich deposits from the ocean floor. This discovery triggered further explorations and soon hypothermal mineral deposits around vents in the ocean floor were discovered as well. Decades later, in 1965, author of The Mineral Resources of the Sea J.L. Mero wrote that it should become possible to harvest these materials in about 20 years, should technology develop at its then current pace. His estimate was slightly off.

Cross-section view of a manganese nodule (Copyright: World Ocean Review)

Even though it took longer than expected, it is an undertaking which might potentially be very profitable, so the idea wasn’t abandoned. An Australian-Canadian company called Nautilus Minerals has set their eyes on mining the ocean floor (in depths of 400 – 5000 meter) ever since the 90s. The company which describes itself as an “underwater mineral exploration company” produces the mining equipment to exploits these mineral deposits. Most recently they have reached an agreement for mining rights in the coast before Papua New Guinea.

The Coast of Papua New Guinea (Copyright: Collusion)

An undertaking of this scale had been deemed impracticable in the past, but as the technology for oil drilling in the ocean has advanced, so has the technology for seabed mining. Nautilus Minerals not too long ago revealed their ocean floor mining equipment, which weigh anywhere from 220 to 340 U.S. tons – and will leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Another reason for the delay in seabed mining, besides technological development, have been the prices for the metals. These have been unstable in the past, but now have stabilized and overall risen since 2008. In fact, since these metals are needed to produce our everyday technology many metals are now in higher demand than ever before.

Seafloor Production Equipment made by Nautical Minerals (Copyright: Nautical Minerals)

As optimistic Nautilus Minerals is about this venture, the reality of seabed mining poses a number of problems. With seabed mining we are intruding and disturbing an eco-system which we know close to nothing about. As Richard Page, ocean campaigner for Greenpeace said: “The deep ocean is not yet mapped or explored and so the potential loss of fauna and biospheres from mining is not yet understood.” Nautilus Minerals assumption that the destroyed fauna will recover easily enough (even though there is no precedent) ignores larger problems, namely the scale of destruction and the waste and freed minerals which will contaminate the water during and after the process. In fact, scientists studying this issue recommend that further explorations of the deep sea and especially the hypothermal vent ecosystems (the places where the hot water erupts from the ocean floor) need to take place. Only this way we can estimate the destructive impact of commercial seabed mining.

Seafloor Production Equipment made by Nautical Minerals to exploit mineral deposits in the ocean (Copyright: Nautical Minerals)

This is not a local matter for PNG, but international one since most of these metal deposits are located in international waters. That means these eras fall within the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was established by the UN in 1994 specifically to regulate mining activities in the ocean. While the ISA’s 36-member council also regulates budgets and give out grants to fund ocean explorations, they are the ones who enforce the Law of the Sea. The Law of the Sea is not the working title for the upcoming Aquaman movie, but a codified international law established in the UN convention. The Law of the Sea grants countries the right to explore and exploit mineral deposits in their own maritime zones. However international law, like the protection of the environment, should outweigh the Law of the Sea. This is especially important since many affected countries do not actually have any national regulations of their own regarding seabed mining.

The International Seabed Authority is part of the United Nations. Here Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources Godfrey Oliphant addresses SADC seminar on International Seabed Authority (Copyright: DIRCO)

One would assume that the ISA would have similar reservations about seabed mining like WWF and Greenpeace, but ISA officially stated that “This is a very exciting opportunity and we are looking forward to learning from the tests of the new machine, which is a world first and should give us some valuable insights into technical feasibility and environmental impact.” In fact criticism on the endeavors of Nautilus Minerals and similar companies have merely been mentioned on a side note in most big media coverage.

A sample of rocks harvested from the ocean floor (Copyright: Nautical Minerals)

In theory, many coastal nations (many of them comparatively poor) could in make massive profits with seabed mining, this is true. However, history has taught us that owing natural resources does not automatically mean the wealth will come to that same nation. More often than not they are getting exploited by wealthier nations just like their natural resources. One large upfront payment by the company to the coastal nations will not benefit these nations in the long run. They are however left with a potentially irreversibly damaged ocean. This and a common lack of taxation laws concerning the exploitation of these minerals (as an academic noted in a case study with Kiribati)  means nations will miss out on the wealth foreign companies will acquire in their stead. Another issue is that a large majority of these mineral deposits are in international waters which is the “Heritage of Mankind” (according to the Law of the Sea) including the profits made by exploiting them – but how this is supposed to work in practice, no one knows.

Distribution of some minerals in our oceans, most of which lie in international waters (Copyright: World Ocean Review)

We cannot deny that we need the metals we can find at the ocean floor, which harbors a majority of the natural resources found on this earth. However, to disrupt an ecosystem we know nothing about is irresponsible, short-sighted and on the long run uneconomic. One has to question if it is really worth it to destroy a largely unexplored environment to start an unsustainable practice which will only lead to the enrichment of the already wealthy.






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