Deep sea mining in doubt as new discoveries continue

The Deep Sea has once again returned to the lime light, this time in contrasting scenarios. First up, there is a lot of talk about Canadian mining company Nautilus minerals threatening to delay or worse cancel its operations in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where it was supposedly set to carry out the first ever deep sea mining project in the world for polymetalic sea floor massive sulfide deposits. The reason being that  the PNG  government is refusing to take up its 30% share of the project. According to a local report (in tok pisin)

“gavman itok Nautilus ino bihaenim gut sampla lo ol wok em i bin tok oraet long mekim, olsem na gavman ino laik bekim skel blong en long despla projek”…translating to  “the government claims that Nautilus has not complied with everything agreed on before, thats why the government does not want to be part of the project.”

Under the PNG mining act, the PNG government has to have a 30% stake in any mining operations in PNG. If this does not happen, mining licenses can not be issued. This decision has seen Nautilus shares fall up to 12% in the London stock exchange and share prices are continuing to fall.

Senior officials from the PNG government and Nautilus minerals are currently in meetings to solve the problem which if not solved in the next 10 days, would most probably end up in court.

So much for deep sea mining. What about the environment? Here are some of the common responses nautilus offers when addressing the environment; (quoting Mel Togolo)

“Firstly, you need to recognise that at Solwara 1, the natural environment at depth is naturally turbid because we have black smokers emitting plumes into the water,” he said,

“A few kilometres away, we have an active sub-sea volcano which is putting large quantities of plumes into the water column.

“Our operations will therefore have minimal impact on this natural environment.

“We’re not dealing with pristine clear waters here.

“You also need to note that this is very high grade material.

“That high grade also means that we can be quite surgical in the way we develop these deposits, so that the environmental impacts are minimal.

“At our first project, at Solwara 1, we will be mining a total surface area of about 0.11 square kilometres.”

So the water is not pristine and the techniques of developing these deposits can be quite surgical, but what if, just what if something goes wrong here? This point brings up the second point in this discussion. How much do we really know about the ocean floor to be sure we our actions will have minimal impacts on what lies below.

There is a common phrase among deep sea scientists that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean. As if to support this phrase, scientists from NIWA, a New Zealand based research and consultancy company have returned with 5000 samples and footage of never before seen underwater volcanoes in the waters off the Bay of Plenty and northeast along the Kermadec ridge. All these were collected from a 10,000 sqkm area over a three week cruise across four different undersea habitats; sea-mounts, hydrothermal vents, continental slopes and canyons.

The work is being done to improve improve understanding of the vulnerability of deep sea communities to human activities such as seabed drilling, fishing and mining. According to team leader, Dr Malcolm Clark, their trip confirmed that environments in the deep sea habitats varied in their characteristics, with communities of fauna differing even from other communities that were nearby. The implication is that exploitation of one seamount could have an adverse effect that is not the same as the sea-mount close by.

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