Earth Matters Radio feature on Deep Sea Mining

Earth Matters, a radio program with 3CR Melbourne, which highlights grassroots environmental and social justice issues presents a feature on Deep Sea Mining;

On this edition of Earth Matters we hear about the new deep sea mining project, solwara 1, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. We speak to Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, author of Out of our Depth, and Wence Magun, from the Stewards of the Sea organisation about the potential impacts of deep sea mining on precious marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.File Download (30:02 min / 14 MB) Produced by Jessie Boylan.

Is the ocean the next frontier for mining?

Nauru is a step ahead of Australia in its exploration of the sea for minerals and precious metals.

Tied to us by a turbulent history, Nauru is often a good place to look for a lesson on Australia.

Last century we spread the island across our farms in the form of superphosphate until Nauru’s mineral wealth was exhausted.

We saw its mismanaged fortune disappear, and made its people AFL tragics. Now our concern with them is whether to recycle a dubious money-maker in the shape of a detention centre.

Mainly, it would seem, Nauruans gets things done to them. What a change then that Nauru has suddenly vaulted into a futuristic new industry ahead of Australia.

Little noticed in Canberra, large sections of the global oceans are being divided up for minerals exploration. Big transnational companies and economic powers nations are involved.

Lest you think this is something for, say, next century, consider this. One company, Nautilus Minerals, is most of the way to raising $100 million to become the world’s first deep sea miner of copper and gold at its Solwara project in Papua New Guinea in 2013.

Nautilus is no one’s pipe dream. Shareholders include the giant diversified miner, Anglo American, and Gazmetall, a subsidiary of a big Russian iron ore producer. New on the register is a wealthy Omani mining company.

Nautilus reached an agreement with PNG to begin this work, and much potential seafloor mining territory lies within such national marine jurisdictions – either 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones, or the continental shelves extending beyond the EEZ’s.

But outside these limits the high seas are regarded as the common heritage of mankind, and control is the job of the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). It governs the release of big exploration blocks, for which demand is surprisingly strong.

For example, China last month won the right to explore for mineral-rich polymetallic sulphides in a 10,000 square kilometre block of the south-west Indian Ocean ridge. Russia likewise is pegging out an exploratory claim in the mid-Atlantic.

The ISA regulates this, allocating large swathes of specially reserved high seas areas on long leases to national agencies, often acting for commercial interests.

Which is where Nauru comes in.

At the ISA’s last meeting, Nauru Ocean Resources, a government-owned company, successfully applied for a 74,830-kilometre block of Pacific high seas in a 15-year contract for prospecting and exploration.

It was the second attempt at completing the deal. Success was ensured when the ISA was satisfied all profits would go to Nauruan educational and environmental foundations.

So where does Australia stand on this new frontier?

We claim to control 13.6 million square kilometres of ocean, among the largest national marine territories on the planet. Clearly we are also one of the great miners.

The Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism said Australia would “continue to follow with interest” international developments in commercial deep sea mining, including involvement in the ISA.

But there are no offshore minerals exploration titles in Australia, a departmental spokeswoman said.

Greenpeace International has turned its mind to the question, concerned it will mean the effective “strip-mining” of vulnerable ecosystems that we know next to nothing about.

Yet the Minerals Council of Australia had nothing to say. “None of our members are involved in this activity,” a spokesman said.

Indeed, why bother, when we’ve got so much of the stuff on the land?

Ask the Nauruans.

Pacific islands seek protection from deep-sea mining

[MANILA] Surging interest in deep-sea metal mining in the Pacific Ocean has prompted island nations to work together to develop the scientific capacity needed to protect their environment.

The move follows the discovery of large deposits of rare-earth metals such as scandium on the seabed near Hawaii, Tahiti and other locations in the eastern South Pacific and central North Pacific. The latest discovery was reported by Japanese researchers in Nature Geoscience earlier this month (3 July).

Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals is already planning a deep-sea copper and gold mine at the Solwara 1 site near Papua New Guinea from 2013. And last week (19 July), the UN’s International Seabed Authority approved applications from China and Russia, and companies sponsored by Nauru and Tonga, to explore deposits around hydrothermal vents in the eastern central Pacific Ocean.

But inadequate international legal safeguards for such mining are causing concern that it could damage the unique biodiversity surrounding deep-sea vents, which spew hot, sulphurous water into the ocean, forming deposits that contain economically important metallic minerals.

Member countries of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) established a Deep Sea Minerals project in March under its Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) and met last month (6–8 June) to begin developing policy and legislation.

The project is funded by a grant of €7.7 million (US$11.1 million) from the European Union and will be implemented by 2014 in 15 Pacific states.

Fiji-based SOPAC provides earth sciences information and services to SPC countries and is funded by member states and donors.

The project’s leader, Akuila Tawake, said there has been plenty of research into deep-sea minerals over the past 40 years, but much more is needed to understand the likely impacts of mining and to protect the environment.

“The need to carry out the precautionary approach came out [of the meeting] loud and clear,” he told SciDev.Net.

Tawake added that several countries had approached SOPAC for technical advice relating to the exploration and mining of seabed minerals.

Under a draft plan, the project will first develop a regional framework and then help countries develop policy and legislation over the next four years. It will also map the information on deep-sea minerals, Tawake said.

Michael Lodge, legal counsel for the International Seabed Authority, based in Jamaica, said: “There are no regulations addressing waste removal in seabed mining since nobody has done it yet, so it’s very hard to regulate until we know exactly what technology is going to be used.”

He added that standards must be the same for all countries, and that there are many questions to resolve.

Community leaders in Papua New Guinea have condemned the Solwara project, claiming that it could have many unknown consequences.


Joel D. Adriano

Additional Information

Conference; Mining and Mining Policy in the Pacific History

Mining and Mining Policy in the Pacific History, Challenges and Perspectives, Nouméa (New Caledonia), 22–25 November 2011

Mining in the Pacific is characterised by its diversity and by the role it has played in the historical development of the region. Often an issue of major economic, social and environmental import, mining has continued throughout the colonial and postcolonial eras, with widely divergent political implications and impacts. Mining activity, which comes in long and irregular cycles, varies from country to country according to market dynamics, the technology used and the minerals in question.

The issue of mining is not as crucially important at all times and in all places, and the activity gives rise, during its ‘cycles’, to periods of tension and prosperity, depending on the resource in question, the geographical location of the mine, local added value and the scope of projects, the mining techniques used, the ways in which revenue is distributed, and the positioning and strategies of local communities, companies, states and local authorities.

Managing the benefits and risks and impacts of mining, beyond merely dealing with mining rent and the fluctuating price of raw materials, can become a major public policy issue. The trend is particularly marked where the mining sector is of key importance in the country’s political economy, as it is in Papua New Guinea for instance, and in New Caledonia, which is strengthening its commitment to the metallurgical industry with the ongoing construction of two big processing plants. Everywhere, local and national authorities, local populations and their representatives, specialised non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and also companies, are trying to manage an increasingly complex institutional world.

The scope of these actors’ power to act and make decisions may be local, national or international, and new links are bringing together networks, communities, and public and private actors, blurring the boundaries between the different spheres. Who decides whether or not to get involved in mining is another issue.

Mining is a matter of money, power and resources. It puts the future of communities at risk. It is often a source of conflict and, in this context, information constitutes a strategic asset. Although data do exist on mining sites, they often remain in the ownership of companies or governments. Likewise, academic reports and articles on mining are often limited to specific sites or to the history of a country or a region. Sometimes they focus only on a specific activity (such as extraction), whereas a wider understanding of the industry (including markets) would enable us to grasp the interplay of local activities which otherwise appear unconnected. Information is seldom shared or discussed. Several worlds seem to be developing in parallel: that of mining, that of government authorities and that of civil society, each with its own vision and its own truths; and the decisions of each, taken in isolation, can lead to uninformed communities and opacity. Likewise, the links between the different levels of operation within the mining sector, from the mine site to the international regulations and strategies, are far from perfect. Mining is a complex issue, and as none of the different actors alone possesses all the necessary knowledge, it is only by bringing them together, sharing information, and discussing the issue from a range of perspectives that understanding and viable action can be achieved.

This conference adopts a novel stance in that its express aim is to create a forum for dialogue among actors who often have conflicting interests. The call for papers is, therefore, open to mining-sector professionals from the whole of the industry—from extraction to metallurgy and its applications—as well as to representatives of communities that live near mines, local and international associations, State representatives, local governments and local authorities, and also to researchers from different disciplines.