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.

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