MAREX | The Maritime Executive
The Republic of Vanuatu has commenced a national consultation program on a draft Deep Sea Minerals Policy.
Past studies in Vanuatu’s waters have revealed the presence of massive seafloor sulfide deposits within its exclusive economic zone, which could contain significant quantities of copper, gold, zinc, silver and other commercially viable minerals. The presence of such minerals could present a potential economic opportunity for Vanuatu if deep sea mining activity is properly conducted and balanced with appropriate environmental, legal and financial management.
The draft Policy sets out Vanuatu’s vision and strategic goals in relation to its deep sea minerals, and will form the basis for future drafting of laws in line with the policy. The draft policy has been prepared by the Ministry of Lands with advice from the Deep Sea Minerals (DSM) Project: a partnership between the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the European Union (EU). The DSM Project works to assist 15 Pacific Island countries to improve governance and management of their deep-sea mineral resources, including through the development of national policies and laws.
The DSM Project places great emphasis on the importance of a consultative approach, and encourages all governments to involve concerned citizens in decisions that may affect natural resources and the environment. The DSM Project is providing technical and financial support to the government of Vanuatu to conduct this important consultation exercise and will continue to work with Vanuatu’s multi-stakeholder National Offshore Minerals Committee, which includes the Vanuatu Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (VANGO), as they progress this work.
While PNG made news for being the first country in the world to issue a licence for deep-sea mining, more and more Pacific Islands countries are getting approaches from companies interested in exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals. The questions that arise are—what are the risks? What are the benefits? What do Pacific Islanders need to know to make the right decisions here?
Many islanders have learnt, the hard way, the consequences of not knowing what they were getting into with mining and unsustainable development—phosphate mining on Nauru perhaps being the most dramatic example of a mining boom…and then a bust. Is deep-sea mining different? Time is critical, says Dr Jimmie Rodgers, Director-General, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC): “Is it urgent? Is it important now? Yes! Because multinationals are not going to wait to give Pacific Islands countries time to look at all the studies, environmental analysis, before they come in—they push in.”
Over 300 exploration licences have been granted in Pacific Islands countries like Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga. In the Pacific, most of the mineral deposits considered profitable to mine are known as Seafloor Massive Sulfides (SMS). Some countries have manganese nodules and cobalt-rich crusts on the seafloor, mining of which are likely to have greater environmental impacts than SMS. For instance, nodules, small lumpy concretions that form over millions of years as metals from the seawater and seafloor sediments precipitate around a core, which may be a shark tooth or rock fragment. Nodules cover a significant area of the sea floor and contain minerals such as manganese, copper, nickel and cobalt.
Minerals are also found around hydrothermal vents—places where very hot fluid (around 400 degrees Celsius) that carries minerals comes into contact with cold sea water (around two degrees Celsius), resulting in the precipitation and deposition of minerals on the seafloor. The “chimneys” that form around the vents are the direct result of the accumulation of minerals on the seafloor over time. Companies are now chasing these natural phenomena in the Pacific Islands region and other parts of the world ocean.
Deep-sea minerals have a use in everything from mobile phones to metal alloys, renewable energy technologies and batteries. Papua New Guinea’s Nautilus minerals venture was halted in 2012 after disagreement over government’s equity and benefits. Meanwhile, projects now go ahead in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand and other countries. The companies and scientists are quick to point out the consequences of sea mining versus land mining are different—land mining can produce more than 99 percent waste and less than one percent ore. Waste materials when exposed for an extended period of time produce acid by the reaction of sulfide minerals with fresh water and oxygen, as well as liberated heavy metals that can pollute the environment.
In SMS mining, sulfide in waste materials cannot react with the alkaline seawater hence acid cannot form in the ocean. SMS due to the small size of the mineral rich deposits do not produce as much waste as land mining, or leakage of minerals into the environment. On the other hand, as deep-sea mining is new, some are skeptical of claims it will have minimal impact on the environment.
As part of the work of SOPAC (the Applied Geoscience & Technology Division of SPC) which provides technical support and advice to Pacific Islands countries, the division has been assisting countries to improve technical capacity, community involvement and government management of deep sea mineral resources. One of the elements of the Pacific Deep-Sea Minerals Project, started in 2011 with funding from the European Union, is that it recommends national policies and laws before any mining takes place.