Tag Archives: Trans-Tasman Resources

Drive to Mine the Deep Sea Raises Concerns Over Impacts

Armed with new high-tech equipment, mining companies are targeting vast areas of the deep ocean for mineral extraction. But with few regulations in place, critics fear such development could threaten seabed ecosystems that scientists say are only now being fully understood.

Mike Ives | Environment 360

hydrothermal vent

Hydrothermal vents create rich mineral deposits that companies are eager to exploit. Nautilus Minerals

For years, the idea of prospecting for potentially rich deposits of minerals on the ocean floor was little more than a pipe dream. Extractive equipment was not sophisticated or cost-effective enough for harsh environments thousands of feet beneath the ocean’s surface, and mining companies were busy exploring mineral deposits on land. But the emergence of advanced technologies specifically designed to plumb the remote seabed— along with declining mineral quality at many existing terrestrial mines — is nudging the industry closer to a new and, for some environmentalists and ocean scientists, worrying frontier.

More than two-dozen permits have been issued for mineral prospecting in international waters. And in April, after years of false starts, a Canadian mining company signed an agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea to mine for copper and gold in its territorial waters. That company, Nautilus Minerals, plans to begin testing its equipment next year in European waters, according to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a regulatory agency established in 1994 under the auspices of the United Nations. A Nautilus spokesman, John Elias, said the plan is to award a construction contract in November for a specialized mining vessel. “All other equipment has been manufactured and is in final assembly,” he wrote in an email.

Chief among critics’ concerns is that seabed mining will begin without comprehensive regulatory oversight and environmental review. They say dredging or drilling the seafloor could potentially obliterate deep-sea ecosystems and kick up immense sediment plumes, which could temporarily choke off the oxygen supply over large areas. And powerful international companies, they add, could take advantage of the lax or non-existent review and enforcement capabilities in many small island nations of the Pacific Ocean — precisely where seabed mineral deposits are thought to be highly concentrated.

“Communities are concerned that our governments don’t know enough about the ecology or the implications” of seabed mining, said Maureen Penjueli, coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalization, a Fiji-based non-profit that has tracked seabed prospecting in the region since 2009. “We haven’t seen much benefit from land-based mining, let alone fisheries or tourism — and here we are entering a new frontier.”

drawing showing seabed mining operationBut industry proponents say no extractive industry is free of environmental impacts, and that only a fraction of the seabed covered by exploration permits would actually be mined. Companies and governments, they say, are carefully studying both deep-sea ecosystems and emerging mining technologies in order to prevent or mitigate ecological damage.

“We are committed to using ecologically sound, deep-seabed mineral recovery methods,” said Jennifer Warren, the regulatory director at UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin’s British arm. “Toward that end, we are working closely with research institutions and scientists to understand any potential environmental impact of commercial recovery efforts.”

Gaining that kind of understanding is a work in progress. As late as the 1950s, the deep sea was still viewed as a dark and barren place with little or no biodiversity worthy of protection. But in the 1960s, new sampling technologies prompted the discovery of new deep-sea species, and by the late 1970s, scientists had discovered bacteria that could thrive amid hydrothermal vents in deep, volcanically active regions. Those bacteria are turning out to be food for a number of “beautiful and strange” invertebrates, according to Cindy Van Dover, a marine biologist at Duke University. By the early 1990’s, scientists were speculating that the deep sea played host to as many as 10 million species of small invertebrates.

It is amid this awakening to deep-sea biodiversity that interest in seabed mineral mining is heating up. While investing in seabed-mining operations remains comparatively expensive, “the equation is turning,” according to Michael W. Lodge, legal counsel with the ISA. “People are starting to think that upfront investment is worth it for the long term payoff.” The ISA has issued seven new seabed exploration permits this year, Lodge noted, bringing its global total to 26, stretching across an area of international waters roughly the size of Mexico.

Nautilus Minerals’ planned operation in the territorial waters off Papua New Guinea, however, is widely expected to be the world’s first commercial-scale deep-seabed mine. Several neighboring countries have begun to issue export permits — and in some cases, are drafting seabed-specific mining legislation. New Zealand has also been weighing applications for two seabed mines in its waters, which would target iron sands and phosphate, respectively.

In an email message, James Hein, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the president of the International Marine Minerals Society, a non-profit organization linking industry, government, and academic institutions, suggested that the global rush to mine so-called “rare earth” elements – which are used to manufacture cellular phones, wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars and other applications – is a key driver in moving the industry forward.

Other sought-after resources include sulfide minerals — a source of precious metals like silver, gold and copper — that accumulate around gaps in the seafloor where chemical-rich fluids leak into the ocean at temperatures nearing 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The Nautilus Minerals project in Papua New Guinea plans to mine a sulfide deposit by cutting the seabed with a remote-control machine that is 26 feet tall, 42 feet wide, and 55 feet long. According to the company, the ore will be extracted with an “associated suction mouth” and pumped to the surface — a distance of about a mile.

Manganese nodules — palm-sized chunks of rock containing copper, nickel and cobalt — are also prized, and in shallower areas, mining companies plumb for rocks containing phosphates, a key ingredient in agricultural fertilizers. “The process itself is essentially a large vacuum cleaner on the end of a hose,” said Chris Castle of Chatham Rock Phosphate, the company behind the phosphate-mining application pending in New Zealand.

Here and elsewhere, however, environmental battle lines are now being drawn. In June, a New Zealand court, citing environmental concerns, riled the mining industry by rejecting a proposed plan for an iron sands mine about 15 miles off the coast of the country’s North Island. The company behind the proposed mine, Trans-Tasman Resources, says it has spent over seven years and more than $50 million studying the potential impacts. An appeals hearing is scheduled for next March.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand advocacy group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining has argued that the mines would pose risks to iconic mammals — including blue whales and Maui’s dolphins — that outweigh any potential economic benefits.

Castle, Chatham Rock Phosphate’s project director, said the environmental impacts on the seabed would be far less than those that fishing trawlers regularly inflict. But Les Watling, a biology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, argued that sediment plumes from the phosphate mine could stress or kill an entire species of local coral, Goniocorella dumosa, leading to wider impacts because the coral’s branches are a habitat for smaller organisms. And Liz Slooten, a zoologist at New Zealand’s Otago University, said the sounds from seabed mining in that area could damage or destroy the hearing of blue whales, causing them to flee and perhaps even beach themselves.

Ultimately, the exact impacts of deep-sea mining in New Zealand or beyond won’t be entirely clear until the mines actually open, said Phil Weaver, a geologist and the coordinator of a three-year project called Managing Impacts of Deep Sea Resource Exploitation, which launched in 2013 with a $11.4 million grant from the European Commission. “We need to put in place some criteria and protocols which will at least try to control those impacts based on available information.”

In March, the ISA began soliciting public comments for its first-ever Mineral Exploitation Code. A voluntary environmental code drafted by the International Marine Minerals Society in 2001 will inform the new ISA document, according to Hein, the society’s president. David Billett of Britain’s National Oceanography Centre, who sits on the ISA’s legal and technical commission, said environmental matters are “regularly raised” at the committee’s meetings, and that the ISA has strict guidelines for the sort of ecological data that prospective miners must collect along seabeds.

Still, individual countries are free to choose their own regulatory approaches to seabed mining, and permits in the South Pacific have already been issued in waters that cover an area the size of Iran, according to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an international coalition of non-profit groups. A 2010 study in the journal Marine Policy said the “absence of a clearly defined regulatory regime” in international waters was encouraging seabed prospectors to pursue projects in territorial waters, where legal risks were smaller. It named Tonga and its neighbor Papua New Guinea as two countries that would struggle to balance economic development against the need to protect marine ecosystems.

Environmental groups are watching carefully as the Nautilus Minerals project gathers speed in Papua New Guinea. The company says its mine will not contaminate coral or fisheries, and Jonathan Copley, a prominent marine ecologist at Britain’s University of Southampton, has said that the project’s design appears to be environmentally sensitive. Yet Nautilus and other international firms have other mining applications scattered across the South Pacific, and Van Dover of Duke University said scientists’ biggest concern is the cumulative impacts of multiple mines opening in the same area.

“A single mining event — at the scale of a single hydrothermal vent field — would be no worse than the most extreme natural disturbance,” Van Dover said in an email message. “But multiple mining events in a region in a short period of time — i.e. within a decade — would be unwise without good environmental knowledge of the ability of the system to recover.”

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NZ Seabed mining appeal set for March next year

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Pattrick Smellie | National Business Review

Would-be ironsands miner TransTasman Resources has been instructed by the High Court to come up with a far shorter, more focused appeal against the rejection of its application to mine the seabed in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

At a chambers hearing on Tuesday, which media were allowed to attend, Justice Denis Clifford gave TTR’s counsel, Hugh Rennie QC, until Friday, Oct. 17 to file an amended statement of claim against the finding to turn down the project in June by a Decision-Making Committee appointed by the Environmental Protection Authority, while setting aside five days for hearings from March 9 next year.

The application was the first for seabed mining under new legislation governing economic activity in New Zealand’s vast offshore EEZ and came as a shock to the minerals sector, which was watching the TTR application intensely after the company spent seven years and some $60 million on technical feasibility, environmental impact and other studies.

The procedural hearing for TTR came just two days ahead of today’s start to hearings by another DMC into a marine consent application by Chatham Rock Phosphate to mine phosphate nodules on the Chatham Rise, more than 400 kilometres to the east of Christchurch.

The CRP bid is opposed by many of the same fishing industry and environmental groups as opposed the TTR application.

On the TTR statement of claim, Justice Clifford urged Rennie to “give us your five best” grounds for appeal and to “try to sift it”, or the hearing risked running beyond the one day set down for TTR to set out its arguments.

“Can’t it be made bit more succinct and its structure a little clearer?” the judge said.

Based on Rennie’s comments to the court, it appears one of the fundamental issues raised will be whether the EEZ legislation allows or requires a DMC to be “investigative” or to make its decisions “on the papers before it”.

TTR has spoken in the past about expecting a negotiated process at the hearings, where concerns about environmental impacts and options for their mitigation could be teased through – a process the company says did not occur.

Rennie said the most recent filings on the appeal made clear the company was not seeking an entirely new hearing, but to have the decision sent back to the EPA.

Justice Clifford told Rennie he needed to identify “legal theories” relating to the EPA’s investigative obligations.

“They need to be found in the Act and particularised,” he said.

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Iwi rallies to anti-seabed mining cause

Laurel Stowell | Wanganui Chronicle

OUTSPOKEN: The Ngati Ruanui team has its say at Trans-Tasman Resources' marine application hearing.

OUTSPOKEN: The Ngati Ruanui team has its say at Trans-Tasman Resources’ marine application hearing.

South Taranaki tribe Ngati Ruanui has spent too long opposing seabed mining offshore from Patea to stop now.

It’s joining with Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) to support the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) decision to refuse Trans-Tasman Resources’ application to mine offshore in the South Taranaki Bight.

Te Runanga o Ngati Ruanui Trust chief executive officer Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the iwi had applied to be part of the High Court case as Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) appeals that decision. Yesterday was the deadline for registering to take part.

She was hoping others would want to support the decision of the EPA committee – other iwi perhaps, or fisheries groups. Being part of the case could be expensive, and the parties might be able to get together and share different aspects of it, and the costs. She was unsure what would be covered in the High Court, but if it called on different opinions or advice Ngati Ruanui wanted to be there to give its view. It had lawyers ready, and had extensive experience on resource exploitation matters. It was also handling the ironsand issue within the Iwi Chairs’ Forum.

The iwi was bitterly disappointed that TTR had appealed the decision.

“At the EPA hearing we outlined cultural and environmental concerns and expressed concern at TTR’s poor consultation,” Mrs Ngarewa-Packer said.

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KASM joins NZ seabed mining appeal fight

KASM will join the fight to oppose an appeal by Trans Tasman Resources to get consent for its seabed mining proposal.

NZCity News

Ocean campaigner KASM is trying to shaft an appeal by a mining company which plans to extract 50 million tonnes of black sand from the Taranaki sea bed.

Trans Tasman Resources is appealing the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision in June to reject its application to mine ironsands over the next 20 years.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining has announced it will fight the appeal alongside the EPA in the High Court.

“We are extremely disappointed the company has lodged this appeal, and we are determined to fight this to the end,” said KASM chairman Phil McCabe.

Trans Tasman Resources spent $60 million over seven years developing a proposal to mine black sand which it said would increase GDP by $240 million annually.

But the EPA denied the application after two months of hearings, saying evidence to support it was uncertain and inadequate.

KASM celebrated the win, labelling it a victory for the 4800 iwi, fishers, surfers, divers and other locals who had made submissions against the proposal.

TTR said it was “extremely disappointed with the decision” and believed the project could be achieved in an environmentally sustainable way.

Within days the company lodged an appeal in the High Court in Wellington.

Both KASM and the Green Party have been critical of National’s decision to advocate for the proposal and grant TTR $25 million.

Mr McCabe said the proposal still appeared to have backing from the government, which has now issued permits to companies to mine black sand down the North Island’s west coast.

Many of the permits operate in the habitat of the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin, one of the world’s most endangered dolphins.

“The government has backed the wrong horse here,” he said.

“It has implemented new legislation to support activities like seabed mining, pledged an up to $25 million taxpayer subsidy to the foreign-owned company, yet now their own EPA has decided that there were too many uncertainties to grant consent.”

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Mining company appeals NZ EPA decision

Radio New Zealand

Trans Tasman Resources wants to mine iron sands off the coast of Taranaki. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Trans Tasman Resources wants to mine iron sands off the coast of Taranaki. Photo: PHOTO NZ

A mining company has filed an appeal in the Wellington High Court after being refused consent to mine ironsands off the coast of Taranaki.

Trans-Tasman Resources proposed to mine for iron ore in an area of seabed 22 kms off the coast of Patea, but was turned down by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) on 18 June.

The application to the EPA was to mine 50 million tonnes of seabed material from the South Taranaki Bight.

The authority’s decision-making committee says the rejection was based on uncertainty about the scope and significance of the potential environmental effects, and existing fishing and iwi interests.

A Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) spokesperson says the appeal against the authority’s decision to decline its marine consents for mining was filed on Tuesday – the deadline for an appeal.

The company’s initial proposal drew 4800 submissions, with 99 percent opposed.

Disappointed but not surprised

Opponents of the TTR bid are disappointed, but not surprised that the company has lodged an appeal against the decision.

Chair of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) Phil McCabe says the appeal is upsetting and ignores the will of the majority of New Zealanders.

“They were given a decision, it was a comprehensive decision (by) the people of New Zealand – 99 percent of submissions opposed their application.

“They’re taking it a step further, they have a right to do that but we’ll see how it plays out,” Mr McCabe says.

A Trans-Tasman Resources spokesperson says as the appeal is now before the courts, no further comments will be made.

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Seabed mining fight continues in NZ

Elton Smallman | Waikato Times

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Celebratory drinks turned sour for ocean campaigners after Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) said it would appeal a decision against a massive iron-sands mining operations off the Taranaki Coast.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) threw a party two weeks ago for supporters of the successful campaign to see off the mining giant.

However, KASM chairman Phil McCabe woke yesterday to news worthy of a painful hangover.

“We were 60 or 70 per cent expecting it,” McCabe said.

“They are a hungry bunch and they’ll do anything they can to get what they want.”

KASM’s two-year battle with the New Zealand-based mining company had taken a toll on members, but McCabe said they would pick themselves up and start again.

“We all love the ocean and we don’t want to see the ocean degraded and that’s what gives us our energy. We’ll follow it through to the end.”

TTR applied for marine consent for an annual harvest of 50 million tonnes of iron-rich sediment over 20 years, 36 kilometres off the Patea Coast.

A floating processing plant would separate 5 million tonnes of iron ore concentrate for export and the remaining spoil, about 45 million tonnes, would be dumped back to the ocean bottom.

An Environment Protection Authority-appointed committee declined TTR’s application, citing inadequacies and uncertainty in TTR’s bid.

McCabe said a core group had put their lives on hold to fight TTR’s application and hundreds more helped. It had cost them money and time.

“I’ve put my business on the backburner for two years and put 40 or 50 per cent of my work life to address TTR’s proposal,” McCabe said.

“We haven’t invited this and yet it has cost us considerably.”

The decision-making committee’s finding had been comprehensive and the TTR application had not been up to speed, he said.

“The whole proposal is offensive and it’s taken a lot of time from people’s lives and caused a lot of undue stress and the company is keen on keeping that going.”

TTR’s board said it would appeal the EPA decision on its application to mine iron sands in the South Taranaki Bight.

The decision-making committee’s ruling could be appealed only on points of law, but TTR chief executive Tim Crossley did not disclose the reason behind TTR’s stance.

“We have now studied the decision in detail with the assistance of our advisers and experts, and are confident that there are strong grounds for a successful appeal,” he said.

TTR had already spent more than $60 million on exploration.

TTR’s objective was for substantial economic development of the region and to protect the environment, Crossley said.

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Miners seek to take the plunge

James Wilson | Financial Times (UK)

Construction of the largest machine - the 310-tonne Bulk Cutter - was completed in the UK

Construction of the largest machine – the 310-tonne Bulk Cutter

Nautilus Minerals hopes a trio of machines being assembled in the northeast of England will foment a mining revolution on the other side of the world.

The front of one of the 6m-high machines in subsea equipment maker SMD’s works near Newcastle upon Tyne has a huge roller-like device, covered in points like a medieval cudgel. This 310-tonne, ivory-white monster is Nautilus’s “bulk cutter” and the mining company hopes to deploy it, and other SMD machines, in an extreme environment: 1,600m below the Pacific Ocean, where it will tear through the seabed to mine gold and copper ore before pumping it to the surface.

Seabed mining has long been talked about as having the potential to change the global supply of many minerals. Nautilus’s machinery orders, and its search for a ship that will be the floating processing station for the ore that it mines, are a sign of its confidence that its project can meet the intended 2017 start date.

Canadian-listed Nautilus is “all the closer to making seafloor mining a reality”, said Mike Johnston, chief executive, when the bulk cutter was completed this year. It comes after Nautilus resolved a dispute with the government of Papua New Guinea, which owns 15 per cent of the project and can acquire a further 15 per cent.

But for all the excitement around seabed mining, this subsector of the resources industry continues to advance in fits and starts. Several decades of growing knowledge of the way mineral deposits have accumulated on ocean floors have still not yielded sustained efforts at exploitation by the world’s most experienced mining companies, while adventurous smaller operators have struggled to overcome financial and environmental concerns.

Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR), a New Zealand company, had its application to mine iron ore sands off the country’s coast rejected on environmental grounds last week. And while Namibia is one of the few nations familiar with seabed mining – diamonds have been mined offshore for 50 years – the same country last year put a moratorium in place over proposed seabed phosphate mining.

In the mineral-rich subsea areas far from land, where the International Seabed Authority – a UN organisation – is responsible for the award of mining exploration licences, progress in seabed mining has been disappointing, says Nii Allotey Odunton, secretary-general.

Thirteen years after the ISA began issuing licences – and with the first ones awarded expiring in 2016 – Mr Odunton wants more progress.

Significant resources lie on the seabed. Closer to land, meanwhile, some alluvial sands yield sufficient mineral deposits – as is the case with Namibian diamonds.

De Beers, the diamond company owned by Anglo American, mines these waters using “crawlers” on the seabed. Anglo is also a shareholder in Nautilus. Rising prices for many metals, and the falling quality of mineral deposits on land, make seabed deposits relatively attractive. In some cases seabed minerals are practically renewable, since they are extruded from the earth’s interior directly into the ocean through hydrothermal vents.

In the case of Nautilus’s project, the miner says its resources have a copper grade of 7 per cent. In contrast, copper mines on land today often deal with grades below 1 per cent.

But environmental opposition is often strong. Critics say ecosystems would be affected by noise, light and sediment. Rejecting TTR’s application as “premature”, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority said a sediment plume about 50km long and up to 20km wide could be created.

“The conditions proposed, while extensive, are not sufficient to give us the degree of confidence we needed to be able to grant consent,” the authority said. TTR had wanted to mine in water up to 45m deep about 30km off the coast using seabed crawlers similar to those deployed off Namibia.

A second New Zealand company, Chatham Rock Phosphate, wants authority approval for plans to mine phosphate in water 400m deep, 450km east of the country. “Our application cannot be compared with TTR’s. It is for a different mineral, in a very different marine environment using different extraction methods,” the company says.

Shontel Norgate, Nautilus’s chief financial officer, says seabed mining can be less intrusive than on land. “Not having to strip mountain tops or relocate communities – that becomes quite a compelling argument,” she says.

Even if environmental concerns can be overcome, much of the economics of seabed mining is guesswork because so little has been done before. That makes it almost impossible for seabed miners to talk about being able to access economically viable reserves, rather than simply mineral resources. That, in turn, makes debt financing for seabed mining hard to obtain. Nautilus’s plan is to rely on equity finance.

For such reasons, says the ISA’s Mr Odunton, it is important that deep sea mining starts to yield more tangible results so all participants can become more confident, rather than get bogged down in “years and years of marine research”.

Without more progress, drawing up a commonly accepted set of rules and accounting conventions to govern deep sea mining will be almost impossible, he says.

“We are trying to push many [of the concession holders] to undertake some pilot mining work,” he adds. “The biggest problem is nobody has ever done it before and everything becomes an assumption you are making . . . we know a heck of a lot more than we did before but I am trying to deal with the objective of mining profitably.”

Additional reporting by Chris Tighe

Fathoming out a resource-rich sea

Significant resources lie on the seabed, writes James Wilson. In deep seas, these are normally found in three environments:

Sea-floor massive sulphides Created by hydrothermal activity when very hot liquids are released on to the sea floor along mid-ocean ridges. They are most valuable for base metals such as copper as well as gold and silver.

Polymetallic nodules Lumps about the size of potatoes that contain minerals including manganese and iron. The most prospective zone is in the middle of the Pacific.

Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts Layers form on undersea mountains, most strategic for being rich in cobalt but also containing other minerals. Many prospective sites are in the Pacific.

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