Nautilus paints a grim picture of the future for Pacific island nations

Arrogant Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals does not even acknowledge the widespread opposition to its mining plans from church groups, landowners, MPs and civil society groups across the Pacific…

Deep sea mining is the future in Papua New Guinea

The world’s first deep-sea mine will open in 2018 in the waters off Papua New Guinea, with purpose-built machinery to extract precious metals from the sea bed

The Telegraph UK

In the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea (PNG), at a project known as Solwara 1, Nautilus Minerals has been granted the first lease to mine the deep sea for metals.In to the deep: mining below sea level is being attempted for the first time in 2018 with subsea robotics

With scarcity in resources around the world and countries needing more and more metals to sustain everyday life, mining the ocean floor is being looked at as a way to meet this demand.

Nautilus holds approximately 450,000 km2 of highly prospective exploration acreage in the western Pacific – in PNG, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga, as well as in international waters in the eastern Pacific.

Nautilus Minerals has been given a mining licence by the PNG government for its Solwara 1 site, and production will begin in 2018.

Advances in technology and the development of a legislative framework by the International Seabed Authority have made what was once thought of as impossible a reality.

Mike Johnston, CEO at Nautilus Minerals, says: “Technology offshore has exploded within the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry is spending $300-$400billion a year on offshore petroleum technology. We are using those lessons.

“We have had all of this potential. The technological improvements we have seen over the last 40 or 50 years have allowed us to keep going into deeper and deeper water.”

Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), which has been developing technologies for the subsea oil and gas sector since the 1980s, will be providing the vehicles to be used for the mine.

Mike Jones, managing director at SMD, says: “We have worked closely with Nautilus to develop three vehicles that will be remotely operated to extract and collect minerals from the mine. There are significant challenges to create a mining system that will reliably operate more than a mile deep on a seafloor terrain of peaks and valleys. We have taken machinery used daily in land mining and tunnelling and married it with our know-how in subsea robotics.

“The individual machines weigh about the same as 20 London buses. Each is designed to carry out the specific tasks to build the mine-site roads and benches; extract the ore through cutting; and then deliver it to a huge subsea pump that brings it to the surface. The operation of the machines is directed from a control centre on the vessel. Here, pilots and co-pilots monitor and control each vehicle using the sonar and camera images that are relayed from each vehicle via an umbilical link.”

Resources being mined on land are becoming scarcer. The demand for copper is doubling every 15 to 20 years, as countries such as China and India industrialise.

Preliminary discoveries have shown that resources on the seafloor are enormous. Johnston says: “Why would we want to continue to stress our planet and try to feed the world from the 30 per cent of the planet we can inhabit and ignore the other 70 per cent? That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

“Looking at the ocean, there are very large deposits of seafloor massive sulphides (SMSs), copper, nickel, cobalt and polymetallic nodules. And they are very high-grade compared with land-based deposits. On land the copper grade is now on average 0.6 per cent.

“SMS deposits have copper grades alone of nearly eight per cent, plus they contain around five or six grams of gold, which is a higher grade than most gold mines on land. Then if you look at the nodules, the deposits have grades of more than one per cent copper and more than one per cent nickel, 26 per cent manganese, and nearly 0.3 per cent cobalt. There is more copper on the sea floor than all the reserves on land.”

As this is the first commercial deep-sea mining project, Nautilus has been receiving interest from governments, authorities and other companies to see how it can be done environmentally safely and economically.

Johnston says: “The trick is to do it right, which is what we are trying to do. We have been watched very closely and most people you talk to will tell you we are doing it right.”

Johnston explains the carbon footprint of deep-sea mining is smaller than on land. He says: “We are going to great lengths to make it, environmentally, one of the smallest footprints of any operation anywhere in the world.

“There is only so much recycling we can do, and there is only so much we can do on land. If mines get bigger, the footprints are getting even more enormous, the strip ratios are getting higher and higher. With seafloor mining, the footprints are very small and it is highly scalable. Once you do the first one and learn the lessons, the next one will be even better and then you will be able to do debt finance and people will want to be able to provide that finance.”

Countries in the western Pacific want to know more about the project as a way of helping to sustain their development.

“We are talking to a lot of governments in the western Pacific – smaller nations which are interested in it because they do not have any other opportunities,” Johnston says. “They only have a bit of fishing and that is about it.

“Some of these countries do not even have a tourism industry as they are too remote. Exporting resources on the sea-floor is something they are interested in doing, so long as it is done right. A lot of them are watching and speaking to the PNG government to try to learn about it.

“The PNG government is a very supportive partner for us, and over the last six months they have worked really hard to get these final deals secured, bring us into production and make it happen.”

In partnership with SMD, Nautilus Minerals is pioneering the development of undersea mining. Governments, authorities and companies are already looking to it for guidance on how deep-sea extraction can be achieved safely and economically.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Financial returns, Human rights, Pacific region, Papua New Guinea

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