Henry Lazenby | Mining Weekly
Steel cutting for deep-sea mining pioneer Nautilus Minerals’ production support vessel has started last week, at the same time that environmentalists were ramping up protests against the project, citing a flawed environmental and social benchmarking analysis (ESBA) for the Solwara 1 copper/gold/zinc/silver project, in the Bismarck Sea.
Chinese shipyard of Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding expected to complete and deliver the vessel in December 2017, after which Nautilus and Papua New Guinea (PNG) joint-venture partner Eda Kopa (Solwara) would press the vessel into service during the first quarter of 2018 as a base for its seafloor operations planned at the project.
A ceremony took place at the shipyard on Friday to mark the start of steel cutting. Marine Assets Corporation (MAC) would own and provide the marine management of the production support vessel, which would be chartered to Nautilus.
“With the eyes of the world waiting to see the dawn of this new industry, we look forward to taking delivery of the vessel… Our objective remains to develop the world’s first commercial high-grade seafloor copper/gold project and launch the deep water seafloor resource production industry,” Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston commented in a statement on Monday.
Nautilus was intent on recovering high-grade polymetallic seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) deposits at 1 600 m below the surface, within the Western Pacific Ocean’s Rim of Fire. The operation aimed to produce ore at a rate of more than 1.3-million tons a year, with the capacity to ultimately ramp up to 1.8-million tons a year of dewatered ore, which would be delivered to the PNG Port of Rabaul.
The Solwara 1 project team in 2007 reported the world’s first SMS resource statement after it drilled a National Instrument 43-101-compliant resource using newly developed, remotely operated drills.
As Nautilus was celebrating its project advancement, environmentalist nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) ramped-up opposition against the Solwara 1 project at the Asia Pacific Deep Sea Mining Summit, held at the ritzy Marina Bay Sands, in Singapore.
A new critique published by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign argued that Nautilus’ ESBA contained “indefensible flaws”.
Reportedly endorsed by a coalition of economists, scientists, NGOs, and civil society groups, the critique, titled ‘Accountability Zero’, was launched by Professor Richard Steiner during a presentation at the summit on Monday.
“By using metrics that bear no relevance to deep sea and marine environments, the Solwara 1 ESBA values at zero the ecosystem goods and services provided by deep sea and marine ecosystems,” founder of Economists at Large and co-author of Accountability Zero Francis Grey said.
“Fundamentally, the ESBA report fails to meet the well accepted requirements of a cost-benefit analysis. It is of little value to public policy and deep sea mining decision-making.”
The report stated that US-based consultancy firm Earth Economics (EE), which Nautilus commissioned to write the report, compared the social and environmental impacts of the Solwara 1 project to existing and proposed land-based copper mines.
“Comparing the impacts of Solwara 1 to selectively chosen land-based mines is like comparing apples to oranges. Nautilus commissioned a study that purports to make a case for seabed mining – but which neglects to value marine ecosystem services, or to consider the likely impacts on sea water quality, marine ecosystems, or communities who depend on healthy oceans,” Earthworks mining programme director Payal Sampat stated.
The Solwara 1 project had been met with local and international opposition, including three independent scientific reports that detailed deficiencies in the science and modelling employed by Nautilus, the environmentalists alleged.
“The ESBA is not fit for its intended purpose. It fails to provide a framework to assist decisions about the advisability of Solwara 1 or of any other deep sea mining project. Indeed, the use of the ESBA for decision-making purposes would lead to very poor public policy outcomes.
“The risk of unexpected costs and losses due to unpredicted environmental and social impacts is high and could leave coastal and island communities carrying the brunt of the burden into the long term,” Deep Sea Mining Campaign coordinator and report co-author Dr Helen Rosenbaum argued.
Granted a 20-year mining licence in January 2011, Nautilus had yet to formulate the environmental management plan for Solwara 1.
“The time for public relation exercises such as the Solwara 1 ESBA is over. Investors, civil society, and governments looking at the world’s first deep sea mine need to see real substance. The release of the Solwara 1 environmental management plan would be a good step. It is critical that this foundation document be subject to independent examination and feedback in the public domain,” Oasis Earth’s Professor Steiner added.
Mining Weekly was awaiting comment from Nautilus at the time of publication.