Andrew Campbell | Sun Media
A combination of soft markets, mining companies’ lack of environmental knowledge and local opposition will stop a seabed exploration application from going ahead, says Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty.
Commenting on Pacific Offshore Mining’s application for a five-year permit to explore for ilmenite – titanium ore, within 12,000 hectares off Waihi Beach, Catherine says one of the main hurdles facing seabed mining is the mining companies lack of knowledge about the effect mining operations will have on the seabed.
“The real problem with exploration for minerals on the seabed is the potentially quite damaging processes to find samples.
“If they found what could be minable samples, we would be in real trouble – I mean digging up the seabed and not just scraping along the top of it.
“It’s bad enough what’s happening to the sea bed in terms of trawling but if you actually dig it up, we don’t even know what is there that we are destroying.
“We have got so little real understanding of the intricacies of what’s in the seabed, then to destroy it to create the potential risk, it’s just not worth even considering,” says Catherine.
“Given that this area is so important for recreational use and for future generations, we should just leave it alone and protect the environment. This coastal area is such an important are to so many people, I really think the company is wasting their time.”
As well as ilmenite, the permit is seeking rights to iron sands, gold and silver deposits in same area of the seabed at depths of 20-50 metres. Ilmenite and ironsand deposits were previously been explored in the area in the 1970s and 1990s.
An exploration licence would give Pacific Offshore Mining the right to identify mineral deposits and evaluate the feasibility of mining any deposits that may be found.
Methods may include seafloor sampling, geophysical surveys, including magnetic surveys – either airborne or from a vessel – shallow drilling on average 10m beneath the seafloor, and bulk sampling with each sample being up to two tonnes.
Because the area is within New Zealand territorial waters, Pacific Offshore Mining Limited requires the exploration permit from New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals, and a separate, resource consent from the Bay of Plenty Regional Council under the Resource Management Act before exploration can begin.
Other undersea mining applications on both the Chatham Rise and off the North Island east coast near Patea, both failed because the mining companies concerned were unable to supply information to the level required, says Catherine.
In the Taranaki decision, the Environmental Protection Agency panel wasn’t satisfied the life-supporting capacity of the environment would be safeguarded by the ironsand mining operation, or that the adverse effects of the proposal could be avoided, remedied or mitigated, given the uncertainty and inadequacy of the information presented.
“They don’t know enough and they expect to be given permits to do exploration and potentially bulk sampling without even knowing what’s there, and it’s just completely unacceptable,” says Catherine.
“Even if they did know what was there, I think any environmental protection agency would have concerns, because it’s a fragile food chain out there. You can’t replace it. It’s hard enough on land to restore land after mining. It’s impossible under the water.
“There’s no way you can do this stuff without doing damage, and that’s probably why they couldn’t provide sufficient information to the EPA, and why the other companies have been turned down.”
The mining industry is in decline world-wide at the moment, says Catherine. Prices are not high and the cost of exploration is enormous.
“All the big companies, like Petrobras, have all pulled out of New Zealand – it’s not happening,” says Catherine.
“The government tried to do these tender offers for all this offshore stuff and they have tried to promote it because it is their only economic plan.
“But all the big companies have actually pulled out because it costs so much money to be able to even explore in deep water like we have off New Zealand, in rough water, and there is so much opposition that really it’s not worth the time.”
From a peak of about $US1800 an ounce in July 2011, gold has steadily declined in price and is currently about $US1000 an ounce.
Ilmenite is a titanium mineral generally used in pigment production. Ilmenite prices trebled during 2011 from levels of about US$100 per tonne at the start of that year. Currently ilmenite prices are in the range US $100 – US$120/t.
The ABC reported in October 2015 that a ground-based ilmenite mine in south-east Queensland laid off 18 workers as a price crash threatened the project.
Canadian miner, Melior Resources, recommissioned the defunct Goondicum Mine at Monto North Burnett in April 2015, after it was mothballed by previous owners in 2013.
The price had been falling for 18 months. Mine management admitted the company was wrong in its expectation that the price had bottomed out.