More Deals in Readiness for Seabed Mining Boom
Wendy Laursen | The Maritime Executive, 30 March 2016
The International Seabed Authority has signed its first exploration contract for seabed mining for 2016.
The deal was signed with the U.K. Seabed Resources Limited (UKSRL) and involves a 15-year contract for the exploration of polymetallic nodules in the eastern part of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico. The area allocated to the contractor covers a total surface of 74,919 square kilometers (29,000 square miles).
The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone is roughly 80 percent the size of the contiguous United States, and exploration contracts have so far been granted for 25 percent of the area.
This latest contract is the 14th contract for exploration for polymetallic nodules in the zone and the second contract for exploration for polymetallic nodules by UKSRL. UKSRL signed its first exploration contract with the Authority in February 2013 for an area of approximately 116,000 square kilometers (45,000 square miles).
A growing number of contracts
Last year, the Authority signed five new contracts bringing the total number of contracts for exploration around the world to 23 and another five are expected to be signed by July. Between 1984 and 2011, the Authority issued just six leases for mining exploration. In the last five years, it has granted 21.
The permits allow for exploration only, but once certain conditions are met, the leases are expected to roll over into ones that allow commercial-scale mining.
The new contracts signed in 2015 were for exploration for polymetallic nodules with Marawa Research and Exploration on January 19, and Ocean Mineral Singapore on January 22. Another was for exploration for polymetallic sulfides with the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural resources of Germany on May 6 and two for exploration for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation on 10 March and with Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais of Brazil on November 9.
The first discovery of polymetallic nodules occurred in 1873 during a voyage by HMS Challenger. The vessel dredged up “several peculiar black oval bodies which were composed of almost pure manganese oxide.” In 1965, J. L. Mero studied the economic possibilities of manganese nodules mining and predicted that the manganese nodule mining should be a sound business proposition in about 20 years.
Subsequently, it was discovered that the nodules cover vast areas of the ocean floor but are more abundant in areas off the west coast of Mexico, the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, in the Central Indian Ocean Basin and in the Peru basin.
The nodules are composed mainly of manganese, iron, silicates and hydroxides. However, it is the trace metal contents such as nickel, copper, cobolt, molybdenum and rare earth elements that are attracting most interest.
The nodules vary in size from micro-nodules to about 20 centimeters (eight inches), the most common size being two to eight centimeters (one to three inches). They occur abundantly as two dimensional deposits at the unconsolidated sediment-water interface and sometime as scantly buried in sediments.
The deposits of economic importance occur mostly at four to six thousand meters depths in areas of extremely low sedimentation rate. Sediment accumulates at the rate of a couple of centimeters every 1,000 years, and the modules can take a million years to grow by a few millimeters.
The nodules require a nucleus to start forming. This nucleus could be anything, varying from a piece of pumice, a shark tooth, old nodule piece, basalt debris or even microfossils like radiolaria and foraminifera.
Little is known about the marine life of the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. However, it is known that it contains ecosystems that are rarely perturbed. Under normal circumstances, the deep sea is one of the least changeable ecosystems on Earth.
The Abyssline research project (2013-2018) is currently gathering baseline ecosystem information at the abyssal seafloor of the manganese nodule province in the Zone.
A paper published in the journal Science last year says that seabed mining may cause “serious, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible damage” to portions of the seafloor, and many scientists believe that marine protected areas may give the species the best chance of surviving the coming mining boom.
Mining impacts could affect important environmental benefits that the deep sea provides, say the scientists from the Center for Ocean Solutions. For example, the deep sea is important to the Earth’s carbon cycle, capturing a substantial amount of human-emitted carbon which impacts both weather and climate. Mining activities could disturb these deep-sea carbon sinks, releasing excess carbon back into the atmosphere. The deep sea also sustains economically important fisheries, and harbors microorganisms which have proven valuable in a number of pharmaceutical, medical and industrial applications.
The Authority is expected to decide this summer whether to accept protected areas proposed in 2013. The areas would nearly 1.7 million square kilometers (650,000 square miles) of the Zone.
Elsewhere in the ocean, mining companies are preparing to mine the mineral-rich structures that form around hydrothermal vents. The first such project, by Nautilus Minerals, will be in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea and is expected to begin in 2018.
The Law of the Sea
The Authority, which has its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, came into existence on 16 November 1994. The International Seabed Authority is an autonomous international organization established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Authority has been entrusted with the implementation of the “common heritage of mankind” which applies to mineral resources beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. This upholds a vision of sustainable development of mineral resources in the international seabed area and the sharing of benefits and responsibilities for all States, including the land-locked and geographically disadvantaged States.
The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone
The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone is a geological submarine fracture zone of the Pacific Ocean, with a length of some 7,240 kilometers (4,500 miles). It is one of the five major lineations of the northern Pacific floor, south of the Clarion Fracture Zone, discovered by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1950. The fracture, an unusually mountainous topographical feature, begins east-northeast of the Line Islands and ends in the Middle America Trench off the coast of Central America. It roughly forms a line on the same latitude as Kiribati and Clipperton Island.