David Hutt | Mongabay | 18 November 2016
Hydrothermal vents create both hotspots of deep-sea biodiversity and rich mineral deposits. Papua New Guinea is at the centre of a debate about whether these sites should be preserved or mined.
- Plans are moving forward to launch operations at the world’s first deep sea mine, in Papua New Guinea’s coastal waters.
- Nautilus Minerals, Inc. claims the project will have less ecological and social impact than on-shore mines.
- The mine’s opponents say too little is known about the risks such projects pose to deep sea ecosystems and coastal communities.
- Despite its mineral riches, Papua New Guinea has very poor indicators for human health and well-being, and a long history of unrest centered on resource extraction.
Remote-controlled vehicles will soon begin churning up the ocean floor off the cost of Papua New Guinea, searching for millions of tons of copper and gold. In 2011, Canada-based Nautilus Minerals, Inc. was granted a 20-year mining license by the government of Papua New Guinea to begin exploring almost 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) in the Bismarck Sea. The project, called “Solwara 1,” was granted the first-ever permit for deep sea mining. After a series of disputes and financial setbacks, extraction is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2019.
The project aims to mine deposits laid down over thousands of years around underwater hot springs, otherwise known as hydrothermal vents. These are found between one or two kilometers (0.6 to 1.2 miles) below sea level, where islands of life are created by a rare combination of superheated highly mineralized vent fluids, cold seawater and microbes that are capable of using these conditions to produce organic nutrients. The resulting ecosystems are rich in carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, organic carbon compounds, methane, hydrogen and ammonium. What’s more, as one report opined, there is evidence to suggest that deep sea hydrothermal vents may be “where life first evolved on earth.” These same conditions make deep sea vents very attractive for resource extraction companies; when hot, mineral-rich vent fluids hit cold seawater water, gold and other precious metals drop to the sea floor.
“We know very little about deep sea ecosystems; some scientists say we know more about the surface of the moon,” said Natalie Lowrey, communications coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign told Mongabay. “The proponents of this ‘frontier’ industry are pushing the line that deep seabed mining will have less impact than terrestrial or land-based mining. This is a very irresponsible argument as there is no scientific evidence yet provided to say there will be little to no environmental impact.”
Before mining is allowed to commence, Lowrey said, “independently verified research must be conducted to demonstrate that neither communities nor ecosystems will suffer long term negative impacts.”
Nautilus maintains that it carried out extensive impact studies before applying for a mining permit, and found that mining more than 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) below the surface would not affect shallower water, due to the temperature and density of water at such great depths.
The company also commissioned US-based consultancy firm Earth Economics to write a report on the possible implications of the operation. The overall conclusion of the report, titled Environmental and Social Benchmarking Analysis, was that the deep-sea mine would be “remarkably advantageous” because no people live at the site, so there would be “no cultural or historical claims to the site.” The report also concluded natural resources will be “less impacted” than with conventional mining since fresh water will not be contaminated, and that the possible impact of the mine would be less significant than the impacts of a nearby erupting underwater volcano. “The overall conclusion is that Solwara 1 has the potential for far fewer social and environmental impacts than the existing terrestrial mines examined,” it stated.
When the report was published last year, it was widely criticized by environmental groups, economists and civil-society organizations. The critique was encapsulated in a rival report, titled Accountability Zero, authored by Helen Rosenbaum of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and Francis Grey, of Economists at Large.
According to its critics, the Earth Economics’ report used an unsatisfactory comparison between Solwara 1 and existing land-based copper mines to examine environmental impacts. Conservation biologist Richard Steiner told Mongabay Nautilus has “absolutely not” done enough research into possible affects. “These are poorly understood deep sea communities, and we are unclear what the full immediate and long-term impacts of mining disturbance would be,” Steiner continued. “But we do know that thousands of vent chimneys, and their associated biological communities, would be destroyed. It is likely that species yet to be identified may become extinct. And that raises some very serious ethical concerns.”
A 2011 report, again authored by Helen Rosenbaum, titled Out of Our Depth, noted that even before last year’s Earth Economics’ report, the “government of Papua New Guinea has granted a 20 year license for Solwara 1 based on a flawed Environmental Impact Statement and a superficial understanding of social and economic impacts.” The report added: “It may be concluded that in the case of Solwara 1, Papua New Guinea’s environmental approvals process has failed to protect the health of the marine environment, the livelihoods and well-being of coastal communities, and fisheries of national and regional economic importance.”
Aside from the unpredictability of the operation, there are more practical risks associated with the endeavor. Janet Tokupep, the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, a community group that opposes deep sea mining, said in a statement last year that since the proposed mine site lies only thirty kilometers away from the mainland, it will greatly impact on the coastal communities, especially the fishermen who earn their living in the area daily. “The serious liabilities associated with the risks of Solwara 1 make it a disastrous investment,” Tokupep said.
What this means is that, today, very little is known for sure about the possible risks of the Solwara 1 project. The human and ocean life near the mine are set to be the proverbial Guinea pigs for a still untested technology.
Why is Papua New Guinea risking so much?
“Papua New Guinea undoubtedly is a mining state.” So reads the homepage of the country’s Mineral Resources Authority. Indeed, Papua New Guinea relies on its natural resources, including oil and gas, copper, gold and other valuable minerals. The Asian Development Bank estimates that from a high of 30 per cent of the GDP in the 1990s, the mining and petroleum sectors now amount to around 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. However, there is reason to believe this is significantly higher. For example, a report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers suggested that gold alone contributed to 15 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2012, the highest contribution to a gold-mining country’s economy in the world.
In 1988, then-prime minister Paias Wingti announced his ‘look north’ policy, intended to court investment from China and Japan. In recent years, Chinese companies have invested heavily in mining in Papua New Guinea. In May, the firm PanAust Ltd announced a $3.6 billion investment to expand the Frieda River copper-mining project, though this may take another two-years for approval.
So far, the growth of the extractive sector has rarely translated into tangible improvements for the majority of the country’s inhabitants. In 2013, the Center for Global Development released its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Progress Index, which tracked progress toward reducing hunger, poverty, child mortality and improving health and education. Papua New Guinea came second from bottom, only beating the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mineral rich Papua New Guinea has also suffered greatly from the extractive industry. In 1988, civil war broke out in the islands of Bougainville following protests over the Panguna copper mine. Sabotage and attacks were carried out by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, which led to the closure of the mine and the call for independence. The civil war came to an end in 1998, costing the lives of between 15,000 and 20,000 people, and led to Bougainville being made an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea.
While this was the most serious of the crises, it was not the only problem caused by mineral extraction. Protests are common throughout the country as many of the country’s poor feel they have been left out from reaping the benefits, only to suffer from the process.
As Mongabay reported last month, Solwara 1 is the beginning in a new trend in deep-sea mining. Using software developed by Deep Sea Mining Watch that allows internet users to track vessels engaged in deep sea mining activities from anywhere in the world, researchers found that five Russian-flagged vessels were charting waters belonging to the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, and another vessel has been scouting areas near the Mariana Trench.
As of last year, the Center for Biological Diversity estimates there to be 26 permits in operation for deep-sea mining. For example, an estimated 1.5 million square kilometers (about 580,000 square miles) of ocean floor in the Pacific Islands Region is now believed to be under exploration by private companies and state-owned firms. “Deep Sea Mining is a highly experimental and untested activity. At present, there are no viable deep-sea mining operations – and there are no enforceable regulations governing such exploitation,” said Payal Sampat, Mining Program Director of Earthworks. “It’s hard to imagine that DSM will be commercially viable in the next few years given the many uncertainties and risks involved.”
According to Lowrey, the Solwara 1 project, based on such limited research and information, has established “a frightening precedent” for the Pacific region. “Very little is understood about the possible impacts of this one project let alone the many projects for which exploration is starting throughout the Pacific,” she said.
Steiner argues there should be a 10-year moratorium on issuing any permits for deep-sea mining. “We simply do not have the understanding of these deep ocean biological systems to feel comfortable with moving forward with this scale of industrial development,” he said. “Unfortunately, with such strong coast state government support and industry interest, and demand for more raw minerals in the global economy, there is a great deal of pressure to conduct deep-sea mining.”
He added: “The effects could be greater than any industrial activity to date anywhere.”