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Taranaki seabed mining decision delayed by a week

Ngati Ruanui, of Patea, protest in Parliament grounds, Wellington, against the mining application. MONIQUE FORD / Fairfax NZ

Andrew Owen | Taranaki Daily News | July 25 2017

The decision on a controversial application to mine thousands of tons of iron sand off the Taranaki coast has been put back by a week.

The Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) decision-making committee is considering an application by Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd (TTR) to extract billions of dollars in iron ore in shallow waters about 25 kilometres off the coast of Patea.

The 20-year project would involve extracting about a quarter of a cubic kilometre of iron sands, weighing a billion tonnes, from under the sea within the South Taranaki Bight. Iron ore would be separated out on a ship before 90 per cent of the material was piped back onto the mined seabed.  

A hearing on the application took place earlier this year and a decision was expected to have been given to the EPA on Thursday.

But the committee announced on Tuesday that it “requires a further extension of one week to deliver its decision to the EPA”. 

It is now expected to be presented on Thursday, August 3 and will be made public in the week beginning August 14.  

“As you can appreciate this is an important application and the committee is determined to ensure it has given full consideration to all of the information presented at the hearing and prepare a fully reasoned decision,” Diane Robinson, EPA Group Manager: Communications, said in a statement.

“As is usual with such applications, we fully expect the decision document itself could run into hundreds of pages. Once we have received it, the document will need to be proof-read before hard copies are produced and bound for publication.”

This is the second application by TTR, which is about 45 per cent foreign-owned, to get approval for the project.

Its previous application was rejected by the EPA in 2014 but the company then modified its proposal and now describes the potential effects on the marine environment as “very small to negligible”. 

However, the application has attracted a great deal of opposition from iwi and hapu members in South Taranaki, as well as opposition from further afield.

Environmental groups including Greenpeace and Forest & Bird, along with fisheries companies, are opposing the mining permit, concerned about the impact on blue whales, Maui’s dolphins and other marine life.

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Can deep-sea mining avoid the environmental mistakes of mining on land?

Ambitious research aims to limit environmental damage on the sea floor – but some scientists fear mining this pitch black world will do more harm than good

Carol J Clouse | The Guardian | 28 June 2017 

Each of the three mining machines outweighs the 200-ton blue whale – the largest animal the world has ever known – and they look fearsome, especially the bulk-cutter designed to grind up the ocean floor with its enormous roller, covered in spikes.

If all goes as planned, come 2019 these giant remote-controlled robots will steamroll across the bottom of the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea, chewing it up in pursuit of rich copper and gold reserves for a Canadian company called Nautilus Minerals. Nautilus chief executive Michael Johnston is anxious to demonstrate something besides making handsome profits. He also wants to show that his company has designed the mining expedition to have a small environmental footprint, especially when compared to the land-based counterpart.

“People have a view of mining, and they think we’re going to transport that view into the ocean, and it’s going to be ugly,” says Johnston, a soft-spoken New Zealand native and a 30-year veteran of mining.

“It’s important to all of us, especially those of us who’ve worked in mining for a number of years, to show people that you can do it better. I think a lot of people will be surprised,” says Johnson, 54, who joined Nautilus in 2006.

Johnston will have a lot to prove. The project, Solwara-1, will be the first ever attempt to extract minerals from the deep sea, and with the world watching closely.

Deep sea mining presents an ethical conundrum and an opportunity to avoid the costly environmental and social mistakes of land-based mining. That has prompted a group of policymakers, businesses and academic researchers to design rules that they hope will minimize environmental harm. They have proposed ideas that range from setting aside no-mining zones within a region rich in minerals to using technology that will reduce the extent of sediment plumes during dredging.

“We have the opportunity from the very beginning to understand the science, to understand the impact and to understand how to ameliorate the impacts,” says Dr James Hein, a senior scientist with the US Geological Survey. “This will really be the first time we can approach it from step one.”

But whether any of those ideas will work as designed to reduce environmental impact won’t be known until the machines are put to work. Some of Nautilus’s proposals, such as relocating some of the wildlife temporary to another location during mineral extraction – and recolonizing the spot afterward – attract strong skepticism.

“Nautilus’s claims that they can simply relocate parts of the site’s ecosystem elsewhere don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, and the effectiveness of any measures to reduce other impacts will be difficult, if not impossible, to verify independently,” says Dr David Santillo, senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Earth’s last mining frontier

The deep ocean plays a critical role in the Earth’s biosphere – it regulates global temperatures, stores carbon and provides habitat for a huge array of creatures. Scientists and environmental advocates fear that mining this pitch black, frigid world will not only kill any marine life that gets in the way of the machines but could potentially devastate far wider areas by stirring up plumes of sediment and introducing chemical, noise and light pollution.

Their worries underpin a sentiment that deep-sea mining appears inevitable. Demand for minerals to make virtually everything we use, including the phones and computers that run our lives, will only increase. Even technology that promises to cut our oil addiction and reduce emissions requires a reliable supply of raw materials, from tellurium for solar panels to lithium for electric vehicle batteries.

The vast treasure of untouched resources on the ocean floor – copper, zinc, cobalt, manganese, titanium and other minerals – has tantalized mining companies around the globe.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a particularly a coveted mining area that’s roughly the size of the continental US and lies between Mexico and Hawaii. It contains potato-sized nodules of manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper and molybdenum worth roughly $25.2tn, according to Hein’s calculations. Not all of this amount would be economically recoverable, Hein says, but even 30% would equal $7.56tn.

Moreover, these minerals exist at much higher grades than on land, where supplies that are easily accessible have mostly been depleted and mining companies are blowing the tops off mountains, cutting down wider expanses of forests and digging ever-bigger holes to extract from harder-to-reach deposits.

Mining copper in the Andes, which produces about 40% of the world’s supply, would require the removal of 50 tons of barren rock to get to a 20 million ton ore deposit with 0.5% copper in it, Hein says. In a marine environment, you can find a 7% copper deposit sitting right on the seafloor.

Of the 28 exploratory contracts signed with the International Seabed Authority, which regulates undersea mining in international waters, 16 are for mining in the CCZ. The US hasn’t ratified the treaty and joined the ISA. US aerospace and defense firm Lockheed Martin has obtained two exploratory contracts through its British subsidiary UK Seabed Resources.

Deep-sea mining is an expensive undertaking. Nautilus has encountered delays for its roughly $480m project and still needs to raise $150m to $250m to move ahead.

Around the world, extensive work is now going into mapping ocean floor ecosystems and researching ways to mitigate the environmental impact of deep-sea mining. In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has done exploratory and mapping work off the coast of Hawaii, along with projects by university researchers.

The European Union has contributed millions of dollars to organizations such as MIDAS (Managing Impacts of Deep-Sea Resource Exploitation), and Blue Mining, an international consortium of 19 industry and research organizations.

A UK-funded expedition conducted the first ever controlled deep-sea sediment plume experiment in the Atlantic last year, about 300 miles from the Canary Islands. Sediment plumes are big dust clouds kicked up by mineral extraction, and scientists worry that the plumes could travel great distances, choking sea life along the way.

“There’s a lot more research to be done on sediment plumes,” says Dr Bramley Murton, who led the expedition and heads the marine mineral research at the UK’s National Oceanography Center. “But we got some data and, at the moment, the initial indication is that we can’t see the plume from a kilometer, or roughly 0.6 miles, away.”

That’s an encouraging result, because scientists previously suspected that sediment plumes would travel much further.

Another way to minimize impact is to aside protected areas within mining zones. Back in 2013, a team of scientists led by Dr Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography in University of Hawaii’s Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, recommended the ISA to designate roughly a quarter of the CCZ as a protected area. The ISA accepted the team’s recommendations provisionally but will need to decide whether to include them in the final rules, which could take three to five years to finalize.

Improving the precision of mining robots will also help to reduce environmental disturbances. Companies with the technology that could solve the problem include the Seattle-based BluHaptics, which has developed software that enables a robot to recalibrate its aim and movement to improve precision by learning from each trip it makes to the seabed.

“We use machine learning software to identify and track objects in real time, with high resolution situational awareness, so it can see through sediment or oil spills,” says Don Pickering, BluHaptics’ CEO.

What will Nautilus do?

At the Solwara-1 site, 25km off the Papua New Guinea coast, Nautilus plans to launch its project from a ship 230 meters long and 40 meters wide, with roughly 130 employees on it. The company will go after minerals born 1,000–3,000 meters deep in volcanically active zones, around vents that spurt super hot, acidic water containing metals dissolved from the earth’s crust. The active vents are populated by numerous species, including tubeworms, clams, snails, shrimp, crabs and many species that are not yet known.

The three Nautilus robots, designed by UK-based SMD, will be lowered into the water, break up the rocks and collect them to be piped back to the vessel.

The ore will then be transported by smaller boats to China and sold to the Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group Holding Co. The ship plans to remain at the first project site for roughly three years, bringing up 2.5 million metric tons of ore containing metals worth roughly $1.5bn, give or take shifts in commodity prices.

To address sediment plumes, SMD designed the robots to suck the plume into the slurry with the ore and pump it up into the vessel. “Our ultimate goal is to recover as much of the material as possible, not to blow it away,” Johnston says.

Using a steel riser and pump system designed by GE Oil & Gas, once the ore is dropped into the vessel, the icy water will be pumped back down to the sea floor so it doesn’t mix with the warmer surface water and potentially cause algae blooms and other environmental disturbances. To minimize the use of bright light, which could disrupt marine life in the pitch black world, Nautilus will use sonar and digital cameras to create 3D maps to guide its extraction with the remotely operated robots.

“These populations grow fast and they reproduce a lot, so in some sense one can argue that they might recover quickly. But the environmental issue is that these habitats are relatively rare on the sea floor, and they’re different from one site to the next because the animals have adapted to the fluid chemistries,” says Dr Cindy Lee Van Dover, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory in North Carolina and a member of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, an international group of scientists, lawyers and advocates that makes environmental recommendations to the ISA.

“We aren’t talking about stopping mining, just thinking about how to do it well. We can map these environments to show where the highest density of animals is and avoid those high-density places. That’s a very rational approach,” says Van Dover. “I’m reasonably optimistic that we can come up with progressive environmental regulations.”

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Fiji: No plans for deep sea mining

Felix Chaudhary | The Fiji Times |  June 28, 2017

SEABED deep sea mineral mining will not be conducted in waters around Fiji in the near future, says Ministry of Lands and Mineral Resources permanent secretary Malakai Finau.

“The costs involved are absolutely huge,” he said.

“Current exploration interest is in its very early or preliminary stages, we haven’t even reached the advanced stages as yet.

“Seabed resource exploration requires a lot of resources. One of the biggest costs is the need to engage a state-of-the-art marine research vessel.

“Getting exploratory work done on land is very expensive, so you can imagine what it’s like when you are attempting to do this out at sea.”

Meanwhile, a report by the World Bank released in April last year titled “Precautionary Management of Deep Sea Mining Potential”, called on Pacific Island countries to be extra vigilant and cautious over any plans for seabed mining.

The report said any Pacific country supporting or considering deep sea mining activities must proceed with a high degree of caution to avoid irreversible damage to ecosystems.

The World Bank report also emphasised the need for strong governance measures to ensure that appropriate social and environmental safeguards were in place.

Pacific Island countries that have granted permits for deep sea mining exploration include Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. The Cook Islands has advanced its efforts and done a minerals exploration tender process.

Mr Finau is chairing the Science Technology and Resources (STAR) Network’s 2017 conference at the Tanoa International Hotel in Nadi.

The conference is supported by the Geoscience Division of the Pacific Community and sponsored by Standard Concrete Industries (Fiji), XINFA Mines (Fiji) and the UNDP neglected development minerals project with support also from the Circum-Pacific Council.

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Nautilus says mine will not be in breach of law

Post Courier | June 28, 2017

Canadian miner, NAUTILUS Minerals, asserts the world’s first deep sea mine to be developed in Papua New Guinea, says it will not be in breach of any international laws.

The company was responding to recent reports published by the Catholic Professionals Society, which had claimed there would be breach to the freedom of navigation by international vessels, if the project gets off the ground.

The Solwara-1 project, will be developed in the waters between New Ireland and East New Britain provinces.

In a statement sent to the Post-Courier yesterday, the Canadian miner said: “Nautilus would like to clarify that its operations will not be in breach of international laws.”

“While there will be an exclusion zone around its operations, it is only 1.25-km in radius.”

“This was determined by placing a 500 meter buffer around all mining areas.”

“This buffer area was approved by the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) in September 2016, with the relevant information sent to the Australian Hydrographic Service for inclusion on the relevant charts,” the miner said.

Nautilus said the exclusion zone will ensure shipping does not interfere with mining operations, and will no way impede shipping passing through the St George passage (it doesn’t interfere with the Right of Passage as guaranteed by UNCLOS).

“This exclusion zone is no different to the exclusion zone around an oil and gas production platform, for which, there are thousands all around the world and they too are not in breach of international law.”

“Its position will be marked on maritime charts and will be noted by all vessels and vessel captains,” the firm further stated.

Questions were put to NMSA to comment but the state agency had yet to respond at the time this paper went to press.

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Experts Warn that Seabed Mining Will Lead to ‘Unavoidable’ Loss of Biodiversity

Tam Warner Minton/Flickr/CC-by-2.0

Daniel Oberhaus | Motherboard | June 27 2017

Seabed mining companies are going to wipe out species we don’t even know exist yet.

An international group of 15 marine scientists and legal scholars published a letter on Monday warning of the dire effects that the nascent seabed mining industry could have on bottom dwelling marine life.

The letter, published in Nature Geoscience, is the latest in a series of increasingly desperate pleas from marine scientists to pump the brakes on mining the seafloor until marine scientists are able to get a better idea of what the effects this industry will have on this woefully understudied area of the planet.

“Unlike on land, most of the biodiversity and ecosystem function in the deep sea is poorly understood,” Cindy Dover, a professor of biological oceanography at Duke University and one of the signatories to the letter, told me via email. “We have learned that the deep sea is as exquisitely diverse as any bit of shallow marine or terrestrial environment. What we don’t understand is how much we can degrade deep-sea ecosystems before we reach tipping points, where the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function affects the health of the ecosystem beyond levels that are acceptable to society.”

As such, Van Dover and the other signatories on the letter call for the International Seabed Authority, the UN-sanctioned regulatory body for the ocean’s floor, to recognize the risk posed by deep sea mining and communicate this risk to the public at large.

“We ask that biodiversity loss resulting from deep-sea mining be recognized and be part of the public discourse about mining,” Van Dover said. “The scientific community has been invited by the ISA to provide recommendations on responsible environmental practices for deep-sea mining. Our peer-reviewed letter responds to this invitation.”

Although the deep sea (defined as anything below a depth of about 650 feet) accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, we know remarkably little about what goes on down there. Dozens of new species are routinely discovered during forays to the bottom of the ocean and the deep sea ecosystem isn’t well understood.

Nevertheless, the deep sea has become the site of a new gold rush in recent years. The discovery of a wealth of precious minerals such as nickel and cobalt, in addition to oil and potentially lifesaving molecules have incentivized seabed mining operations to begin exploratory missions to the bottom of the ocean to start staking claims.

To get an idea of how this industry is developing, the authors of the recent letter point out that in 2001 there were only six contracts for deep sea mining operations. By the end of 2017, however, there will be 27 deep sea mining contracts. Of these, 17 will be in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Central America. One of the proposed mining contracts alone covers 32,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Maine.

Although some proponents of deep sea mining argue that the effects of this industry can be offset by taking more environmentally friendly measures elsewhere, such as building artificial reefs, the authors of the letter are calling BS.

“The argument that you can compensate for the loss of biological diversity in the deep sea with gains in diversity elsewhere is so ambiguous as to be scientifically meaningless,” Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, said in a statement.

“This is like saving apple orchards to protect oranges,” Van Dover added.

For now, these contracts remain exploratory as the ISA struggles to establish a deep sea regulatory regime. But as the letter’s authors rightfully worry, it will be hard to establish effective seabed regulations since so little is known about the ocean floor.

“The ISA has begun working on regional environmental protection plans that include identifying networks of Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) within regions of interest to contractors,” Van Dover told me. “Mining and mining impacts would be excluded in these APEIs. Science-based recommendations for the design of these APEIs call for them to include representative habitats in the region.”

Until these regulations are in place, however, the authors of the letter call for the ISA to acknowledge that deep sea mining will certainly be harmful to deep ocean biodiversity. According to the authors of the letter, this damage will likely be irrevocable. Even more frightening is that we’d likely never know the full extent of the damage because marine scientists won’t have the opportunity to establish sufficient baseline measurements before the mining frenzy begins.

“I do not know if responsible seabed mining is possible, given knowledge gaps in our understanding of deep-sea biodiversity and function, and the possibility that the cost of good, science-based environmental management and monitoring may be too high at present relative to the value of the product,” Van Dover said. “There are ways to fill these knowledge gaps, but they require time and investment.”

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Proposed sea bed mining project in PNG in breach of International laws

NBC News via PNG Today | 24 June, 2017

The proposed sea bed mining project in Papua New Guinea will be in breach of International laws.

Catholic Professionals Society of PNG Executive and Environmental Lawyer Camillus Narokobi highlighted this recently, saying that there will be a breach to the freedom of navigation by international vessels if the project becomes a reality.

The project solwara 1, to be developed by Canadian Company, Nautilus Minerals in the New Ireland and East New Britain seas is set to begin in 2018.

“The area that is being targeted for sea bed mining falls within our jurisdiction, it is an area that falls under international law.

The passage between Rabaul and New Ireland is called St George Passage.

That is regarded as an International Strait, it is one of the seven international straits Papua New Guinea has, it is all within the Bismarck Archipelago.

And so both the New Ireland and East New Britain Provincial Governments have a right to say what has to be done or what should not be done.

And International rights include freedom of navigation, by ships and submarines that can come through those waters without giving prior notice.

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Seabed mining petition goes to select committee in NZ

Heta Gardiner | Maori Television | 22 June 2017

The issue to place a moratorium on seabed mining has once again made it to Parliament.

Local Government and Environment Select Committee were presented with a message from KASM (Kiwis Against Seabed Mining) to put a halt on seabed mining in New Zealand waters until a better understanding of the risks and impacts are provided.

Phil McCabe from KASM says, “There is a bunch of stuff out there that we have the opportunity to turn into money. And I get that, I see the attraction, I’m a business person myself. The question is whether we have the knowledge or the ability to do that, to extract that material in a safe and responsible way. We don’t have that knowledge now to do that safely.”

In September last year, Mr. McCabe lead a petition calling for a moratorium on all seabed mining which was later presented to Parliament. McCabe also said to the Select Committee today,

“The financial benefits of seabed mining may not be as vast as speculated.”

Rino Tirikatene from Labour was in Select Committee and agreed that a more cautious approach should be taken.

“We just need to ‘taihoa’ and do some proper research, and not put all the pressure on the communities to fight against all these corporate interests,” saysTirikatene.  

However, Nuk Korako of National says that a moratorium might not be the best solution.

“Do we need a moratorium on this? Taking into account, there has been a really robust system in place, and when you look at all those applications, actually most of them have been turned down,” says Korako. 

The Select Committee will be looking into Phil McCabe’s submission over the next week. 

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