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Mining the deep seabed will harm biodiversity. We need to talk about it

Life operates on a completely different timescale on the deep seabed. Image: Pxhere.com

Holly Niner, Aline Jaeckel, Jeff Ardron and Lisa Levin | World Economic Forum | 8 June 2018

In 2017, Japan became the first country to test mining ocean minerals on a significant scale. While its operation took place at depths of about 1,600 metres, many deep seabed minerals are much deeper – more than four kilometres down. These are pitch-black environments in which pressures are bone-crushingly high, and life operates on a completely different timescale. At these depths, mistakes can be costly for both industry operators and the environment.

Mining the deep seabed for minerals such as copper, nickel, tin, zinc, cobalt and gold is a fledgling industry. Some suggest that it could become part of the ocean economy, which is projected to double its worth by 2030, to more than $3 trillion. However, the potential success of deep seabed mining is far from certain. Several commentators are concerned about its possible environmental impacts. Furthermore, there are significant regulatory, technical, economic, and scientific hurdles yet to be cleared.

World Oceans Day recognizes the importance of our marine environments to society. It is a timely reminder that closely watching the development of new ocean industries, such as deep seabed mining, is a shared concern and responsibility.

Balancing mining with the protection of oceans that are beyond national boundaries is the task of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Jamaica. The ISA is currently developing the world’s first international regulations for commercial-scale seabed mining. The ISA will need to set environmental management goals and objectives. However, an open and honest conversation about what environmental standards are achievable for seabed mining is yet to be had.

No net loss of biodiversity: an impossible goal

Together with our co-authors, we argue in this study that biodiversity loss is unavoidable for the industry. The ecological consequences of a loss of biodiversity in the deep sea are poorly understood. For example, we do not yet understand the role that the deep sea plays in delivering essential global ecosystem services, such as climate regulation through the storage of carbon.

These largely unknown systems are a living library, much like our tropical rainforests, from which the next medical breakthroughs may be discovered. Losses of this kind could have wide-ranging and significant implications. As such, it is widely accepted that the industry should be developed in a precautionary and responsible manner.

A commonly used goal for responsible mining on land is to achieve ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity. Financial and regulatory frameworks increasingly require extractive industries to apply a four-tier mitigation hierarchy to manage impacts to biodiversity, whereby losses should be:

  1. avoided and
  2. minimised to the greatest extent possible before
  3. remediation and
  4. offsetting opportunities are explored.

But each step of this mitigation hierarchy will be very difficult to apply to deep seabed mining. Avoidance and minimization of biodiversity loss from mining (steps one and two) should be prioritized and optimized through technical innovation of the industry. Nonetheless, the extractive nature of the activity, which inevitably destroys species and habitats, means that biodiversity loss will occur at this first stage.

The third step, remediation, seeks to alleviate these residual losses at and around a mine site, and is critical to its long-term sustainability. At present, it is questionable whether remediation is feasible in the deep sea, given that many of the species have long lives and grow extremely slowly, making them unlikely to recolonize disturbed habitat in human time frames. The challenge is further increased by the enormous spatial scale of mines for some types of minerals, and the high financial costs of working in these remote and harsh environments.

Biodiversity offsetting

Biodiversity offsetting is the last resort, and most controversial stage of the mitigation hierarchy. It has been proposed as a way to address the unavoidable residual impacts of industry. In theory, biodiversity offsets provide equivalent gains in biodiversity to that lost through an activity. Creating additional deep sea biodiversity is currently problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the scientific understanding needed for deep sea restoration. This knowledge and experience is not yet available, and acquiring it will be slow and costly.

Another management option could be to protect an area from existing harmful activities, such as deep sea bottom fishing, to allow for natural recovery of that area instead. But proposed mining and ongoing fishing generally target completely different ecosystems at different locations and depths. Additionally, the administration of such a ‘swap’ would be severely hampered, because there is no overarching governance institution that manages both mining and fishing on the high seas. Unlike mining, anyone can fish on the high seas, meaning that areas closed to fishing need broad international agreement in order to be meaningful. Otherwise, other states will simply step into areas that others have vacated.

A further challenge is the need to demonstrate the ‘additionality’ of an offset, meaning that it must be a conservation activity that would not have happened otherwise. For example, biodiversity loss from a deep-sea mine cannot be offset through an existing or already planned marine park. Protection of an area as an additional source of biodiversity benefit would need to demonstrate that the area protected as an offset is at risk of future degradation. This can be extremely challenging to prove, particularly in international waters. Without this assurance, purported offsetting can actually perpetuate losses of biodiversity.

Meaningful offsets would need to protect ecosystems similar to the ones harmed by mining. ‘Like for like’ offsetting is difficult in the deep sea, because many species there occur nowhere else. Consequently, ‘out of kind’ offsetting mechanisms have been proposed. These include creating dissimilar biodiversity benefits and may promote ecosystem functions and services that fundamentally differ from those that were lost. These benefits may accrue to different stakeholders and different ecosystems.

One example would be to increase the fisheries productivity in shallow water to replace deep-sea biodiversity losses. While perhaps beneficial where they occur, these ‘out of kind’ activities are not true offsets, in the sense of helping the deep-sea ecosystems under threat. They actually risk masking irreversible biodiversity loss.

Image: Frontiers in Marine Science

In our view, biodiversity offsets are not a feasible option to manage the environmental harm of deep seabed mining. No net loss of biodiversity is currently considered impossible for this industry. Accordingly, to minimize the risks posed by biodiversity losses through deep seabed mining, regulators will need to focus on the first two steps of the mitigation hierarchy: avoidance and minimization measures, including setting aside mineable areas and developing, testing and applying mining technology that minimizes impact.

Deciding on behalf of humankind

The international seabed and its mineral deposits are legally classified as the ‘common heritage of mankind’. Accordingly, the ISA is managing them on behalf of us all. Seabed minerals and their associated ecosystems form over hundreds and thousands of years. Lost deep sea biodiversity is unlikely to recover within human timescales. The actions of our generation will affect the common natural heritage of every generation to come.

In view of the above challenges, we suggest that a broad and inclusive debate is needed about how to balance the proposed economic and technological benefits of mining the deep seabed with the environmental risks it would entail. What level of environmental harm is acceptable? How will the economic benefits of seabed mining be shared with future generations? Is this a real opportunity to ‘do things right’, or will the deep sea simply be the last in a long list of exploited frontiers?


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Nautilus tests new rig but no money for further exploration

‘Once the trials are completed, Nautilus will deploy the rig on its South Pacific tenements subject to securing additional funding

Nautilus Minerals begins wet testing of new diamond drill rig

Mining Technology | 8 June 2018

Canada-based underwater resource exploration company Nautilus Minerals has started wet testing of its new seafloor diamond drill rig, which has been developed to relieve the drilling requirements of its future exploration programmes.

The move comes after the rig, which is nicknamed the Hobbit, was subjected to a series of land-based trials, focused on rod handling, functional drilling, and landing stability tests.

To be carried out over a period of two weeks, the wet test programme will expand the testing parameters to include submerged operations and mechanical endurance.

Nautilus Minerals CEO Mike Johnston said:

“According to our recently released preliminary economic assessment for Solwara 1, a single quarter’s production at steady state mining rates (around 3,200t/d) and at average Solwara deposit grades, adds around $110m in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA).

Solwara 1 is the company’s copper-gold project, which is under development in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea.

Johnston added:

“Hence forward exploration is a pivotal part of our business. Our pioneering teams are overcoming traditional functional limitations and high fees in seafloor drilling, with our new ‘Hobbit’ scout rig.”

During the testing period, the company will assess the operational functionality of the drill rig’s control systems, landing capability, hydraulic functions, video survey systems, and drilling cycle time versus performance, in a submerged environment.

Additionally, the testing will evaluate the system’s ability to sustain simulated offshore operations at optimal productivity levels.

The company’s personnel will be trained on all aspects of the equipment and operations.

The rig is designed to offer improved landing and drill cycle capabilities, as well as simplified control systems and launch and recovery requirements, which will allow deployment from cheaper vessels.

Once the trials are completed, Nautilus will deploy the rig on its South Pacific tenements subject to securing additional funding.

The company is focused on commercial-scale exploration of the seafloor for massive sulphide systems, which could potentially contain high grade copper, gold, zinc and silver.

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Canada’s Nautilus aiming to start marine mining in 2019 despite enviro concerns

Dylan Slater | Mining Weekly | 1 June 2018

Deep-sea mining is yet to become a major activity, and not much is known about undersea mineral deposits. However, some in the mining industry claim that the deep seafloor could be host to an abundant, untapped resource of highly sought-after commodities that may be relatively easy to access once machinery has been developed to operate under high pressures in submerged environments and salty water.

But environmentalists have issued strong warnings about the potential threats that could be posed to marine ecosystems and the long-lasting damage that could result from disturbing seafloors through dredging and cutting, as well as mining.

There has also been talk of would-be investors showing a reluctance – behind closed doors – to pour money into deep-sea mining projects because of the unknown feasibility of this type of activity and concern that they could potentially be deemed to be complicit in environmental degradation.

Potential sites for deep-sea mining are thought to be around large areas of polymetallic nodules or active and extinct hydrothermal vents (volcanically prevalent areas), which typically occur at depths of 1.4 km to 3.7 km below sea level. It is also believed that these vents create globular or sulphide deposits, which usually contain valuable metals such as silver, goldcopper, manganese, cobalt and zinc.

The prospect of deep-sea mining has had a patchy history, considering that one of the first major attempts to explore and mine the deep seas was a $500-million cover-up, the actual intent of which was to recover a sunken Soviet nuclear-armed submarine.

The K-129 submarine sank in 1968 about 1 400 km north-west of Hawaii, in the Pacific Ocean. The US was keen to find the submarine to obtain Soviet nuclear launch codes and other confidential information. It needed to conduct the operation under a veil of secrecy and, thus, could not simply send a salvage vessel to the area without attracting the attention of the Soviet Union.

Consequently, the US Central Intelligence Agency devised a plan – dubbed Project Azorian – to commission the Glomar Explorer as a deep-sea mining vessel targeting manganese nodules – potato-sized rocks lying on the ocean floor. In reality, the Glomar Explorer was used to lift the submarine off the ocean floor, about 4.9 km from the surface. The operation was only partially successful, as the submarine disintegrated while being lifted and only some of the nuclear missiles were recovered.

To make Project Azorian appear to be a legitimate deep-sea mining endeavour, a public relations campaign ensued in the 1970s, with a determined effort to paint it as the scheming of reclusive billionaire inventor Howard Hughes.

Few other attempts at deep-sea mining have been made, with only a handful of countries having been involved in deep-sea prospecting activities.

One mining company that seems to be making headway as a major role-player in deep-sea mining is Canada-headquartered Nautilus Minerals.

The company is developing and commissioning deep-sea mining equipment, which it calls seafloor production tools. The tools comprise three primary pieces of equipment – an auxiliary cutter, a bulk cutter and a collecting machine.

To supplement this submerged machinery is a surface vessel, which Nautilus has labelled a production support vessel (PSV) and will be tethered to the seafloor production tools.

Nautilus Minerals CEO Mike Johnston believes that mining the seafloor will be a cost-effective and “environment  friendly” way of obtaining high-grade gold and silver.

The company launched its PSV – the Nautilus New Era – in March. The PSV was designed by SeaTech Solutions and built at Mawei Shipyard, in China, in cooperation with Mawei, Nautilus Minerals and Marine Assets Corporation. The vessel will be used by Nautilus and its partner, Eda Kopa (Solwara), a subsidiary of oilgas and minerals company Petromin PNG Holdings, at the Solwara 1 Project site, in the Bismarck Sea, off Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The PSV provides a stable platform for operations using dynamic positioning technologies to ensure it stays on location at Solwara 1, irrespective of wind and wave conditions.

Nautilus Minerals has reported that the PSV, designed for use in offshore construction and seafloor mining industries, is about 75% complete, with final delivery scheduled for March 2019.

Johnston adds that Nautilus Minerals differentiates itself from other companies by having a “first-mover advantage”, which is protected by intellectual property and 20 patents. “Once our new vessel is delivered, and subject to final funding, mining operations at water depths of 1 600 m are expected to start in late 2019.”

Nautilus Minerals announced the successful completion of submerged trials in February for its seafloor production tools in PNG, which, Johnston explains, were undertaken to ensure that all three machines met the requirements of their respective functional design specifications in submerged conditions.

“Results, to date, indicate that they do.”

The trials also assisted Nautilus Minerals in collaborating with its partner, oil and lubricants company Petromin, as well as officials from various government regulatory agencies and representatives of the provincial governments of New Ireland and East New Britain.

Community leaders from coastal villages closest to the Solwara 1 site were afforded the opportunity to witness the trials of the equipment.

Deep-sea mining is hotly contested by environmentalists, who are concerned that irreversible, long-term damage could result from industrial-scale mining of seafloors worldwide, especially near sensitive marine environments.

According to environmental nongovernmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace, researchers recently concluded that most mining-induced loss of biodiversity in the deep seas was “likely to last forever” in terms of human time scales, as a result of the very slow natural rates of recovery in affected ecosystems.

Another organisation opposed to the activity, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, states that there is a high level of uncertainty about the risks that deep seabed mining poses to marine environments and communities.

The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is an association of NGOs and citizens from the Pacific islands, AustraliaCanada and the US.

The organisation notes that many countries – including Japan, China, Korea, the UK and the US, Canada, Germany, Australia and Russia – are waiting to see if Nautilus Minerals can successfully bring metals from the seafloor to smelters before “taking the plunge themselves”.

It also claims that extensive exploration licences have been applied for by various companies, covering more than 1.5-million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean floor. “In addition, exploration licences now also cover vast areas of the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean.”

However, more worrying is the deep-sea mining ‘exploration frenzy’ occurring in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little-known ecosystems of the deep seas, says Deep Sea Mining Campaign.

“[This] is also occurring without meaningful participation the decision-making process by the communities who will be affected by deep-sea mining.”

Further, the limited scientific research conducted to date provides no assurance that the health of coastal communities can be guaranteed and that the fisheries on which affected coastal communities depend will not be impacted on.

Three forms of deep-sea mining have attracted the attention of companies – the mining of cobalt crusts, polymetallic nodules and deposits of seafloor massive sulphides (SMS), also known as polymetallic sulphides. With high grades of zinc, copper, silver, gold, lead and rare earths, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign says it is SMS mining which is arguably the most alluring to miners.

“The mining of SMS is also likely to be the most contentious, as it will cause the greatest environmental impact,” the organisation avers.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace states that deep-sea mining could “wipe out marine species and ecosystems before we even know them”, as a result of the vast majority of the deep seas – about 50% of the earth’s oceans – being underexplored.

“Different types of seabed mining involve different extraction methods and technologies, but, whatever the approach, severe impacts can be expected. Sediment plumes, the potential release of toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, increased temperature and noise all threaten the deep sea’s precious and as-yet untouched environment,” states Greenpeace

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New Zealand’s blue whales under threat from seafloor mining

SCUBA News |  23 May 2018

A group of blue whales that frequent the South Taranaki Bight between the North and South islands of New Zealand appears to be part of a local population that is genetically distinct from other blue whales in the Pacific Ocean and Southern Ocean, a new study has found.

Hydrophones deployed in the region recorded blue whale calls on 99.7 percent of the days between January and December in 2016.

“There is no doubt that New Zealand blue whales are genetically distinct, but we’re still not certain about how many of them there are,” researcher Dawn Barlow commented. “We have generated a minimum abundance estimate of 718, and we also were able to document eight individuals that we re-sighted in multiple years in New Zealand waters, including one whale seen in three of the four years with a different calf each time, and many others we saw at least once.”

The study, led by Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, is important because the South Taranaki Bight has several oil and gas extraction rigs and the New Zealand government recently issued its first permit for mining the seafloor there for iron sands. Churning up the sand could muddy the sea and disrupt the natural food chain. The sand will be sucked up to a floating production vessel, the valuable iron content removed and shipped away for further processing while the sandy remains are pumped back to the seabed.

The blue whales found off New Zealand are not quite as large as Antarctic blue whales, which scientists believe to be the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth. Antarctic blues, when they reach adulthood, can range from 28 to 30 meters in length (nearly 100 feet). The other blue whales, though slightly smaller, are still formidable at about 22 meters in length (or 72 feet).


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Group questions Namatanai MP’s stance on seabed mining

Carmella Gware | Loop PNG | May 19, 2018

recent response by the Namatanai MP on Radio New Zealand over the experimental seabed mining has not gone down well with some locals.

In the May 16th article, Walter Schnaubelt was reported to have said though  too much remained unknown about the environmental impacts of seabed mining, ‘that doesn’t mean that we just shut the door’.

Schnaubelt further said he was keeping an open mind on potential seabed mining, and he would maintain a neutral stand until adequate information on the benefits of the Solwara 1 project are made available to him.

Following his statement, the Alliance of Solwara Warriors said as an educated elite, Schnaubelt has to come out clear on his stance, as being neutral only indicates two reasons:

  • The benefits of seabed mining to support his election promises
  • And to swing when people react as it will have a political implication

Furthermore, they said the shark calling culture is also under threat, hence why preach tourism when our action is contradictory.

“We lose our culture and we lose our identity.”

“The Morgado Square, which is the breeding ground for tuna, is also under threat. Fisheries is a sustainable and renewable resource, the local and national economy will be affected,” said the Alliance.

Topaio Landowners Association Public Relations Officer, Towaira Manget, challenges the MP to look into sustainable development project rather than focus on the benefits of experimental seabed mining.

He commended the Alliance of Solwara Warriors for taking the fight and speaking for the silent local majority.

Apart from the vocal Alliance of Solwara Warriors, environmental experts, churches and NGOs have also protested against the first-of-its-kind seabed mining.

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Call for clarity on PNG seabed mining project

Seabed mining machinery Photo: Mike Smith

Radio New Zealand | 16 March 2018

The MP for Namatanai in Papua New Guinea says more information is needed about the impacts and benefits of seabed mining.

The Solwara 1 Project, in which Canadian company Nautilus Minerals plans to extract gold and copper from under the Bismarck Sea, is facing a growing chorus of opposition from local community groups over environmental concerns.

Nautilus has yet to complete equipment requirements for beginning mining, and has seen investors recently withdraw from the project.

The MP, Walter Schnaubelt, said too much remained unknown about the environmental impacts of seabed mining.

“I’m of the view that of course it’s going to be something new, yes, maybe some unknowns are going to happen,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean that we just shut the door. I would like to delve into it a bit more and know exactly what it is.”

Mr Schnaubelt said there was also a lack of clarity on what benefits the project could bring.

However he said he was keeping an open mind on potential seabed mining.

Mr Schnaubelt said his constituents voted him in to help pave the way for economic development and he was not ruling out that the project could have benefits.

“Provided that those economic benefits do have tangible developments attached to them in the long run, then it’s not so bad,” he said.

“What I’m a little unclear about is what the exact benefits are. I’ve heard some figures, some percentages, but nothing concrete at this point in time.”

Walter Schnaubelt said he could understand the fear local communities had, given that it was the first seabed mining project in the world, and the extent of environmental impacts remain unknown.

However he said he would maintain a neutral stand until more adequate information about the project and clarity on its benefits were made available to him.

The MP conceded “a group opposing the project seems to be gaining momentum”.

But he said some landowners on Namatanai’s west coast were supportive of the project if it brought economic benefits.

“The economic benefits are not really that clear cut,” he explained. “We don’t know exactly what it is and what our (new Ireland’s) shares are, with the East New Britain government.”

He said if the project went ahead, he would want to see a better monitoring system in place to monitor the environment closely and carefully.

Additional measure had to be taken, he suggested, to ensure that an environmental disaster was not left for future generations to struggle with.

However the MP said the company appeared to be struggling for finance, with investors pulling out, and that the project may not proceed.

Mr Schnaubelt said it was another aspect of the project over which he and his constituency had not been given up to date, clear information about.

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PNG govt urged to follow Anglo American’s lead

Loop PNG | May 13, 2018

The PNG Government is urged to follow Anglo American’s lead and withdraw its share in Nautilus Minerals Inc.

The call has been made by the Alliance of Solwara Warriors following the May 4th announcement of the diversified miner in the Financial Times.

In a statement the Alliance of Solwara Warriors said the Government should “take heed of Anglo-American’s action as a professional example and withdraw its 15 percent share while there is still some value (K0.51 May 10th 2018)”.

“This is a clear indication of loss in investor confidence in the Solwara 1 Project and experimental seabed mining in PNG.

“Therefore we the Alliance of Solwara Warriors call on the Government to revoke the Solwara 1 Project and put a total ban on further seabed mining projects in our customary waters.

“We the maritime communities from the Bismarck and Solomon Seas have been resisting Nautilus Minerals experimental projects since 2009.

“Our seas are recognised and protected by our cultural and custom knowledge and as custodians and gatekeepers of this heritage, we recognise that Solwara 1 Project is a dangerous and bad investment.”

Meantime, the Anglo had said they were exiting their small minority shareholding in Nautilus “as part of the prioritization of our portfolio on our largest and greatest potential resource assets”.

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