Tag Archives: Tonga

Nautilus eyeing 38 potential experimental seabed mining sites in PNG and Tonga

Photo: The heavy-duty equipment for mining the ocean floor, like the partially assembled machine shown here, is built to withstand punishing conditions 1,600 meters below the waves.

Photo: The heavy-duty equipment for mining the ocean floor, like the partially assembled machine shown here, is built to withstand punishing conditions 1,600 meters below the waves.

Seabed-Mining Robots Will Dig for Gold in Hydrothermal Vents

Mining Industry Magazine

For decades, futurists have predicted that commercial miners would one day tap the unimaginable mineral wealth of the world’s ocean floor. Soon, that subsea gold rush could finally begin: The world’s first deep-sea mining robots are poised to rip into rich deposits of copper, gold, and silver 1,600 meters down at the bottom of the Bismarck Sea, near Papua New Guinea. The massive machines, which are to be tested sometime in 2016, are part of a high-stakes gamble for the Toronto-based mining company Nautilus Minerals.

Nautilus’s machines have been ready to go since 2012, when a dispute between the firm and the Papua New Guinean government stalled the project. What broke the impasse was the company’s offer, in 2014, to provide Papua New Guinea with certain intellectual property from the mining project.

The deal enabled Nautilus to get financing to build a €127 million ship, the first of its kind, which will deploy the subsea mining robots and process the ore they recover. This 227-meter-long production vessel is now being built in a Chinese shipyard and is scheduled to depart for Papua New Guinea in early 2018.

The mining robots were built for Nautilus by Soil Machine Dynamics, based in the United Kingdom, which supplies construction equipment for laying undersea cables, servicing offshore oil platforms, and other heavy-duty deep-sea jobs. The main robots are a pair of tractor-trailer-size excavators. One uses 4-meter-wide counterrotating heads studded with tungsten carbide picks to chew through the metal-rich chimneys that form around superhot water spewing from sulfurous vents in the seafloor. Its partner adds brute strength, using a studded drum that is 2.5 meters in diameter and 4 meters wide to pulverize rock walls.

Dredge pumps built into these machines will push the smashed ore back to a central pile on the seafloor, where a third Nautilus robot will feed a slurry of crushed rock and water up a pipe dangling from the production vessel. There the water will be wrung out from the ore, which will be loaded on another ship and carried to China for processing.

As 2015 drew to a close, Nautilus was still negotiating for access to a shallow-water site for an initial subsea test of these machines, which it hoped to begin in mid-2016. The plan is to do some rock cutting, though in an interview Nautilus’s CEO, Michael Johnston, says it is “difficult getting materials that are a good proxy for the materials we’ll be mining.” If time allows, the machines will also get a deep-sea trial before they are integrated with the production vessel, Johnston adds. Barring that, they will have to prove their stuff at Nautilus’s first mining site, called Solwara 1, which is located some 30 kilometers from shore in Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland province.

Assuming all goes well, the robotic diggers will spend 30 months scouring the Solwara 1 site, bringing up 2.5 million metric tons of ore containing metals worth more than US $1.5 billion at today’s prices. Next, the robots will likely set to work on one of Nautilus’s 18 other prospects in the Bismarck Sea or one of its 19 discoveries off the shores of the Polynesian archipelago of Tonga.

Illustration: James Provost

Illustration: James Provost

Competitors are staking out deep-sea mining sites of their own, with much of the development activity focused on rich deposits of polymetallic nodules in a vast region southeast of Hawaii known as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. The potato-size nodules, found in waters more than 4 km deep, contain manganese along with nickel, cobalt, and other metals.

But some marine biologists warn that deep-sea mining interests are outpacing the readiness of scientists and governments to assess and manage the environmental impact. Verena Tunnicliffe, a specialist in deep-sea vent ecosystems at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada, says robo-miners will strip away deep-sea ecosystems that are as unique as they are poorly understood.

Johnston points out that Nautilus is taking pains to study these ecosystems and will protect them to the extent possible. A refuge zone within the leased area, for example, will provide a source of local fauna for recolonization of the company’s deep-sea strip mine.

Tunnicliffe worries that this vision for recolonization could prove wildly optimistic: “The habitat is going to be pulverized, and the energy flow of the system will be completely altered. I do not believe recolonization of these types of populations is going to happen.”

Other marine biologists are more sanguine, however. With luck, the mining will prove no more devastating to these vent communities over the long term than the frequent earthquakes and outpourings of lava that these amazing deep-sea creatures are somehow able to survive.

This article originally appeared in print as “Robot Miners of the Briny Deep.”

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Deep seabed mining regulation in the Pacific

rip seabed mining

Robert Makgill and Ana P Linhares | New Zealand Law Society

Deep seabed mining is increasingly seen as commercially feasible within the Pacific region. This is because it has vast seabed mineral deposits located outside sovereign territory. [1]

Despite advances in seabed mining technology, scientific knowledge concerning the unique biophysical character of the deep sea environment remains sparse. This means there is relatively little information concerning the potential risk of environmental damage associated with proposed seabed mining activities.

Obligations

The exploration and development of natural resources outside sovereign territory is governed under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Mining the seabed located under the high sea, more commonly known as the Area, is controlled under Part XI of the UNCLOS. Likewise, the right of states to undertake mining within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf is also established under UNCLOS. These rights to develop natural resources located within the seabed are attended by the corresponding obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment.

States and state-sponsored companies proposing to engage in exploration or exploitation of resources in the Area must obtain approval from the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The Republic of Nauru and the Kingdom of Tonga applied to the ISA to explore the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in April 2008. Located in the Pacific Ocean, to the south and south-east of the Hawaiian Islands, this part of the Area is considered to hold the most promise in terms of commercially viable manganese nodule recovery.

Nauru and Tonga subsequently became concerned about their potential liability for damage to the marine environment resulting from seabed mining and postponed their applications. Nauru then requested the ISA obtain an advisory opinion on state parties’ obligations and liability for seabed mining from the Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (the Chamber).

Advisory opinion

The Chamber delivered an advisory opinion on 1 February 2011 answering that each state party has a general obligation of due diligence to adopt “laws and regulations” and to take “administrative measures which are, within the framework of its legal system, reasonably appropriate for securing compliance by persons under its jurisdiction”. [2]

The Chamber identified a number of direct obligations through which law-making and enforcement might be given effect. Key obligations identified included the precautionary approach, best environmental practices and environmental impact assessment (EIA). [3]

These obligations would feature strongly in future regulatory efforts within the Pacific region designed to address the lack of information and uncertainty in relation to the impacts of mining on the marine environment.

The Chamber went on to find that state parties would be liable for damage arising from the failure of a state to carry out its obligations. On the other hand, adoption of the precautionary approach, best environmental practices and EIA within a state’s legislative framework would reduce the risk of liability in cases where environmental damage did occur as the result of seabed mining activities.

Wave of action

The Chamber’s opinion led to a wave of regulatory action throughout the Pacific region. The precautionary approach, best environmental practices and EIA have since found their way into a number of regulatory initiatives including the:

  1. European Union and Secretariat of the Pacific Community Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation (Regional Framework); [4]
  2. Cook Islands National Seabed Minerals Policy 2014;
  3. Tongan Seabed Mining Act 2014; and
  4. New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (EEZ Act).

These initiatives can be said to have firmly established the key obligations within the Pacific as central to regulating seabed mining activities.

Moreover, the recent decisions of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in Trans-Tasman Resources and Chatham Rock Phosphate [5] concerning applications for seabed mining under New Zealand’s EEZ Act, have demonstrated that consideration of the precautionary approach, best environmental practices and EIA require an adequate understanding of the existing marine environment before development can proceed.

In declining both applications, the EPA has made clear that lack of information and uncertainty does not require regulators to prevent exploration and development from taking place.

However, the precautionary approach does require the collection of adequate baseline data on existing environments before commencing exploration or development. This is to ensure that any potential environmental changes arising out of lack of information or uncertainty as to the impacts of seabed mining are able to be monitored and controlled to avoid significant adverse effects.

The key obligations identified in the Advisory Opinion have been adopted in the Pacific region as regulatory prerequisites to deep sea exploration and development.

The decisions made in New Zealand have, in turn, signalled that baseline data is required to proceed where there is imperfect information. It might be said that the obligations identified by the Chamber are serving the regulatory function for which they were intended.

Robert Makgill is an Auckland barrister who specialises in environmental and natural resources law. He appeared as legal counsel for parties in the Chamber’s Advisory proceedings and Trans-Tasman Resources. He regularly advises on seabed mining regulation throughout the Pacific region. See http://www.robertmakgill.com. Ana Linhares is a doctoral researcher who specialises in natural resources, international environmental law and law of the sea.

1. See forthcoming publication – Makgill, R. and Linhares, AP., ‘Chapter 15: Deep Seabed Mining – Key Obligations in the Emerging Regulation of Exploration and Development in the Pacific’, in Warner, R. and Kaye, S. (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Maritime Regulation and Enforcement.

2. Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea Responsibilities and Obligations of States Sponsoring Persons and Entities with Respect to Activities in the Area (Advisory Opinion) (1 February 2011) (“Advisory Opinion”), at para 110.

3. Anton, D., Makgill, R. and Payne, C., ‘Advisory Opinion on Responsibility and Liability for International Seabed Mining (ITLOS Case No. 17): International Environmental Law in the Seabed Disputes Chamber’, (2011) 41/2 Environmental Policy and Law 60 to 65, at 63.

4. Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SOPAC Division), Pacific-ACP States Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation prepared under the SPC-EU EDF10 Deep Sea Minerals Project, (1st ed. July 2012).

5. Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd Marine Consent Decision, Environmental Protection Authority, dated 17 June 2014; and Decision on Marine Consent Application by Chatham Rock Phosphate Limited, Application Ref: EEZ000006, Environmental Protection Authority, 10 February 2015.

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Tonga passes Act to regulate seabed minerals exploration and mining

Matangi Tonga

Parliament has passed a Seabed Minerals Act 2014, an act that regulates mineral exploration and potential mining in Tongan waters.

Tonga currently has no mining industry as the Kingdom has yet to discover mineral resources such as oil or precious metals. Past oil explorations have been made, but without success.

Recently however, three mineral exploration companies (KORDI, Blue Water Metal, Nautilus Minerals Tonga) were licensed to explore Tongan waters. The companies were prospecting for metals such as Gold, Cobalt, and Copper. Any significant discovery of metal resources has yet to be announced.

Act

One of the objectives stated in the Act was “to secure economic development of the Kingdom through the development of its Seabed Mineral sector;”

The Act establishes a “regulatory system and designates a responsible Authority to license, monitor and manage the Kingdom‘s involvement with Seabed Mineral Activities;”.

The responsible Authority designated in the act is “the Tonga Seabed Minerals Authority”. Failures to abide by the authority can result in large fines. For example, a fine not exceeding $150,000 is in place for anyone who supplies false or misleading information to the authority.

Other offences include a fine not exceeding $1,000,000 for anyone who engages “in any Seabed Mineral Activities unless, and only insofar as, authorised to do so under a Title issued under this Act.”

The Act was passed by the Legislature on 23 July and enacted on 25 August 2014.

The prospect of deep sea mining in Tonga, however, is questionable. Globally, seabed mining for metals is rare and largely considered to be unviable because of the immense challenges and costs of mining at deep sea.

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EU brings experimental seabed mining ever closer for the Pacific

The European Union sponsored Deep Sea Minerals Project continues to push for the introduction of experimental seabed mining across the Pacific. EU companies stand poised to make big profits but as we have seen with land based mining across the Region, the environmental, social and economic outcomes for Pacific people never live up to the promises or our expectations – regardless of how high we set the standards in our legislation… 

Tonga a world leader in seabed minerals law

Secretariat of the Pacific Community | The Jet

The Kingdom of Tonga this month became the first country in the world to put in place a law that manages seabed mineral activities within its national marine space and under its sponsorship in international waters.

Tonga’s Seabed Minerals Act 2014 was prepared with the assistance of the Deep Sea Minerals Project a partnership between the European Union (EU) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and 15 Pacific Island countries. The Act received Royal Assent from the King of Tonga on 20 August 2014. This pioneering law, championed by Tonga’s Minister for Lands and Natural Resources and his staff, and led by the Kingdom’s Attorney-General’s Office, with SPC support, positions Tonga at the forefront of good governance for this emerging new industry.

Tonga, like Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Solomon Islands, has already received significant commercial interest in the seabed mineral potential within its national seas. Companies are currently conducting exploratory activities to learn more about Tonga’s ‘seafloor massive sulphide’ deposits. These chimney like structures, formed by hydrothermal activity at the seafloor thousands of metres below sea-level, are being feted as a new source for metals in global demand (such as copper, zinc, gold and silver) – and, if mined, would bring a new source of revenue for Tonga. The industry is however an untested one: deep sea mining has not yet occurred anywhere in the world; its viability and environmental impact are yet to be determined.

Now, in Tonga, before any seabed mining can commence, the requirements of the Seabed Minerals Act must be followed. This includes a stringent vetting process by government of any new project proposals, and public consultation if mining is proposed. Environmental impact assessment and ongoing monitoring are legal requirements under the Act, and government is given enforcement powers in order to maintain compliance with required performance standards. The Act also highlights the importance placed by Tonga on the protection and preservation of the marine environment, recognising the need to balance economic development for the people of Tonga against conservation of the biodiversity of the oceans.

Mr Taaniela Kula, Deputy Secretary for Natural Resources and the SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project focal point in Tonga, thanked a wide range of stakeholders this week for their involvement in the law’s development, which commenced in 2012, including government colleagues and partners in the private sector and civil society – with special thanks to the EU and SPC for the Deep Sea Mineral Project’s assistance preparing an initial draft of the Act.

European Union Ambassador to the Pacific Andrew Jacobs, upon receiving a copy of the Seabed Minerals Act 2014, commented: ‘I wish to congratulate Tonga for this bold move, which will allow the Kingdom to effectively regulate and fully participate in deep sea mineral activities. The EU is pleased to have been able to contribute to this world premiere. Tonga is now equipped with a set of tools and regulations that will allow it to maximise the benefits of deep sea mining for its population.’

Prof. Mike Petterson, the Director of SPC’s Applied Geoscience and Technology Division, which hosts the SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project, added his congratulations to Tonga for its great achievement:

‘The Seabed Minerals Act 2014 is not only a world first, but also a world best! With this new law, Tonga establishes a robust and transparent regulatory system, which prioritises good governance of natural resources and environmental management in line with international best practice. With provisions that set a stable and predictable regime, with requirements for the precautionary approach, public consultation and ‘free, prior and informed consent’, and with the creation of a ring-fenced sovereign wealth fund for seabed mining revenue, through this Act, Tonga has struck a good balance between incentivising the investment that will bring Tonga new income, while protecting the long-term interests of the people of the Kingdom and the health of the oceans.’

Tonga’s legislation follows closely the SPC-EU Deep Sea Mineral Project’s ‘Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework’ launched by Pacific Island Forum Leaders in 2012, and endorsed by all 15 Pacific members of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP). Several other Pacific Island countries also have seabed mineral Bills under development, with SPC and EU support, and the Deep Sea Minerals Project is supporting a wide range of other deep sea minerals ‘good governance’ activities across the region, in response to the requests and individual needs of  countries.

Tonga will now continue to implement the SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project, with awareness-raising programmes, and the development of further regulations.

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Nautilus Minerals looks across the Pacific after securing Papua New Guinea undersea mining deal

Business Advantage 

Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals will accelerate its range of seabed mining projects across the Pacific, after finally signing a US$120 million (K336 million) agreement with the Papua New Guinea government to develop its Solwara 1 mining project in the Bismarck Sea.

The shareholding is held through state entity Petromin PNG Holdings Limited, with the remaining US$113 million (K316 million) due to be paid by 31 July 2014. Mining Minister Byron Chan says the government would have bought a bigger shareholding if it already had some of the income from the PNG LNG project.The PNG Government has paid Nautilus a non-refundable deposit of US$7 million (K19.6 million) for an initial 15% (US$120 million) interest in the project, and can increase its share to 30% in the next 12 months.

Pioneering financial transaction

BSP CEO Robin Fleming (right) sealing the transaction to fund the State’s equity in Solwara 1. Looking on are (from left) Petromin CEO Arun Basu, and Petromin Non-Executive Director Jerry Wemin.

BSP CEO Robin Fleming (right) sealing the transaction to fund the State’s equity in Solwara 1. Looking on are (from left) Petromin CEO Arun Basu, and Petromin Non-Executive Director Jerry Wemin.

The Bank of South Pacific is providing the government’s investment, believed to be the first time the PNG-domiciled bank has fully-funded a PNG Government venture of this magnitude.

Colm Lynch, Senior Manager Corporate Banking, says BSP is looking to back further investments in infrastructure, mining and other ventures in PNG and Fiji by the government and other offshore investors.

‘We see BSP as a viable local alternative to our competitors which, given our in-country infrastructure, would mean we are a natural partner to work with offshore banks and institutions,’ he toldBusiness Advantage PNG.

‘We did a comprehensive due diligence on the environmental impact and we are comfortable with the work that Nautilus has done,’ he added.

‘It was one of the most important parts of the transaction—ensuring that the environmental approach was correct.’

Everyone ‘happy’

Nautilus’ CEO, Mike Johnston, has told a briefing in Toronto that everyone is happy with the agreement, which ‘represents a major vote of confidence in Nautilus Minerals and the Solwara 1 Project’. He said the company has ‘strong support’ from the PNG national and provincial governments. The agreement follows talks after an independent arbitrator ruled in favour of Nautilus, which accused the government of reneging on its share of financing for the project, while the government had accused Nautilus of not fulfilling some of its obligations. The final agreed amount to be paid by the PNG State is US$2 million more than the arbitrator ordered be paid last year.

Johnston said the agreement covers only the Solwara 1 project, and any other exploration projects in PNG would require separate mining licences and agreements.

Copper and gold

The controversial project aims to extract ores of copper, gold and other valuable metals from a depth of 1,500m, in the Bismark Sea, which lies in southwestern Pacific Ocean to the north of Papua New Guinea. Nautilus says it intends to produce 80,000 to 100,000 tonnes of copper and 100,000 to 200,000 ounces of gold.

Minerals will be excavated by a fleet of robotic machines steered from a ship at the surface.

Johnston says he hopes to have a suitable vessel ready by the end of 2014, with production to begin within two-to-three years.

Seafloor mining to go Pacific-wide?

802798.pdf

The progress of the Solwara 1 seafloor mining project, which will deploy technology previously only used in the oil and gas extraction industry, is being eagerly watched across the Pacific.

While land is in short supply and normally under customary ownership, which makes land mining problematic, the Pacific’s island nations are surrounded by massive Exclusive Economic Zones of ocean. If a method of extracting minerals from the seabed in those zones can be proven, and those nations can develop appropriate regulatory environments for such mining, it will establish a potentially lucrative new source of income.

Nautilus Minerals CEO Mike Johnston says since the PNG deal there has been increased interest by Pacific governments in its proposals, and the company is in discussions with possible joint venture partners from the metals and mining industries.

Nautilus holds a total of more than 500,000 square kilometres of exploration territory, or tenement applications, in Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Zealand and the Central Pacific.

Nautilus Minerals 100%-owned subsidiary, Tonga Offshore Mining Limited, reported in 2012 it had found ‘significant grades of manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt’ in the Central Pacific.

 

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The robot is ready – so when will deep sea mining start?

Stephen Eisenhammer and Silvia Antonioli | Reuters

Employees of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) work on a subsea mining machine being built for Nautilus Minerals at Wallsend, northern England April 14, 2014.

Employees of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) work on a subsea mining machine being built for Nautilus Minerals at Wallsend, northern England April 14, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Nigel Roddis 

The world’s first deep sea mining robot sits idle on a British factory floor, waiting to claw up high grade copper and gold from the seabed off Papua New Guinea (PNG) – when a wrangle over terms is solved.

Beyond PNG, in international waters, regulation and royalty terms for mining the planet’s subsea wealth have also yet to be finalized. The world waits for the judgment of a United Nations agency based in Jamaica.

“If we can take care of the environment we have a brand new day ahead of us. The marine area beyond national jurisdiction is 50 percent of the Ocean,” said Nii Odunton, secretary general of the U.N.’s International Seabed Authority (ISA).

“I believe the grades look good, the abundance looks good, I believe that money will be made,” Odunton said from the ISA offices in Kingston.

High-tech advances, depleted easy-to-reach minerals onshore and historically high prices have boosted the idea of mining offshore, where metals can be fifteen times the quality of land deposits.

In Newcastle, the “beasty”, as engineer Keith Franklin calls his machine, lies in wait, resembling a submersible tank with four meter wide cutting blades.

Built by Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), it will put Canadian listed Nautilus Minerals on course to become the first company to commercially mine in deep water.

Nautilus’ primary resource, Solwara 1, about 1,500 meters underwater, is a Seafloor Massive Sulphide (SMS) deposit, which forms along hydrothermal vents where mineral-rich fluids spurt from cracks in the ocean crust.

Equipped with cameras and 3D sonar sensors the robot is driven by two pilots from a control room on the vessel above, attached via a giant power cable.

“The cameras aren’t enough by themselves because the machine will be working by vents where black soot spurts from the ocean crust and it will sometimes be near impossible to see anything,” said Stef Kapusniak, business development manager for mining at SMD. “The 3D sonar will allow it to make images and send it back to the control room.”

The machine then cuts up the sea floor and sucks the rocks through a pipe to deposit it in mounds behind – “like icing a cake,” Kapusniak said. Another machine, yet to be built, will then help suck the ore to the surface.

Nautilus aims to produce 80,000-100,000 metric tons of copper and 100,000-200,000 ounces of gold – equivalent to a modest onshore mine. It was supposed to be producing by now, but disagreements with the PNG government over financial terms have set it back.

Chief Executive Mike Johnston told Reuters he was confident a resolution would be sorted out and the company would be mining within two to three years.

Most of the world’s best deposits lie even deeper than Nautilus’ Solwara 1, at around 6,000 meters in an area known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone.

Large numbers of manganese nodules – potato sized rocks rich in copper, cobalt and nickel – lie across this 4.5 million square kilometer abyssal plain between Hawaii and Mexico.

LICENSES ALREADY AWARDED

The U.N.’s ISA is drawing up a code to deal with some environmental concerns and the commercial terms for deep-sea mining. It predicts it will be finished in around two or three years, with mining still 5-10 years away.

“It’s only after the code is in place and people are happy with it that the huge investments needed to start deep-sea mining will occur,” ISA’s Odunton, a Ghanaian, said.

ISA is, however, already doling out exploration licenses – 19 have been approved. Odunton said interest in them had “catapulted” in the past five years.

In order to get a license through ISA an applicant must be sponsored or partnered with a country. For nations like Japan which lack their own resource wealth, deep-sea mining is a potential way to secure mineral supply for the future.

China, the world’s largest metals consumers, is also one of the most active in exploring the area.

Britain has an exploration license in partnership with UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of defense firm Lockheed Martin

“These are the days you have to take a position, especially as a government,” said Martijn Schouten, managing director at IHC’s mining division – an equipment maker which targets seabed mining as its next growth driver.

IHC is the leading partner in an European Union funded project called Blue Mining, begun in February, and will look at the business case and technology for deep-sea mining over the next four years.

This new frontier is an exciting prospect for developing island nations like Tonga and Nauru, which both have exploration licenses. For Tonga, where Nautilus says it has been collecting encouraging exploration results, it could be a game changer.

“The revenue stream and taxes from a medium sized mine would have an enormous benefit to the country,” Nautilus’ Johnston said.

The main companies looking to mine the seabed, like Nautilus and UK Seabed Resources, are not, however, traditional mining firms, although Anglo American does have a 5 percent stake in the former.

IHC said most of its contracts were with technology-based companies that were not in the mining industry, although it would not specify further due to confidentiality clauses.

IHC said it has had discussions with oil majors who are beginning to show an interest in deep sea mining.

But, with little of the deep ocean mapped or explored, environmentalists worry about the potential loss of fauna and biospheres whose existence is not yet understood.

“Only 3 percent of the oceans are protected and less than 1 percent of the high seas, making them some of the least protected places on earth. The emerging threat of seabed mining is an urgent wake-up call,” Greenpeace said in a report last year.

“I think we really have to be careful about what happens to the environment,” said ISA’s Odunton. “We don’t know enough to take some of the risks we’ve taken on land.”

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New law to make it easier for UK companies to mine Pacific seabed

A new law to be passed by the British Parliament is intended to make it easier for UK companies to dig up the ocean floor in the Pacific – as the briefing below from the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes clear. It seems the UK still views the Pacific as part of its Empire which it should be free to rape and pillage for its own profit…

DEEP SEA MINING BILL

 UK Government Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

This Bill is about the deep ocean bed in areas beyond the limits of any national jurisdiction, in other words at least 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state[1].  Commercial exploitation of minerals from this area is still a concept rather than a reality, but as technology has developed to the extent where mining in such extreme environments is a possibility, exploration activity is increasing.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provided for the establishment of the International Seabed Authority, which became fully operational in 1996, two years after the entry into force of UNCLOS.  The Authority organises and controls all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area.   The Authority has developed regulations for the exploration of various mineral deposits and has subsequently issued licences to applicants for this activity.  Applicants must be sponsored by a State party to UNCLOS, and must be in possession of a licence from that State party, which serves to ensure the State party is able to exercise national control over the company or organisation concerned.   In 2012 the UK Government sponsored the first application for an exploration licence by a UK company for an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and is sponsoring a further application in 2013 in a similar area. 

Current exploration activity mainly concerns polymetallic nodules.  These are found in high density in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, usually at depths of 3000 metres or more below sea level.  They contain manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel and other trace elements.  Other exploration activity is focussed on polymetallic sulphides, found on ocean ridges such as the mid-Atlantic ridge, and exploration for cobalt-rich crusts, found along seamounts and ridges is expected to start soon.  Countries involved in these exploration activities, predominantly through research institutes, include Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and India.   More recent applications sponsored by Tonga, Nauru and Belgium, have been made by commercial enterprises.

The current UK legislation, The Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981, predates UNCLOS and the establishment of the International Seabed Authority and in a number of technical respects is inconsistent with the Convention.  The 1981 Act is also limited to one type of mineral only.  The purpose of the Bill is to bring UK legislation into line with certain provisions of UNCLOS and to broaden the scope of minerals in the deep sea for which the Government can issue licences, thereby ensuring that British companies can potentially benefit from all the opportunities available. 

As the world’s demand for minerals continues to grow, and land-based sources become overstretched, the search for minerals in the deep sea is the inevitable consequence.  Any type of mining, land based or from the sea, causes some environmental impact, but properly conducted activities to explore the seabed for minerals should have little potential for causing serious harm to the marine environment.

Little is known yet about the potential impact of deep sea exploitation but by helping to place UK companies at the heart of this frontier industry, under the control of the UK Government, we can ensure that these companies comply with the highest environmental standards, and there is due recognition given to the environmental impact in the development of international regulations for the possible exploitation of seabed minerals in the future.


[1] Except where a rock belonging to a state may be deemed so small as to be unable to sustain human habitation or economic life of its own.  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea such rocks can only generate a territorial sea (up to 12 miles) and not a continental shelf.

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