Tag Archives: UK Seabed Resources

Foreign companies lining up to rape the Pacific seafloor

Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority, Nii Allotey Odunton, and Linda Reiners, UKSRL Managing Director.

Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority, Nii Allotey Odunton, and Linda Reiners, UKSRL Managing Director.

More Deals in Readiness for Seabed Mining Boom

Wendy Laursen | The Maritime Executive, 30 March 2016

The International Seabed Authority has signed its first exploration contract for seabed mining for 2016.

The deal was signed with the U.K. Seabed Resources Limited (UKSRL) and involves a 15-year contract for the exploration of polymetallic nodules in the eastern part of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico. The area allocated to the contractor covers a total surface of 74,919 square kilometers (29,000 square miles).

The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone is roughly 80 percent the size of the contiguous United States, and exploration contracts have so far been granted for 25 percent of the area.

This latest contract is the 14th contract for exploration for polymetallic nodules in the zone and the second contract for exploration for polymetallic nodules by UKSRL. UKSRL signed its first exploration contract with the Authority in February 2013 for an area of approximately 116,000 square kilometers (45,000 square miles).

A growing number of contracts

Last year, the Authority signed five new contracts bringing the total number of contracts for exploration around the world to 23 and another five are expected to be signed by July. Between 1984 and 2011, the Authority issued just six leases for mining exploration. In the last five years, it has granted 21. 

The permits allow for exploration only, but once certain conditions are met, the leases are expected to roll over into ones that allow commercial-scale mining.

The new contracts signed in 2015 were for exploration for polymetallic nodules with Marawa Research and Exploration on January 19, and Ocean Mineral Singapore on January 22. Another was for exploration for polymetallic sulfides with the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural resources of Germany on May 6 and two for exploration for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation on 10 March and with Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais of Brazil on November 9.

Mining prospects

The first discovery of polymetallic nodules occurred in 1873 during a voyage by HMS Challenger. The vessel dredged up “several peculiar black oval bodies which were composed of almost pure manganese oxide.” In 1965, J. L. Mero studied the economic possibilities of manganese nodules mining and predicted that the manganese nodule mining should be a sound business proposition in about 20 years.

Subsequently, it was discovered that the nodules cover vast areas of the ocean floor but are more abundant in areas off the west coast of Mexico, the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, in the Central Indian Ocean Basin and in the Peru basin. 

The nodules are composed mainly of manganese, iron, silicates and hydroxides. However, it is the trace metal contents such as nickel, copper, cobolt, molybdenum and rare earth elements that are attracting most interest. 

The nodules vary in size from micro-nodules to about 20 centimeters (eight inches), the most common size being two to eight centimeters (one to three inches). They occur abundantly as two dimensional deposits at the unconsolidated sediment-water interface and sometime as scantly buried in sediments. 

The deposits of economic importance occur mostly at four to six thousand meters depths in areas of extremely low sedimentation rate. Sediment accumulates at the rate of a couple of centimeters every 1,000 years, and the modules can take a million years to grow by a few millimeters. 

The nodules require a nucleus to start forming. This nucleus could be anything, varying from a piece of pumice, a shark tooth, old nodule piece, basalt debris or even microfossils like radiolaria and foraminifera.


Relicanthus sp.  - a new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected  at 4,100 meters in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone  that lives on sponge stalks attached to nodules. Credit: Craig Smith and Diva Amon, Abyssline Project.

Relicanthus sp.  – a new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected  at 4,100 meters in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone  that lives on sponge stalks attached to nodules. Credit: Craig Smith and Diva Amon, Abyssline Project.

Little is known about the marine life of the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. However, it is known that it contains ecosystems that are rarely perturbed. Under normal circumstances, the deep sea is one of the least changeable ecosystems on Earth. 

A 26-year old test mining track (1.5 meters (five feet) wide) created at the seafloor of the CCZ illustrating the extremely slow recovery of these abyssal ecosystems from physical disturbance. Credit: Copyright Ifremer, Nodinaut cruise (2004).

A 26-year old test mining track (1.5 meters (five feet) wide) created at the seafloor of the CCZ illustrating the extremely slow recovery of these abyssal ecosystems from physical disturbance. Credit: Copyright Ifremer, Nodinaut cruise (2004).

The Abyssline research project (2013-2018) is currently gathering baseline ecosystem information at the abyssal seafloor of the manganese nodule province in the Zone.

A paper published in the journal Science last year says that seabed mining may cause “serious, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible damage” to portions of the seafloor, and many scientists believe that marine protected areas may give the species the best chance of surviving the coming mining boom. 

Mining impacts could affect important environmental benefits that the deep sea provides, say the scientists from the Center for Ocean Solutions. For example, the deep sea is important to the Earth’s carbon cycle, capturing a substantial amount of human-emitted carbon which impacts both weather and climate. Mining activities could disturb these deep-sea carbon sinks, releasing excess carbon back into the atmosphere. The deep sea also sustains economically important fisheries, and harbors microorganisms which have proven valuable in a number of pharmaceutical, medical and industrial applications.

The Authority is expected to decide this summer whether to accept protected areas proposed in 2013. The areas would nearly 1.7 million square kilometers (650,000 square miles) of the Zone.

Undersea Mountains

Elsewhere in the ocean, mining companies are preparing to mine the mineral-rich structures that form around hydrothermal vents. The first such project, by Nautilus Minerals, will be in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea and is expected to begin in 2018. 

The Law of the Sea

The Authority, which has its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, came into existence on 16 November 1994. The International Seabed Authority is an autonomous international organization established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Authority has been entrusted with the implementation of the “common heritage of mankind” which applies to mineral resources beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. This upholds a vision of sustainable development of mineral resources in the international seabed area and the sharing of benefits and responsibilities for all States, including the land-locked and geographically disadvantaged States.

The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone

The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone is a geological submarine fracture zone of the Pacific Ocean, with a length of some 7,240 kilometers (4,500 miles). It is one of the five major lineations of the northern Pacific floor, south of the Clarion Fracture Zone, discovered by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1950. The fracture, an unusually mountainous topographical feature, begins east-northeast of the Line Islands and ends in the Middle America Trench off the coast of Central America. It roughly forms a line on the same latitude as Kiribati and Clipperton Island.


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Deep sea mining licences issued

David Shukman | BBC News

For decades, the idea of mining these deposits was dismissed as unfeasible

For decades, the idea of mining these deposits was dismissed as unfeasible

Vast new areas of the ocean floor have been opened up in an accelerating search for valuable minerals including manganese, copper and gold.

In a move that brings closer a new era of deep sea mining, the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued seven new exploration licences.

State-owned and private companies from India, Brazil, Singapore and Russia are among those to land permission for minerals prospecting.

One British firm, UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the US defence giant Lockheed Martin, has secured exploration rights to an area larger than the entire UK.

This means that the total area of seabed now licensed in this new gold rush has reached an immense 1.2 million square kilometres under 26 different permits for minerals prospecting.

Deep sea mining is a new frontier in the quest for the precious raw materials needed for modern economies but environmental groups have long warned of the potential damage to marine ecosystems.

Mining the ocean floor was first investigated in the 1960s but only recently have technological advances – spurred by the oil and gas industry – and high prices for resources combined to make operations feasible.

The ISA was set up to manage the exploitation of the ocean floor beyond territorial limits to prevent a free-for-all and has so far only issued licences for exploration. The first permits for exploitation could come in the next few years.

Nodules are a target for extraction - these small lumps of rock contain high proportions of metals

Nodules are a target for extraction – these small lumps of rock contain high proportions of metals

Michael Lodge of the ISA told the BBC: “There’s definitely growing interest. Most of the latest group are commercial companies so they’re looking forward to exploitation in a reasonably short time – this move brings that closer.”

Still to be negotiated are the conditions and rules for actual mining.

A protocol to minimise the environmental impact is still being drawn up. And arrangements for royalties to be paid to developing and landlocked countries have yet to be settled – a basic principle of the ISA is that seabed riches should be shared globally.

Two of the new licences – for German and Indian organisations – cover deep ocean ridges where hydrothermal vents have created potentially rich deposits.

Dr Jon Copley of the University of Southampton, a marine biologist, has monitored the development of deep sea mining amid concerns about its possible effects on the natural world.

“In total, about 6,000 km of mid-ocean ridge in international waters are now being explored for potential seafloor mining. In total, around 7.5% of the global mid-ocean ridge – the geological backbone of our planet – is now being explored for its mineral wealth.

“Ridges are one of the three deep-sea environments where there are mineral deposits attracting interest, in this case for the metal ores that form at deep-sea vents along the ridges.

“But those vents are also home to colonies of some species that aren’t found in other deep ocean environments, which may make them susceptible to environmental impacts from mining.”

UK Seabed Resources (UKSRL) conducted a baseline environmental survey of its licence area in the Pacific last October.

Construction of a seafloor mining machine was completed in the UK

Construction of a seafloor mining machine was completed in the UK

It is hoping to extract so-called nodules from the ocean floor – small lumps of rock which contain far higher proportions of metals than ores found on land.

Duncan Cunningham of UKSRL said the company remained “committed to environmentally responsible, transparent and commercially sound development of the area”.

He added: “We were extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to present details of our first environmental baseline cruise to the ISA and other stakeholders.”

The first seabed mine is likely to be in the waters off Papua New Guinea. In a deal arranged outside the ISA system, a Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, plans to extract metals from a field of hydrothermal vents.

The project was delayed for years by a dispute with the PNG government but terms have now been finalised and huge robotic mining machines are being constructed.

‘Into the Abyss – Deep sea mining’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 23rd July at 2100 BST and will be repeated on Tuesday 29th July at 1530 BST.

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UK Seabed Resources joins deep-ocean mineral-mining rush

BBC News

Construction of the largest machine - the 310-tonne Bulk Cutter - was completed in the UK

Construction of the largest machine – the 310-tonne Bulk Cutter – was completed in the UK

A new and controversial frontier in mining is opening up as a British firm joins a growing rush to exploit minerals in the depths of the oceans.

UK Seabed Resources is a subsidiary of the British arm of Lockheed Martin.

It has plans for a major prospecting operation in the Pacific.

The company says surveys have revealed huge numbers of so-called nodules – small lumps of rock rich in valuable metals – lying on the ocean floor south of Hawaii and west of Mexico.

The exact value of these resources is impossible to calculate reliably, but a leading UN official described the scale of mineral deposits in the world’s oceans as “staggering” with “several hundred years’ worth of cobalt and nickel”.

An expedition to assess the potential environmental impact of extracting the nodules will be launched this summer amid concerns that massive “vacuuming” operations to harvest the nodules might cause lasting damage to ecosystems.

With the support of the British government, UK Seabed Resources has secured a licence from the United Nations to explore an area of seabed twice the size of Wales and 4,000m deep.

Under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, mining rights on the ocean floor are controlled by a little-known body, the International Seabed Authority, which since 2001 has issued 13 licences – with another six in prospect.

These licences, valid for 15 years, have been bought for $500,000 each by government organisations, state-owned corporations and private companies from countries including China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

The high prices fetched for copper, gold and rare-earth minerals are leading to a surge in interest in mining the ocean floor. The idea first surfaced in the 1970s but was dropped because the costs were too high and the technology could not cope.

The nodules are known to contain up to 28% metal – 10 times the proportion found on land.

A similarly high metal content is found in another target for seabed mining: hydrothermal vents, chimneys formed by extremely hot water, rich in minerals. We reported on the discovery of the world’s deepest vents last month.

Stephen Ball, chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin UK, owner of UK Seabed Resources, says the engineering experience of offshore oil and gas operations and the trend to rising mineral prices have now combined to make seabed mining feasible.

“It’s another source of minerals – there’s a shortage and there’s difficulty getting access, so there’s strategic value for the UK government in getting an opportunity to get these minerals,” he told the BBC.

China’s domination of the global production of rare-earth minerals in particular has fuelled the search for other sources of materials essential for everything from electronics to wind turbines.

But many marine scientists and conservationists have warned that the implications of this deep-sea gold rush are not yet understood – and that mining nodules or hydrothermal vents could prove catastrophic for seabed ecology.

Mr Ball said exploration over the next three years would establish whether a system to vacuum up the nodules could be designed to cause minimal impact. The nodules typically lie in a shallow layer of silt.

He said he believed it would be “perfectly feasible to create a benign method to extract these minerals from extreme depths without disturbing the seabed.”

“But until we’ve demonstrated that, there will be a debate around that.”

One risk is that the mining operations could generate huge plumes of sediment that could drift through the sea – choking any marine life that feeds by ingesting water and filtering out its food sources.

Michael Lodge, general counsel for the International Seabed Authority, told me that the authority’s aim was to encourage a new mining industry to exploit seabed minerals but within strict environmental controls.

“The nodules are generally lying in sediment that is between 2-6in (5-15cm) thick that’s been there undisturbed for millions of years. We simply don’t know the recovery times or the distribution of species – there are lots of uncertainties.”

He described mining hydrothermal vents as “more invasive” because it would involve breaking up the uppermost metre of the sea floor and piping the rock fragments to the surface.

A Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, is hoping to be the pioneer of vent mining with plans for operations off the coast of Papua New Guinea. However, work is currently delayed because of a legal dispute. The concern is for the impact mining could have on ecosystems

Nautilus would use massive robotic machines, which are being built in Wallsend, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by a firm with long experience of marine engineering, Soil Machine Dynamics.

Nautilus says that it is devising strategies for minimising the environmental impact, by trying to contain any disturbed sediment and leaving parts of the seabed untouched so the mined area can be recolonised by marine life.

A leading biologist, Professor Cindy Van Dover of Duke University in North Carolina, has carried out research for Nautilus and says life might recover after a single mining event but that no-one can be sure.

“How do we do this so a hundred years from now somebody doesn’t look back at us – at me – and say ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they were so stupid and let this happen in a particular way’.

“So how do we do it right? How do we do it sustainably?

Michael Lodge has also said questions will remain about profitability while the final terms of mining licences are settled.

The authority was set up to encourage and manage this new sector but any future business, such as the Lockheed Martin subsidiary UK Seabed Resources, will have to pay royalties to the authority to be distributed to developing countries. The exact details have still to be negotiated.

Research into seabed minerals has a long and slightly conspiratorial history, starting in the Cold War with the United States and the Soviet Union surveying the oceans ahead of possible future conflict.

Surveys of seabed nodules in 1970s were also used as a cover by the US for the secret retrieval of a lost Soviet submarine.

Now, the legacy of all that research and exploration is the growing likelihood of large-scale mining operations, fuelled by rising mineral prices, in many parts of the ocean in the coming decades.

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Seabed mining could earn Cook Islands ‘tens of billions of dollars’

Tiny nation expects stakes in companies for free in return for rights to exploit its resources, says finance minister

Rupert Neate | The Guardian

The Cook Islands hopes to transform itself into one of the world’s richest countries within a decade by sending robots to the sea floor to collect minerals that it believes are worth tens of billions of dollars.

Mark Brown, the Cook Islands’ finance minister, said mining the minerals on the bottom of the South Pacific could increase gross domestic product a hundredfold. “It has the potential to basically transform our economy hugely significantly with just the value of the resources sitting on the sea floor,” he told the Guardian.

Brown said there is such a supply of minerals at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the Cook Islands – an archipelago of 15 small islands between New Zealand and Hawaii – that it could transform the nation into one of the richest in the world in terms of per-capita income.

The UN estimates that the per-capita income of the Cook Islands, which has a population of 14,000, is currently $12,200 (£7,945). This compares with about $50,000 in the US and $40,000 in the UK. “We still have a jump to make the move from developing nation status to a developed nation status,” Brown said. “The seabed mining industry provides that potential for us.”

But environmentalists warn mining could irreparably damage the country’s beaches and marine ecosystem.

The Cook Islands – named after Captain Cook, who visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 – were found to have a vast amount of underwater riches in the 1970s, but only recent advances in technology have made mining economically viable.

A new geological survey by Imperial College marine geochemist David Cronan estimates that the Cook Islands’ 2 million square kilometre exclusive economic zone contains 10bn tonnes of manganese nodules. The nodules, which vary from the size of a potato to that of a dining table, contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals used in electronics. The minerals will be mined using robots first developed for underwater warfare and espionage. The technology has already been adapted for underwater oil and gas projects, but has yet to be used for large deep-sea mining projects.

Brown said it would be about five years before mining starts. He said he is in talks with some of the world’s biggest mining companies and other nations about licensing deals. “We are here to meet the new players,” Brown said at the world’s first deep-sea mining conference in London last week. “We have had a lot interest from some companies and countries, [but] we certainly won’t be jumping into bed with the first person to come along.”

Talks are under way with the UK, China, Korea, Japan and Norway, and the first tenders are due to be granted before June 2014, he said.

Papua New Guinea has already granted a deep-sea mining licence to Canadian mining firm Nautilus Minerals to extract gold and copper from the seabed, but large-scale mining has yet to start.

The Cook Islands government acknowledges that the prospect of largely untested deep-sea mining in some of the world’s most pristine tropical waters raises serious environmental concerns. “The Cook Islands already has a very good industry in terms of tourism,” said Paul Lynch, the islands’ seabed minerals commissioner. “The good, clean, green beaches are not something we want to harm just for the sake of mineral wealth.

“We have the only legislation in the world dedicated to deep water minerals,” he added. He says the country has introduced legislation to protect the environment and turn half of the country’s waters into a marine park.

Greenpeace warns that deep-sea mining “poses a major environmental threat to our oceans, which are already suffering from a number of pressures including overfishing, pollution, and the effects of climate change”. Natalie Lowrey, co-ordinator of its deep-sea mining campaign, said: “Serious concerns have also been raised about the potential for heavy metals entering marine food chains with serious consequences for the health of coastal communities.”

Brown said the Cook Islands – which is self-governing in free association with New Zealand, and whose head of state is the Queen – would expect “stakes in [mining] companies for free” in return for their “rights to exploit our resources”.

He said the islands would maintain a significant stake in each stage of the mining process from exploration and extraction to refinement and sale.

One of the first mining companies to be involved is likely to be UK Seabed Resources, a British subsidiary of US defence and engineering giant Lockheed Martin. Lockheed first collected nodules from the Cook Islands’ seabeds in the 1970s. UK Seabed Resources has already been awarded a licence to explore 58,000 square kilometres of Pacific seabed outside of territorial waters. The licence, awarded in March, was granted by the International Seabed Authority, a UN-created body that controls oceans outside of national exclusive economic zones.

David Cameron, who supported UK Seabed Resources’ bid, said the seabed mining industry could be the worth £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years. “We are involved in a global race where we have to compete with the fast-growing economies of the south and east of the world,” the prime minister said. “We want to make sure we get every opportunity out of this.”

Brown said the potential income for the Cook Islands could be so vast that a sovereign wealth fund would be set up to manage the cash for future generations and provide a safety net if the islands are swamped by rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

He is about to embark on a world tour to learn about their sovereign wealth funds. “It’s important to learn lessons of the past from other counties that have come into wealth,” he said. “To learn lessons from those that have squandered theirs. This is not a renewable resource, you exploit it once, you have the revenue from it once,” he said.

Squids in

If mining doesn’t work for the Cook Islands, there’s always squid.

The country is considering creating a new industry centred on fishing for giant squid, following the successful creation of a squid fishing industry on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

“We thought to ourselves, if we can find it here maybe we could do the same, something for our own local market,” said William Sokimi, the fisheries development officer of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, which represents 22 Pacific island countries.

A recent small-scale fishing trial caught four diamondback squids and a neon flying squid, the biggest one weighing in at 17kg.

“So far, it is looking very promising … we have now established that giant squid can be caught in the Cook Islands,” Sokimi told Radio Australia. He admitted, however, that work needs to be done to convince the locals to eat squid. “We’ve given out some recipe booklets with about 53 recipes,” he said.


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Looking At Seabed Mining Around The World

Bernews (Bermuda)

In his response to the [Bermuda] Premier’s address earlier this week, Opposition Leader Marc Bean proposed developing our Exclusive Economic Zone for seabed mining, which he said was a billion dollar a year industry.

A relatively new industry which involves extracting minerals, metals and other commodities from the ocean floor, the first commercial seabed mining operation got underway last year.

Mr. Bean said, “Developing our Exclusive Economic Zone for Sea-Bed mining [a billion dollar a year industry], Aquaculture, and Off-Shore Fishing, to create new jobs, diversify our economy, and create new revenue streams.”

In 2012 Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals was granted a 20-year licence by the Papua New Guinea government to commence the world’s first commercial deep sea mining operation, which aims to extract gold and copper from the floor of the Bismarck Sea.

The company estimates that the 30-month first phase of the mining will bring $142 million in benefits to the Papua New Guinea economy, with a plan to employ 70% of the project’s staff from the country within three years.

Nautilus Minerals said it plans to grow its tenement holdings in the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Zealand as well as other areas outside the Western Pacific.

The UK is one of the nations starting to get into seabed mining, with a report from the Guardian saying UK Prime Minister David Cameron “pledged to put Britain at the forefront of a new international seabed mining industry, which he claimed could be worth £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years.”

The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in partnership with UK Seabed Resources, obtained a licence and contract to explore a 58,000 sq km area of the Pacific Ocean for mineral-rich polymetallic nodules.

These tennis ball sized nodules, found approximately four kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface, can provide tonnes of copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese, as well as rare earth minerals.

Prime Minister Cameron said: “The award of this exploration licence to UK Seabed Resources is excellent news for British companies and British scientists, and the Government is extremely pleased to have supported it.
“The UK is leading the way in this exciting new industry which has the potential to create specialist and supply chain jobs across the country and is expected to be worth up to £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years.”

The International Seabed Authority is the world’s regulatory body for deep seabed mining. The international organization was established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

International environmental organisation Greenpeace warns against sea bed mining saying: “As land-based minerals become depleted and prices rise, the search for new sources of supply is turning to the sea floor.

“This emerging industry, facilitated by advances in technology, poses a major threat to our oceans, which are already suffering from a number of pressures including overfishing, pollution, and the effects of climate change.

“Greenpeace demands that no seabed mining applications are granted, and that no exploration or exploitation takes place, unless and until the full range of marine habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are adequately protected.”

“Deep seabed mining could have serious impacts on the ocean environment and the future livelihoods and wellbeing of coastal communities,” continued Greenpeace.

“Only 3% of the oceans are protected and less than 1% 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.”

“Governments and industries seeking to exploit the oceans must recognise that with rights come responsibilities.”

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