Tag Archives: UK

Fears that a seabed mining ‘marine industrial revolution’ could wipe out habitats worldwide

ocean life

Some industry estimates claim as much as a third of future mineral production could come from beneath the oceans

Tom Bawden | The Independent UK

The world’s oceans are poised for a seabed mining frenzy amid a “marine industrial revolution” that threatens to destroy habitats and wipe out species, an expert has warned.

Some industry estimates claim as much as a third of future mineral production could come from beneath the oceans.

More than 25 exploration permits have been granted, covering 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed, an area five times the size of the UK, much of it in the Pacific Ocean.

They cover a range of minerals, from gold and silver to copper, nickel and rare earth metals used in mobile phones, laptops and solar panels.

Although the mining is yet to begin, numerous projects are preparing to launch in the next few years, raising concerns among scientists and campaigners that they could wreak havoc on wildlife.

Furthermore, the more general and rapid industrialisation of the oceans – through fish farms, offshore wind turbines and shipping – means sea life may not be able to escape the environmental devastation suffered by the land for much longer, warns Dr Douglas McCauley, of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What is particularly concerning is that the oceans seem to be in a transition phase, moving from a position in which most of the damage comes from harvesting – such as depleting fish stocks – to one where the habitat is being degraded, which poses a deeper threat, said Dr McCauley. He likens the transition to one in which animals are hunted individually to one in which their homes are ravaged.

“It is impossible not to be concerned about seabed mining when this much of the ocean is at stake,” Dr McCauley told The Independent.

“Our starting assumption ought to be that excavating the floor of the ocean is not going to be great for species that called that seabed home,” said Dr McCauley, who has just completed a study into “human-caused animal loss in the oceans”.

Greenpeace International oceans campaigner Richard Page was even clearer about the dangers.

“The last thing our polluted, over-fished, carbon-warmed, acidifying oceans need is a new industry destroying the seabed. What they do need, urgently, is a global network of marine reserves to act as sanctuaries,” he said.

Proposed methods vary, but much of it will involve scooping up mineral-rich polymetallic “nodules” – tennis ball-sized chunks of rock – and breaking them up on the surface to release the minerals. The waters off Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Namibia, Mexico, Peru and Hawaii are thought to be mineral-rich.

David Cameron has said he wants Britain to be at the forefront of the seabed mining industry, which he claimed could be worth up to £40bn to the UK over the next 30 years. The Government has teamed up with US defence giant Lockheed Martin and secured a licence to explore an area twice the size of Wales in the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the world’s first deep-sea mining robot is being built by Newcastle engineering firm, Soil Machine Dynamics. It will be used by a Canadian firm, which could start extracting copper and gold off the coast of Papua New Guinea next year.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said:

“Our partnership… remains an exciting prospect that has real potential to be a new source of valuable metals – including rare earth elements – that are vital to many new innovations such as mobile phones and new carbon technologies. However, commercial exploitation remains some years away and can only proceed after proper survey and evaluation of environmental impacts.”

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UK: Treliver planning to mine the seabed for tin

Treliver Minerals aiming to restart Cornish tin

James Perkins | | Mining Innovation News

CornishTin-300x225Treliver Minerals, a Cornish mining company, is in the process of applying for the right to survey a portion of the Cornish seabed for underwater tin resources and determine if the metal can be extracted commercially.

Exploration and possible extraction of the area, around St Austell Bay, would create “well-paid, year-round skilled jobs” according to the company.

Chief executive Mark Thompson said:

Treliver Minerals is making good progress with its tin exploration programme in Cornwall and a further project in St Austell Bay would see us actively exploring in four separate areas.

We remain committed to our goal of resurrecting the tin-mining industry in Cornwall. To do so would contribute significantly to the local economy by creating well-paid, year-round skilled jobs.”

The responsibility for management and regulation of activity on the UK seabed is that of the Crown Estate, which is currently considering applications for exploration, with a decision expected by the end of February.

A spokesperson for the Crown Estate indicated that the current proposals cover exploration and any commercial project would require further regulation and licenses and public consultation.

Stephen Gilbert, MP for St Austell and Newquay, said:

With the price of tin continuing to rise it’s important that we look at what opportunities for new investment and new jobs in this traditional industry may emerge.

It’s too early to say what the investigations may show and we clearly need to be conscious of environmental impacts, but I’m fully supportive of the initial plans and hope that [they] will lead to new jobs and investment.”

The company said that it was in the process of informal public consultation as it engaged with those who may be directly affected by the seabed operations.

A spokesperson said that:

Any activities that we undertake will be conducted so as to minimise any effect on the environment or any inconvenience caused to the important fishing and aquaculture activities and businesses operating in St Austell Bay.”

Local fishing workers said that they have no arguments at this stage with the proposals for exploration at least and Gary Rawle, the owner of West Country Mussels in Fowey, said that the company has assured him that “with today’s technology, they can mine the tin without any problems with silt or sediment”.

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Mining companies under investigation for payments to politician

payment of cash

The company said it disclosed the matter to the AFP on July 30 and that it continued to cooperate with the AFP’s investigation.

Solomon Islands payments under investigation

Tess Ingram | Sydney Morning Herald

Payments made by miners Allied Gold and St Barbara to a Solomon Islands’ government official are being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.

Allied Gold, which was acquired by Perth-based St Barbara in 2012,­ ­allegedly provided benefits to the ­Solomon Islands’ outgoing opposition leader Matthew Wale from 2011.

St Barbara then continued to pay the benefits until earlier this year, ­according to a report in the Solomon Star newspaper on Friday.

St Barbara said in a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange late on Friday that through its internal ­mechanisms it became aware of the payments and had reported the issue to authorities including the AFP, the UK Serious Fraud Office and the Solomon Islands Attorney General.

The company said it disclosed the matter to the AFP on July 30 and that it continued to cooperate with the AFP’s investigation. St Barbara declined to comment further on the issue at this time. Documents compiled by St Barbara’s legal counsel and reportedly obtained by the Solomon Star allegedly reveal that numerous executives from both Allied and St Barbara maintained relationships with Mr Wale that were of mutual benefit.

The companies allegedly paid for Mr Wale’s children to attend the Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane, with annual fees reportedly as much as $113,000.

They also allegedly arranged employment for a relative of Mr Wale’s and other smaller benefits, including a $13,500 payment to Mr Wale for “office set up expenses”.

Allied Gold was reported to have ­initially benefited from the arrangement, allegedly gaining a letter ­confirming the legality of blasting at its Gold Ridge mine, now owned by St ­Barbara, the issuance of a special prospecting license for a tenement, and the removal of certain travel restrictions.

St Barbara did not confirm or deny any of these allegations in its statement to the ASX, including the involvement of its former managing director and chief executive officer Tim Lehany and then secretary Ross Kennedy.

It did however correct the article’s reference to the “dismissal” of Mr ­Lehany and Mr Kennedy on the grounds of the payments, stating that Mr Lehany left the company this August as part of an “agreed departure” and Mr Kennedy was made redundant in March.

At the time of the Allied Gold transaction, the newly combined group boasted a market capitalisation of roughly $1 billion but a series of ­operational difficulties has seen ­St Barbara’s market cap fall to around $70 million. In the same period, its share price has fallen from $1.75 to 14.5¢.

St Barbara entered the gold ­industry in 2005 via the acquisition of several West Australian gold assets from the liquidators of Sons of Gwalia, before branching out into the Pacific with the $556 million acquisition of Allied Gold in 2012.

The Gold Ridge mine in the Solomon Islands and the Simberi mine in Papua New Guinea promised strong growth opportunities for the miner, but neither operation has performed near ­expectations.

Simberi remains beset with technical issues and mining at Gold Ridge has been suspended since April due to serious flooding and illegal mining.

St Barbara said it does not expect to resume production at Gold Ridge this year and has begun talks to potentially transfer ownership of the mine to the Solomon Islands ­government.

In August, St Barbara reported a $501 million full-year loss for the 2014 financial year, including a $411 million hit for the non-cash impairment of its Pacific operations.

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Amnesty reveals UK govt helped Rio Tinto avoid culpability for Bougainville deaths

The documents that show the UK Government caved in to corporate lobbying

Amnesty International

one of our

Niger Delta campaign poster highlighting the damage Shell has done in the region. © Amnesty International

Are there any principles that the UK government is willing to stand up for in the face of business lobbying? Apparently not, if documents released through a Freedom of Information request are anything to go by.

These show, in detail, how the UK intervened to support Shell and Rio Tinto in high-profile US human rights court cases, following requests from the companies.

The documents, obtained by the Corporate Responsibility Coalition (of which we’re a part), relate to the UK government’s intervention in two cases: Kiobel-v-Shell and Sarei-v-Rio Tinto.

The Kiobel case was brought against the oil giant by communities from the Niger Delta, who accused Shell of helping the Nigerian military to systematically torture and kill environmentalists in the 1990s.

Sarei-v-Rio Tinto was a long-running case relating to alleged human rights abuses at the company’s Panguna copper mine on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. It’s alleged that Rio Tinto racially discriminated against black mine workers, harmed the island’s environment and its residents’ health, and was complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the army.

The US Supreme court halted the case against Shell a year ago, accepting the arguments from both Shell and the UK Government that cases of this kind shouldn’t be taken in the US. A lower US appeals court then followed that decision to dismiss Sarei-v-Rio Tinto.

The UK government has effectively supported the corporations in ducking out of scrutiny in the US courts. Why would the government want to prevent UK companies from being held accountable in the US courts for complicity in human rights violations as serious as torture and murder?

‘both BIS [Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] and CEDD [Commercial and Economic Diplomacy Department at the FCO] believe that the prosperity and potentially significant commercial considerations in this case weigh in favour of the UK submitting an amicus brief.’
FOI request page 52

The Freedom of Information request shows the Government was well aware that its intervention would be seen as inconsistent with its approach to human rights. It knew that these cases are exceptional and relate only to the most serious corporate abuses. It was aware of the reputational consequences, and that Amnesty and other human rights groups would be outraged when we found out – but still, they decided to pursue this course of action.

‘Supporters of the action against Shell (including NGOs and the media, as well as the plaintiffs) will likely argue that the courts and human rights legislation of Nigeria are inadequate to deal with a case of this nature, and the US ATS [Alien Tort Statute] is the only practical form of redress for the victims.

‘By submitting an amicus curiae brief HMG would be acting to seek a result that will close a possible remedy for victims of alleged human rights abuse.’
FOI request page 53

What is particularly galling about the UK government’s approach is that ministers and officials with a human rights brief were unwilling or unable to hold their ground. There was no meaningful consideration of the enormous consequences for victims of corporate abuses around the world who would be denied the possibility of justice through the US courts.

Even the government’s belief that it was acting to protect UK business interests was based on conjecture rather than evidence.

It’s ironic, if not deliberately hypocritical, that these interventions happened within a year of the UK endorsing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights at the UN. A key recommendation of the UN Guiding Principles (also known as the Ruggie Principles) is that victims of business-related human rights abuses should be able to take businesses to court to seek justice and compensation. The UK should be actively promoting the rights of the claimants in the Shell and Rio Tinto cases, not restricting their ‘right to remedy’.

‘HRDD [Human Rights and Democracy Department at the FCO] is concerned that actively intervening would damage everything the Government is doing to show that good business achievement and good corporate human right behaviour are compatible with each other. Submission of a UK brief effectively defending the corporate position in this case will be perceived as inconsistent with our position on the UN Guiding Priciples… of which the UK was a key supporter during their five years gestation.’
FOI request page 52

When two Secretaries of State – William Hague and Vince Cable – launched the UK’s plan to implement the Guiding Principles in September 2013, this sent political signals that the UK was getting serious about business and human rights.

The plan pledges that the UK government will provide ‘help to States wishing to develop their human rights protection mechanisms and reduce barriers to remedy within their jurisdiction’, yet the UK’s intervention in Kiobel-v-Shell has had the opposite effect.

In putting British business interests before human rights concerns regardless of context and consequences, the UK government is acting above the law and in breach of its international commitments. When it does so at the request of UK companies facing lawsuits for the most serious of international crimes, our government demonstrates the extent to which it has been captured by corporate lobbyists.

The precedent set by the US Supreme Court’s judgement means that companies all over the world can now abuse human rights with a greater sense of impunity, knowing that an important avenue of redress through the US courts has been closed to their victims.

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British Govt backs Cornish MP’s plea over seabed mining

Richard Wheeler and Theo Usherwood | Western Morning News

British businesses should be at the forefront of the emerging deep sea mining industry, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said as the Government gave its support to an MP’s Bill which would help minimise the impact on the environment.

Mr Burt said mining companies were already lining up for licences to mine for “potato-sized” polymetallic nodules, which could be exploited for a wide-range of minerals that can be used in telecoms technologies, as well as in the energy sector.

One UK company had already been awarded a licence – one of 13 to be handed out by the International Seabed Authority for exploration in the north Pacific and Indian Ocean, MPs heard.

But Mr Burt said it was important there was proper regulation of the emerging industry as he told the House of Commons that the Government would support a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Tory backbencher Sheryll Murray calling for greater regulations.

With the support of ministers, the Bill is likely to become law. It received an unopposed second reading and will now go to a committee for further scrutiny.

Mr Burt said that while even with the “most optimistic outlook” deep sea mining was still some five years away, it was necessary proper environmental standards in the industry were upheld.

He said: “Of the total of 23 contracts awarded or pending, over half of these were awarded in the last three years. That gives an indication of how the pace of interest and demand has changed.

“The Government believes that with advances in technology and the likely increase in demand for mineral resources and the steady, if not increasing cost of those resources, deep seabed mining is an inevitability.

“It is a question of when, not if, deep sea mining is going to happen and we could not stop it even if we wanted to.

“The fact that companies are starting to take up exploration licences from the International Seabed Authority, when previously these were the domain of research institutes, is a sign of this development.

“With a UK registered company having taken up a licence, we want to be… at the forefront of this emerging industry and I think the UK should be in that position. This is an opportunity for us to ensure that our values, particularly in the protection of the environment, should be taken account of.”

Earlier, Ms Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, told MPs scientists knew that materials that can be used in low-carbon technology such as telecoms applications and other new technologies could be found on the ocean floor, some 4km below the surface of the sea.

Introducing her Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981, she told the House of Commons the technology was available to mining companies to “vacuum” the seabed for polymetallic nodules which contained valuable minerals such as nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese.

She said: “Everybody will know my interest in the sea and the marine environment and nobody is more aware than me about the potential that the deep sea has in contributing to the great expertise this country is world-renowned for.

“The United Kingdom is well-placed to benefit strategically, economically and in employment terms and the UK is well-placed to influence how deep sea mining is actually taken forward.”

She said there is the potential in the next five years to look at exploitation of the deep sea resources, telling MPs it was important for the environment that the UK could control licence applications.

The MP said one of the important amendments in her Bill would also widen the scope of minerals for which licences can be granted.

The MP added: “The metals are vital to new materials technology. Nickel is used in superalloys, cobalt and manganese in energy storage technology and rare earth elements – strategically very important – are used in low-carbon technology, lasers, superconductors and many telecoms applications.”

North East Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called for the Bill to have “a more deregulatory ambition”. He said Britain should aspire to a free market vision of the sea that would allow “companies to go out to prospect as they did in California in the 19th Century”.

The MP said: “If we are going to have this type of regulation, then this Bill is obviously sensible. It’s obviously wise to extend it purely from metals to include gas and to include liquids, because there may be all sorts of exciting things at the depths of the sea. There may be endless supplies of gas, there may be oils spurting out as if Saudi Arabia is on the seabed.”

He said such discovery would dramatically reduce the price of oil which would be to the “enormous benefit of our constituents”.

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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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UK campaigns against its own experimental seabed mining

Help SAS Stop Seabed Mining off Cornwall’s Coastline

Surfers Against Sewage Call For Cornwall Council To Refuse Dredging Proposals

Campaign posterJoin Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) in voicing concerns to Cornwall Council about Marine Minerals Limited’s commercial dredging proposal for the North Cornish on a new Facebook Causes petition. Cornwall Council is the regulatory body enforcing the St Ives Bay Coast Protection Order 2002 and has the power to decide if Marine Minerals Limited can proceed with this ominous commercial venture. The dredging will involve removing, processing and partially replacing millions of tonnes of sediment from St Ives Bay, as close as 200 metres from beautiful Cornish beaches, for the next 10 years. SAS members have been given an anti-dredging campaign postcard addressed to Cornwall Council with their latest membership magazine. And supporters can also voice their concerns on a specially designed Facebook Causes petition hosted at: http://www.sas.org.uk

Surfers Against Sewage has serious concerns about the lack of competency displayed so far by Marine Minerals Limited. Marine Mineral Limited’s dredging proposal has the potential to devastate an extremely valuable stretch of coastline. Cornwall’s north coast is environmentally important, well used by communities and tourists, and supports numerous established industries and thousands of jobs. Marine Minerals Limited has already unlawfully removed sediments without the required licenses and submitted a deficient scoping opinion*, heavily criticised by both SAS and the national regulator, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).

Marine Minerals Limited claims their dredging project could support up to 100 jobs. This sounds like good news in the current economic climate, however, Marine Minerals Limited offer no data to support these figures. Nor have Marine Minerals Limited taken into account any impacts their dredging proposal might have on established jobs in the area. Surfing alone brings in £64 million to the Cornish economy annually and support 1,600 full time jobs. Tourism in the South West dwarfs surfing in terms of revenue and associated jobs.

Furthermore, Hayle, smack bang in the middle of St Ives Bay is home to more tourist beds than anywhere else in Cornwall outside of Newquay.

Hidden deep within Marine Minerals Limited’s proposal is the disturbing requirement for significant exclusion zones around their operations in the sea, which will prohibit bathers, surfers and other recreational water users from entering the sea and exclude other commercial activities from significant areas of the ocean. On balance the costs seem to far outweigh any potential benefits, unless you are a director at Marine Minerals Limited.

If you share SAS’s concerns please join SAS in lobbying Cornwall Council who is responsible for granting or refusing Marine Minerals Limited’s commercial dredging license for St Ives Bay. Just sign and send back the freepost campaign postcard with Pipeline (SAS members magazine), or sign SAS’s anti-dredge petition at http://www.sas.org.uk . Cornwall Council recently became the first local authority to support SAS’s Protect Our Waves petition and officially recognised the value of surfing and the marine environment to the region. The Cornish coastline belongs to Cornish communities, not to commercial dredgers.

SAS campaign Director, Andy Cummins says: “This ludicrous proposal is targeting tin reserves in the sand, just offshore of some of Cornwall’s premier surfing beaches, designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and valuable community beaches. I hope Cornwall Council agrees that the potential costs to Cornish communities and established businesses far outweigh any benefit for anyone other than the directors at Marine Minerals Limited.”

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All at sea: the challenges of regulating the seabed mining industry

Sarah Blackman | mining-technology.com

The International Seabed Authority is considering how to license the first seabed mining operations amid a surge of interest from investors. The economic benefits of extracting polymetalic nodules are well-known, but how can a regime be developed to ensure environmentally and culturally responsible exploitation?

Licences to mine the ocean floor could be awarded as early as 2016, according to a United Nations report, which puts forward the eagerly-awaited first plan for managing the extraction of polymetalic ‘nodules’.

Seabed mining has been on the radar for decades, but high production costs, low commodity prices and limited available technologies have put projects on hold.

Now, with a surge of interest from state-owned and private mining companies, the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) is finally considering how to license the first marine mining operations and develop a fiscal regime that will ensure the fair distribution of profits to host countries and their commercial exploiters.

Seabed mining: a ‘rekindled’ interest
“The UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) is finally considering how to license the first marine mining operations.”

This month, UK Seabed Resources, a newly-formed subsidiary of US defence and engineering group Lockheed Martin, became the latest company to join the rush for polymetallic nodules (PNs) – small rocks rich in manganese, rare earths, nickel and cobalt – from the sea floor, when it obtained a licence to explore a 58,000 sq km area of the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking in London, Prime Minister David Cameron said the firm, along with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will help the UK position itself at the forefront of the industry, which could be worth £40bn to the British economy during the next 30 years.

It’s not the first time Lockheed has spearheaded an effort to recover PNs from the seabed – the group claims to have discovered mineral riches off the US coast after a bizarre hunt in the 1970s for a lost Russian submarine paid for by US billionaire Howard Hughes. But the dash for deep-sea metals ended when commodity prices imploded.

From the early 2000s, a sharp rise in prices, combined with a dramatic increase in demand for metal; a decline in the tonnage of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and technological advances ‘rekindled’ an interest in the exploitation of PN resources, according to a new technical study published by the ISA.

Equally important is the impact of Papua New Guinea granting the first deep seabed mining licence, in its territorial Bismarck Sea, to the Nautilus Mining Company of Canada in 2011, the study notes.

“This has demonstrated that the private sector, and the financial institutions that support it, believe that deep seabed mining can be commercially viable.”

China’s monopoly on the global production of rare-earth minerals – and its decision to restrict exports in 2009 – has also fuelled the search for the raw materials, essential for electronics, from non-terrestrial sources.

In March 2013, Japanese scientists from Tokyo University and Japan’s Agency for Marine-Earth Science said they had found vast reserves of highly-concentrated rare earth metals on the Pacific Seabed.

Professor Yasuhiro Kato said a single ship drilling in a target zone close to the island of Minami-Torishima could meet Japan’s demands for a year. “We don’t need to mine it intensively,” he said. “All we need is enough to force China to lower its prices.”

The number of exploration licences issued now stands at 17, with Japan, Korea, China and France prospecting minerals in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

But with the first contracts due to expire in 2016, the ISA is looking towards the development of a regulatory framework for PN exploitation.

Environmental impacts of PN exploitation
In July 2011, the Council of the ISA requested during its seventeenth session that the ISA Secretary General prepare a work plan for the formulation of regulations for the exploitation of PNs from the ocean floor, known as ‘the Area’.

In complying with this request, the ISA faces the challenge of developing a framework that ensures sustainable exploitation of seabed mineral resources.

“The ISA faces the challenge of developing a framework that ensures sustainable exploitation of seabed mineral resources.”

In its technical study published this month, the authority recognises the “inevitable environmental damage” mining will cause, but addresses the need to analyse “all environmental data” collected during exploratory projects to date, to aid an understanding of the environmental impact of all aspects of exploitation.

Activists including ‘Kiwis against Seabed Mining’ believe that suction dredging akin to open-cast mining, where the entire top surface of the seabed is removed to depths of up to 20 metres, will wipe out organisms, including mussels, worms and crustaceans, which in turn support larger marine animals in the food chain.

Papua New Guinea-based ‘Act Now!’ also stresses that experimental seabed mining will destroy underwater hydrothermal vents that contain unique eco-systems.

Many would-be PN exploiters, however, are developing remote controlled technologies designed to minimise the stirring up of fine particles from the seabed.

“Potential approaches include outfitting the nodule collection apparatus with skirts and water flow designs to minimise fine particle disturbances and ensure that any stirred up particles are pumped up the pipe with the nodules and not released into the surrounding water,” explains UK Seabed Resources spokesperson Philip Rood.

“Overall, minimising environmental impact is a core objective in the nodule collector design and will be a key factor in how the apparatus moves, collects nodules and transfers nodules to the surface.”

A fair fiscal regime for seabed mining
The ISA also recognises the need for mining regulations and standards to benefit ‘mankind as whole’ and that host country policies do not give an unfair advantage to commercial exploiters.

It is hoped that the industry will learn from decades of negative social impacts from terrestrial mining operations, where legislations have given states free controlling stakes in mineral projects and corrupt government officials have frittered away mining profits at the expense of the wider public.

“The ISA also recognises the need for mining regulations and standards to benefit ‘mankind as whole’.”

Papua New Guinea was one of the first countries to issue an exploration licence for companies to address the feasibility of resources development in its exclusive economic zone, but corrupt rent seekers in the country have long prevented ordinary citizens from benefitting from minerals and metals extracted onshore, according to the Human Rights Watch.

Adding fuel to the fire, maritime territorial disputes previously reserved for oil deposits could also be opened up, as miners begin to unlock mineral resources from the seabed.

The ISA has only scratched the surface of what may be involved in preparing a fiscal policy that would set fiscal rates based on comparable land-based minerals, identify a tax and cost accounting code on which fiscal calculations can be made; and develop a system that does not burden the ISA or mining investors.

The authority hopes to ensure that whatever resource rent legislation is adapted is simple, equitable and transparent. But the implementation of such regimes may be too big a challenge for certain governments.

For now at least, a rough framework for the extraction of polymetalic nodules is in place, and extensive exploration efforts by the industry may soon begin to pay off.

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United Arab Emirates excited by prospect of Pacific riches

Prospects of riches in the deep

David Crossland | The National (UAE)

Strewn across the Pacific seabed lies a vast treasure worth thousands of billions of euros.

And it is there for the taking. It just needs to be scooped up. No drilling required.

The greyish-black, potato-sized rocks, known as “nodules”, do not look very inspiring. But they are packed with minerals such as manganese, copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc and rare earths that are essential raw materials for the electronics industry and products such as solar cells.

The price of these metals has surged in recent years because global demand for them is growing and their supply from mining on land is becoming increasingly scarce. Demand for copper alone is projected to double over the next 20 years, with more than half of that rise coming from China and India.

The biggest undersea reserves are located in a 5 million square kilometre area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the eastern Pacific.

The problem is the nodules lie at depths of up to 6,000 metres, where the water pressure is enormous.

It is pitch black and close to freezing down there and the seabed at such depths still holds as many mysteries to mankind, if not more, as the moon.

Only a tiny fraction of it has ever been explored. A UN official once likened the technical challenge of deep-sea mining to someone standing on top of a New York skyscraper on a windy day and trying to vacuum up marbles from the street far below with a long hose.

In fact, deep-sea mining is a tad more difficult than that. It will require large, remote-controlled machines capable of combing the seabed and collecting the rocks. Not to mention a system of transporting tonnes of rock to the surface.

“I think it may take up to 10 years before the collectors and their components have been so well developed and tested that they function reliably,” says Carsten Rühlemann of Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR).

“The machines have to be able to work for a long time because they would take about a week to lower to the seabed and a week to raise again,” says.

“So if they don’t function properly it will be prohibitively expensive to fix them. It will take a while for this to be commercially viable.”

But despite these difficulties, the prospect of profits and access to strategic raw materials is about to trigger an underwater gold rush.

Critics say the world is on the threshold of a new colonial era, a dash for precious minerals that could do irreversible damage to marine ecosystems.

The UN’s international seabed authority (ISA), which manages sea-bed mining, has so far granted 17 licences to national organisations and companies to prospect for minerals and more are about to follow.

Licence holders include companies from China, India, South Korea, Japan, eastern Europe and Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, as well as the Pacific island nations Kiribati and Tonga.

The potential for deep-sea mining is “arguably higher now than at any other time in history”, the ISA said in a study released in February.

The race for minerals could lead to international tensions. The United States, which has not been allocated an exploration area because it never signed the UN convention on the law of the sea, is unlikely to stand by while others exploit the riches of the oceans, especially since the most lucrative areas are close to the western coast of the US and Mexico.

The ISA, therefore, will have to rise to a huge challenge. So far, its role has largely been confined to handling bids for mineral exploration. Now, it has to work out how to licence, regulate and monitor the first real seabed-mining operations and how to share the proceeds.

It proposes to provide operators with “provisional mining licences” to make sure they demonstrate real mining and environmental competence before they are granted a full licence.

“Deep ocean mining is faced with a ‘Catch-22’ situation, whereby competence cannot be gained without actual mining at a commercial scale but, at the same time, mining should not be allowed without prior demonstration of competence,” the ISA says.

According to its study, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone may have more than 27 billion tonnes of nodules containing seven billion tonnes of manganese, 340 million tonnes of nickel, 290 million tonnes of copper and 78 million tonnes of cobalt.

How much of that is actually accessible is unknown, however.

“The technology hasn’t been properly developed for use on an industrial scale although the Koreans, Indians and Chinese have made progress with test collectors,” says Mr Rühlemann, the BGR’s expedition leader on a German-French research trip to the Pacific last year to assess the possible environmental impact of mining. South Korea has already undertaken 30 exploratory missions to its licence area in the Pacific and has set up its own test site for automatic deep-sea mining vehicles. Last year the Jiaolong, a Chinese manned deep-sea research submarine capable of navigating horizontally along the seabed, dived to a depth of more than 7,000 metres.

Aker Wirth, a German mining technology company, has drafted a design for a 17-metre long, 250-tonne machine resembling a combine harvester that would move across the seabed on several tracks.

At the front, cylindrical drums with little shovels would scoop up the nodules and feed them into a machine where they would be ground up. An enormous pump would bring them to the surface with the help of compressed air.

A major boost to deep-sea mining came from Papua New Guinea granting the first deep-seabed mining licence to the Nautilus Mining Company of Canada, in its territorial Bismarck Sea. The deal showed the private sector, and the banks supporting it, that deep-seabed mining is now commercially feasible.

Nautilus planned to mine for copper and gold on the seabed, not from nodules but from so-called “massive sulphide deposits” emitted from hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor where superheated water carrying metals from deep in the earth mixes with cold seawater to form metal-rich deposits.

However, that project, due to start production this year, is currently on hold due to a legal dispute with the government of Papua New Guinea.

Biologists argue seabed mining of nodules will harm the environment by churning up underwater clouds of sediment and displacing deep sea creatures. The operations could wipe out unique species before they had even been discovered, they say.

“Collecting manganese nodules will plough up a few thousand square kilometres per year. That would have similar consequences as cutting down rainforest,” says Sven Petersen, a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, northern Germany.

“It’s not as though no animals or plants live there afterwards. But they’re completely different species. And it’s exactly the same with deep-sea mining.” Jon Copley, a biologist from the University of Southampton, says it is a joint task to look after the oceans.

“I don’t think we own the deep ocean in the sense that we can do what we like with it. Instead, we share responsibility for its stewardship,” he told the BBC.

“We don’t have a good track record of achieving balance anywhere else – think of the buffalo and the rainforest – so the question is, can we get it right?”

Mr Rühlemann says the environmental damage from so-called suspension clouds churned up by the mining vehicles may be less severe than feared.

“I don’t think suspension clouds will drift far because the currents are very slow at such depths, just 3 to 4 centimetres per second,” he says.

“Besides, fine-grain sediments tend to clump together quickly and sink back down to the floor.

“The collectors will squash things but due to their wide chassis the pressure on the seabed would be kept to around 200 grams per square centimetre, which is about the same as a human being standing on the seabed.”

But the true impact won’t be known until large machines are used, he adds.

“You’d have to put a machine down there and monitor what actually happens when it moves. Nobody’s done that yet.”

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Concerns over impacts of seabed mining plans in UK

Cornwall tin mining plans create deep divisions

Jonathan Morris | BBC News

“They have left us half of their tin,” says mining engineer Mike Proudfoot as he examines a bag of sand taken from the north Cornwall coast.

He is aiming to extract tin from the sands which are rich in waste, or “tailings”, from the old mines around Cornwall.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Cornwall was one of the most important and influential metal mining regions in the world.

There are no working mines now, but that could be about to change with a resurgence in the price of tin, used as a solder on gadgets like phones and computers.

‘Very rosy’
“It is now a high-tech mineral,” said Mr Proudfoot, director of Marine Minerals Ltd (MML). “It is not just tin cans any more.

“It looks very rosy as far as we are concerned.”

MML is working on designs for a crawler-based vehicle to suck up the sand

MML is working on designs for a crawler-based vehicle to suck up the sand

MML is searching the seabed off Cornwall for the tin tailings which were washed down there from the old mines.

It believes that about 40% of the tin mined on land is now sitting on the seabed.
The firm’s plan is to sift the seabed at least 200m from the low water mark off the coast at St Ives Bay, Porthtowan and Perran.

According to MML, the extraction process will involve up to three tracked vehicles on the seabed sucking up the sand for sifting on a ship.

The Cornwall-based firm is proposing to sift 2m tonnes of sand from the seabed every year for 10 years, with about 95% of that material going straight back onto the seabed.

The rest will be taken ashore to produce about 1,000 tonnes of tin a year, with the waste possibly going into old clay pits in the St Austell area.

But the plans have been met with opposition from environmental groups and surfers who say it will destroy the natural habitat and the beach breaks.

MML rejects the arguments and has launched a £500,000 environmental assessment before making an extraction licence application to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).

An initial “scoping” report by MML has raised questions from the MMO about the impact on the environment.

The proposed extraction areas are near to a number of designated or proposed Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other protected sites.

The MMO’s concerns in its response include the affect on:

  • Marine life such as oysters and sea snails around Perran which is a proposed Marine Conservation Zone.
  • St Ives Bay, an “important” migratory route and feeding area for sea trout and Atlantic salmon.
  •  Shell-fish production in St Ives Bay
  •  The stirring up of heavy metals on the seabed and an increase in algal blooms
  •  Tourism due to noise close to the shore
  •  The £64m local surfing industry

“The material we reject at sea goes down a pipe and back into the trench that we have just drilled,” said Mr Proudfoot.

“It’s like planting a cable in a field, it digs a trench, puts the cable in and covers it up.”

Mr Proudfoot does not like the word dredging, which “leaves a large scar on the seabed”, being applied to MML’s plans.

Indeed, he is hoping MML’s tin extraction methods will be a template for other offshore mining operations around the world which are facing environmental concerns.

But Andy Cummins of campaigners Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) said:

“If you are going to remove several million tonnes of sand 200m from the shoreline that environment will be destroyed.

“When you return the sand it will smother everything in that area.

“It will be devastating for things living on the seabed.”

SAS is also concerned about the affect on seals, dolphins and basking sharks.

MML says its plans will create 100 jobs, but SAS maintains that more jobs could be lost in tourism as well as among the 1,600 employed in the surfing industry.

SAS said some of the most “iconic” surfing beaches in Cornwall – St Ives, Carbis Bay, Mexico, Gwithian, Godrevy, Portreath, Porthtowan, Chapel Porth, Trevaunance Cove, St Agnes, Perranporth – were in the areas being targeted by MML.

“Sand is the very thing that surfing waves need,” said Mr Cummins.

Mining ‘promising’
Spurred by tin prices of about $20,000 (£13,300) a tonne, MML has been joined in Cornwall by UK exploration company Treliver Minerals which is test drilling for tin at Treliver Farm, near St Columb Major.

And at Callington there are plans by Australian mining firm New Age Exploration to re-open the historic Redmoor mine.

Professor Frances Wall, head of Camborne School of Mines (CSM) in Cornwall, said there could be a long-term resurgence in Cornish tin mining.

“The tin mines only closed down because the price of tin went down, not because there was no tin left in the ground,” she said.

“Tin prices are high now, so it looks promising again.

“They (MML) have a big job to sort out the environmental impact, but Cornwall is pretty pro-mining because of its heritage.

“Mining is also an important economic activity, so companies have a bit of a head start.”

MML said it expects to make its application by early next year after which it will go through a public consultation before the MMO makes a decision.

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