Deep-sea mining projects land in hot water
Feb 19, 2014
Deep-sea mining is floundering. The leading company in the race to mine the ocean floor has fallen out with its host government, while other projects have been delayed until the environmental effects are better understood.
In 2011, Papua New Guinea gave Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals a licence to mine a field of hydrothermal vents in its waters, called Solwara 1, provided the country could buy a 30 per cent stake. The vents contain high-grade metal ores, including copper that is far more concentrated than most land-based deposits.
Scientists say the vents need more study first. “We don’t know enough about the ecology, the ecosystems and the resilience of these systems,” says Joanna Parr of CSIRO in Sydney, Australia.
Race to the bottom
Nautilus was racing to be the first in the world to mine the sea floor. Now UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, could take the lead. It has a licence to explore an area of the Pacific sea floor in international waters for minerals.
But it has a lot of work to do to catch up with Nautilus. “There is no proposed mining operation similar to that proposed for Solwara at such an advanced stage,” says Parr.
Meanwhile some governments are delaying deep-sea mining for ecological reasons, says Parr, with moratoria off the coasts of Australia and Namibia.
“Governments are realising this isn’t just a flash in the pan,” she says. “It’s something that is building towards an industry.”