The Post Courier, Papua New Guinea’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, has published a second Editorial column questioning the wisdom of the government’s licensing of, and investment of public funds in, the world’s first seabed mining operation – Solwara 1.
Post Courier Editorial, April 2
On 17 January, in our editorial in the Post-Courier, we cautioned that deep sea mining is a risky business. At that time, we were talking about the Solwara 1 project in the Manus Basin.
We will try to qualify that statement but let’s look at the background of that project first so we understand what had transpired over the last few months.
In January this year, the Government went ahead and granted a deep sea mining lease to Nautilus Minerals to develop its copper-gold project in the Manus Basin.
We are told that the 20 year lease covers an area of about 60 square kilometers around that project. The stretch of sea in the Manus Basin is about 1700 metres deep but, again, we are led to believe that Nautilus, using state-of-art technology, has been exploring the sea floor for mineral deposits. And from the studies, the project aims to produce about 80,000 tonnes of copper, along with 150,000 to 200,000 ounces of gold annually from the project.
We are told that the project is estimated to cost about K1.04 billion and the PNG government has retained an option to take up to a 30 percent stake in the project as a joint venture partner. This option, we understand, is exercisable within one month. The government has now decided to exercise this option and it will contribute funds to the project in proportion to its interest, including its share of the costs incurred to date.
It is quite interesting to read that the government is interested in taking up equity in the seabed mining project. The idea might be noble, given that we all like to make some money in any resource project that takes off in this country, however deep sea mining is something new. It is a new frontier as there are not many projects like this around the world that we can learn from. The Minister for Mining, John Pundari and his department must come clear and tell us if we, as a country, understand what we are entering into. The people of this country have a right to know before the Government squanders tax payer’s money on, what we firmly believe, is an ill informed decision.
It is public knowledge that exploration activity has been pursued in the Manus Basin by Nautilus and its joint ventures partners for some years. From this work, the assay values of surface samples collected through remotely operated vehicle and dredging looks promising. This is confirmed by independent expert opinions we have sought. One of these happens to be one of PNG’s leading expert in the Manus Basin, Dr Kaul Gena.Dr Gena has been on the bottom of that huge mass of sea water, with an international group of scientists to study the marine life and geology at that depth and he knows what he is talking about.
He draws the same conclusion with the other experts that we have consulted over that project. The most important question is whether it has sufficient reserves or resources to develop a seabed mining. We have said this before and we will say it again. From submersible observation of submarine hydrothermal deposits around the Pacific Rim and East Pacific Rise, it is recognised that the distribution of the sulfide chimneys or sulfide mound are irregular and it is quite impossible to do block modeling to quantify the resources. We repeat that furthermore the super high grade does not quantify a resource to make it economical viable. A few years ago, drilling of the Pacmanus site in Manus basin by Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) failed to discover massive sulphide deposits below the chimney structures. This is found to be true in similar observations that are made at other sites around the world.
We have asked these questions before and we will ask them again because we believe that the Government is being misled into putting money into an untested project. What the people of this country need to know is whether there are sufficient resources in the Solwara 1 project to warrant government’s participation as a partner? We have asked the geological informed staff of the Minerals Resource Authority (MRA) and the Department of Mining to answer this question and to date no response has been made.
The other question we have that needs to be answered as well is the high lead and arsenic content in the sulfide chimneys in the Manus Basin. Did MRA did a due diligence check on the environmental implication for such heavy and toxic elements?
The silence by the relevant government authorities tell us that they too do not know what is going on here. Simply put, they do not have the answers.
We urged the Government not to be deceptive when it comes to dealing with resources on the ocean floor.