ABC Radio – PM Show
8 June 2012
With Matthew Carney
MARK COLVIN: The world’s first commercial deep-sea mining project has just been approved in the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea, but already it’s hit obstacles.
For companies willing to take the risk, the ocean, with its vast mineral wealth, is seen as the next big frontier for mining.
The industry says advances in technology mean that disturbances can be kept to a minimum.
But environmentalists are warning the effects on marine ecology could be dire.
Matthew Carney reports.
MATTHEW CARNEY: There’s untold riches on the ocean floor; gold, copper, zinc and rare earths, particularly around volcanic vents.
CSIRO geologist, Dr Chris Yeats.
CHRIS YEATS: They’re very interesting scientifically. People talk about them being possible analogies for the origin of life on earth. They’re based around bacteria that effectively live on what really is this toxic floor that comes out of these black smokers and they live on the hydrogen sulphide and the methane that comes out of them.
MATTHEW CARNEY: A new group of scientists and activists calling itself Deep Sea Mining Campaign wants to put a stop to ocean mining.
Dr Helen Rosenbaum from the group says not enough is known about the risks to human and marine life.
HELEN ROSENBAUM: We don’t know where the heavy metals are going to go from this process, where they’re going to travel through the currents.
The ocean is one continuous environment and with currents and storms and seismic events, these heavy metals could be transported many kilometres and there are migratory species such as, that are commercial interests as well, such as tuna stocks, which can take up these heavy metals.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Deep Sea Mining will use robotic technology adapted largely from oil and gas drilling. Dr. Yeats believes the effects can be managed.
CHRIS YEATS: The analogy I use it’s almost like raking your garden or hoeing your garden in that you know you’ve got to kill of a few individual worms, if you like, when you chop up the soil.
But the environment itself isn’t altered irrevocably. You’re not taking anything away. It all sort of grows back if you like. And so in a lot of ways it’s more like gardening than traditional mining.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Nautilus Solwara 1, the first commercial deep sea mining venture in the world, has been given a 20 year license to extract gold and copper in the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
Dr Rosenbaum says the approval of the project was based on a flawed and limited environmental impact statement.
HELEN ROSENBAUM: Yes virtually nothing’s understood about the impacts so that’s why it’s often referred to as experimental seabed mining. There’s huge potential for quite catastrophic impacts through heavy metals and just even actually the impact of sediment on corals can kill off quite large areas of coral reef.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The Solwara 1 Project is run by the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals. They were not available for comment but Dr Yeats from the CSIRO knows the site.
CHRIS YEATS: I’m not an environmental scientist, obviously I’m a geologist. My understanding is that Nautilus has put a significant amount of effort and a significant amount of money into their environmental impact assessment.
MATTHEW CARNEY: But the commencement of mining at Solwara 1 will be delayed from its 2013 start date. The company has lost finance to build its support ship and is also in a financial dispute with the PNG government.
Nautilus Minerals is applying for rights for another half a million square kilometres in the Pacific. It’s estimated at this stage exploration licenses cover more than a million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean.
MATT PEACOCK: Matthew Carney reporting.