A project to dig minerals from the seabed off Papua New Guinea could signal a new era of mining in the world’s most remote and least understood environment, the deep sea. Mining companies are excited, ecologists are worried, and struggling island nations are watching with interest, as Ann Arnold writes.
One and a half kilometres below the sea, on the flank of an active volcano, hundreds of tonnes of machinery will carve up mineral-laden rock, and pump it to a ship on the surface.
The entire operation will be remotely controlled from the ship.
This is not a sci-fi fantasy. Nautilus Minerals Inc, a Canadian-registered company based in Brisbane, is forging ahead with this plan with renewed vigour, after winning a recent commercial dispute.
The Nautilus project, called Solwara 1, is based in the Bismark Sea, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. ‘Solwara’ is pidgin for saltwater.
On the seabed, it’s pitch black, acidic, and very cold. And just a bit spooky.
‘It’s sloping, fairly rugged and then on top of that you got super-imposed these what they call chimneys, or almost like a forest of what is in effect, high grade copper deposits which have grown from the sea floor,’ Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston says.
These thermal vents may or may not be active, belching black smoke.
‘Where the chimneys are still active, you’ll have snails all over the vent, down to the point where the ambient water temperature gets too cold for the snails. In the upper portions of the chimney they’ll be covered in snails.’
Nautilus is spearheading a global rush to mine the deep seabed. Conventional mining on land is increasingly expensive and ore quality is declining over time.
Deep sea mining, promoted by its advocates as less disruptive and less harmful to the environment, is touted as the challenging, but necessary, next phase of exploitation.
But there are inherent risks and dangers, and, unless very closely monitored and regulated, deep sea mining will be a plunge into the unknown—literally. Only a fraction of the world’s deep seas have been studied. Scientists are now scrambling to keep pace with this burgeoning industry.
The seabed treasure excites the miners.
‘It’s a fabulous looking metal,’ says Mike Johnston.
The Solwara 1 sulphide mounds that he’s targeting are largely chalcopyrite, a very high grade copper mineral, with high gold content.
‘It looks actually like gold when you see big chunks of it. It averages about six grams gold per tonne. To put that into context, the average mine in Western Australia, an open pit gold mine, would be probably mining an average of about one and a half grams,’ says Johnston.
‘Then you’ve got the copper content, and the copper’s a shade under eight per cent copper. The average grade of copper mined last year on land was less than 0.6 per cent copper.’
Add to that mix zinc and silver, and it’s obvious why Nautilus is keen to start work.
After obtaining the world’s first seabed mining licence, from the PNG government in 2011, the project has been on hold for over a year, with a dispute over a payment from the government. The government is a partner in the venture, and has 30 per cent equity.
An arbitration decision earlier this month by the Honourable Murray Gleeson, former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, requires the government to pay Nautilus $118 million dollars by next Tuesday, October 23.
Watching closely as the project unfolds are the many income-deprived island nations of the Pacific, whose territorial waters contain abundant mineral riches.
There is the potential for a bonanza for them, and also for the commercial interests lining up to exploit their assets.
Companies from Russia, the UK, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere have seabed exploration licences in the Pacific, covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.
The Pacific is buzzing with talk of it, with some countries more impatient than others.
Legislation is being drawn up by each of the small nations, and environmental safeguards established, with support from the SPC, the partly EU-funded Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
The resource-strapped countries are being urged to protect themselves, and cover all contingencies.
Back in the 1990s, Julian Malnic, who as a geologist founded Nautilus and obtained the Solwara 1 exploration lease, went to Tonga.
‘When I got there the Mining Act was only one and a half pages long! And I had to really simulate the whole process of claiming there,’ says Malnic.
‘They were very nice people and gave me the keys to the department over the weekend. It was a pretty sleepy place back then, Tonga.
‘I drafted a form, wrote Ancient Kingdom of Tonga across the top, and for an application fee put $300 Tongan dollars. It sounded about right.
‘Then I made the forms, printed them out, filled in the forms by hand, so they looked the part, and took out eight and a half degrees of latitude of mineral potential, right through the Tongan exclusive economic zone.’
Julian Malnic has left Nautilus, but still retains shares in the company. Today, Nautilus has more than 200,000 square kilometres of deep sea exploration tenements in Tonga granted, or under application. Several other companies are active there too.
As well as sulphite mounds in volcanic areas, on the even deeper abyssal plains which span the Pacific there are polymetallic nodules, which look like potatoes sitting in the silt of the seafloor. They are about four to five kilometres down, and the American defence behemoth Lockheed Martin is behind one scheme to extract them.
Jimmie Rodgers, the secretary general of the SPC, says seabed mining is both a curse and a gift.
‘For many of these countries, that will be the only thing they have going forward apart from fish,’ says Rodgers.
‘I think, because of that importance, there will be continuous political and economic pressure, both from the countries and investors, to make sure they go at it.’
The Solwara 1 project was approved with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which critics such as Rick Steiner, a retired professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska, say was inadequate.
‘This was the document that Nautilus submitted to the government, seeking permission to do the project. One, it was incomplete – the annexes and appendices were not available,’ says Professor Steiner.
‘Even the body of the document showed glaring omissions. The science was only partially completed. There were a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of issues the EIS did not address.’
Nautilus says substantial scientific work has been done since then, much of it funded by the company, and there are remediation plans.
But one of the lessons from Solwara 1, according to Jimmie Rodgers, is the need for independent assessment of an EIS.
There has been anxiety within coastal communities in PNG about what impacts the mining might have on the water quality, and the fact that it’s being done in a volcanic area.
The other lesson for the rest of the Pacific, says Rodgers, is the need to do community consultation well.
‘When you look at the kind of information you put to the community, it’s got to be both the benefits, and the cons,’ he says.
‘When you look at areas of environmental degradation, there’s not enough known about the impact on the seabed, at this point in time. And we’ve got to be truthful, nobody really knows, not even the scientists really know.
‘If you look at terrestrial mining we can see open cut mining and not too much is left there. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think what happens, if the same kind of thing happens on the seabed.’
Jimmie Rodgers is realistic about what lies ahead for the Pacific, however.
‘Can we actually stop it? I think the answer is no. Can we modify it in such a way that would minimise it? I think yes,’ he says.
‘The work that the SPC is currently doing is to make sure that people are aware that when they make a choice, they know that yes, we will have some resources.
‘But at the same time, they know that they are putting the future of their countries into some kind of risk that they are not able to quantify.’