Threat from mining’s race to the ocean floor


Although Lockheed Martin was granted a mining license to explore the ocean depths in 2013, and Nautilus Minerals has had underwater mining rights near Papua New Guinea for 15 years, it was the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) grant last week of a mining and exploration contract to the government-owned China Minmetals for a 73,000 square kilometer tract in the Pacific Ocean that has many concerned that the undersea pursuit of minerals will irreparably damage the ocean floor.

Land-based miners have suffered a reversal of fortunes as the industry’s once lucrative projects turn uneconomical. From environmental concerns to clashes over historical and religious rights, miners have seen projects that had been on the fast track end up on ice. Whether it has been gold, copper, coal, or other ores and minerals, company valuations have fallen significantly over the past year, and others still have gone bankrupt.

The promise ocean floor mining holds is that there are vast riches for the taking. The Clarion-Clipperton basin, for example, is estimated to potentially yield more than 27 billion tonnes of valuable ores, including 290 million tonnes of copper and 340 million tonnes of nickel. Some studies have suggested undersea deposits could yield as much as $8 billion worth of gold, copper, zinc, and silver.

Also, because they have been brought up to the ocean floor by undersea volcanic activity and geothermal vents, it could be easier than land-based mining to extract them. Until now, those minerals had been considered too difficult and risky to pursue, but technological advances have renewed interest in the possibility, and it is believed mining could start within five years.

No doubt that is part of the reason the Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May for having issued the permits to the Lockheed Martin subsidiary OMCO Seabed Exploration. While the defense contractor has called the dive beneath the waves “an ecologically sound method for meeting the growing global demand for precious metals, as well as supporting economic growth,” environmental groups view it as an intolerable risk that threatens “underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts.”

With more than two dozen permits issued worldwide by the ISA, the effort to stop Lockheed Martin is like putting a finger in the dike, while new cracks emerge elsewhere.
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