UK Seabed Resources joins deep-ocean mineral-mining rush

 

The concern is for the impact mining could have on ecosystems

A new and controversial frontier in mining is opening up as a British firm joins a growing rush to exploit minerals in the depths of the oceans.

UK Seabed Resources is a subsidiary of the British arm of Lockheed Martin.

It has plans for a major prospecting operation in the Pacific.

The company says surveys have revealed huge numbers of so-called nodules - small lumps of rock rich in valuable metals - lying on the ocean floor south of Hawaii and west of Mexico.

The exact value of these resources is impossible to calculate reliably, but a leading UN official described the scale of mineral deposits in the world's oceans as "staggering" with "several hundred years' worth of cobalt and nickel".

An expedition to assess the potential environmental impact of extracting the nodules will be launched this summer amid concerns that massive "vacuuming" operations to harvest the nodules might cause lasting damage to ecosystems.

With the support of the British government, UK Seabed Resources has secured a licence from the United Nations to explore an area of seabed twice the size of Wales and 4,000m deep.

Under the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea, mining rights on the ocean floor are controlled by a little-known body, the International Seabed Authority, which since 2001 has issued 13 licences - with another six in prospect.

These licences, valid for 15 years, have been bought for $500,000 each by government organisations, state-owned corporations and private companies from countries including China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

The high prices fetched for copper, gold and rare-earth minerals are leading to a surge in interest in mining the ocean floor. The idea first surfaced in the 1970s but was dropped because the costs were too high and the technology could not cope.

The nodules are known to contain up to 28% metal - 10 times the proportion found on land.

Vents The chimneys contain many metals in high abundance

A similarly high metal content is found in another target for seabed mining: hydrothermal vents, chimneys formed by extremely hot water, rich in minerals. We reported on the discovery of the world's deepest vents last month.

Stephen Ball, chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin UK, owner of UK Seabed Resources, says the engineering experience of offshore oil and gas operations and the trend to rising mineral prices have now combined to make seabed mining feasible.

"It's another source of minerals - there's a shortage and there's difficulty getting access, so there's strategic value for the UK government in getting an opportunity to get these minerals," he told the BBC.

China's domination of the global production of rare-earth minerals in particular has fuelled the search for other sources of materials essential for everything from electronics to wind turbines.

But many marine scientists and conservationists have warned that the implications of this deep-sea gold rush are not yet understood - and that mining nodules or hydrothermal vents could prove catastrophic for seabed ecology.

Mr Ball said exploration over the next three years would establish whether a system to vacuum up the nodules could be designed to cause minimal impact. The nodules typically lie in a shallow layer of silt.

He said he believed it would be "perfectly feasible to create a benign method to extract these minerals from extreme depths without disturbing the seabed."

"But until we've demonstrated that, there will be a debate around that."

One risk is that the mining operations could generate huge plumes of sediment that could drift through the sea - choking any marine life that feeds by ingesting water and filtering out its food sources.

Michael Lodge, general counsel for the International Seabed Authority, told me that the authority's aim was to encourage a new mining industry to exploit seabed minerals but within strict environmental controls.

"The nodules are generally lying in sediment that is between 2-6in (5-15cm) thick that's been there undisturbed for millions of years. We simply don't know the recovery times or the distribution of species - there are lots of uncertainties."

He described mining hydrothermal vents as "more invasive" because it would involve breaking up the uppermost metre of the sea floor and piping the rock fragments to the surface.

Cold War heritage

A Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, is hoping to be the pioneer of vent mining with plans for operations off the coast of Papua New Guinea. However, work is currently delayed because of a legal dispute. The concern is for the impact mining could have on ecosystems

Nautilus would use massive robotic machines, which are being built in Wallsend, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by a firm with long experience of marine engineering, Soil Machine Dynamics.

Nautilus says that it is devising strategies for minimising the environmental impact, by trying to contain any disturbed sediment and leaving parts of the seabed untouched so the mined area can be recolonised by marine life.

A leading biologist, Professor Cindy Van Dover of Duke University in North Carolina, has carried out research for Nautilus and says life might recover after a single mining event but that no-one can be sure.

"How do we do this so a hundred years from now somebody doesn't look back at us - at me - and say 'Oh my God, I can't believe they were so stupid and let this happen in a particular way'.

"So how do we do it right? How do we do it sustainably?

Michael Lodge has also said questions will remain about profitability while the final terms of mining licences are settled.

The authority was set up to encourage and manage this new sector but any future business, such as the Lockheed Martin subsidiary UK Seabed Resources, will have to pay royalties to the authority to be distributed to developing countries. The exact details have still to be negotiated.

Research into seabed minerals has a long and slightly conspiratorial history, starting in the Cold War with the United States and the Soviet Union surveying the oceans ahead of possible future conflict.

Surveys of seabed nodules in 1970s were also used as a cover by the US for the secret retrieval of a lost Soviet submarine.

Now, the legacy of all that research and exploration is the growing likelihood of large-scale mining operations, fuelled by rising mineral prices, in many parts of the ocean in the coming decades.

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David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

Deep sea mining licences issued

The UN's seabed authority issues exploration licences that accelerate a search for valuable minerals on the ocean floor.

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 339.

    Many of the ore beds we mine on land started out as hot springs or hydrothermal vents in the distant past. It was inevitable that someone would think of mining these more recent deposits. Making the technology work should be interesting!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 338.

    Sinking to such depths to try to keep unsustainable lifestyles in the 'developed' world going? Surely the UN should say No.
    Enough's enough - lets safeguard the one environment we've not totally destroyed so far. Under the sea.

    UN :- Ever heard of the UN Environment Programme?

  • Comment number 337.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 336.

    There will be no limits to how far man will go to exploit the worlds resources. There will be very serious consequences for mining, deforestation etc. It should be left well alone! I think we are absolutely despicable as a species as short term greed is put before the long term consequences!!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 335.

    The problem is our preoccupation with growth and there’s a difference between this and development. Growth is the volume we consume, while development is the advancement. Growth is buying a new TV for every room, the fact TVs have improved is development

    Sea mining is only needed as our consumption is too wasteful. Reducing this doesn't mean stopping technology it just means buying less of it

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 334.

    "Don't tell Argentina as they will put a claim on the area."

    What like the British have done all over the world for the last 100 years? Perfidious Albion vermin!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 333.

    The seabed has been mined for quite some time already - diamond mining is already quite widespread in places such as Namibia.

    What is the difference between mining seabed and mining land? Both have an adverse effect. However, you have no need to build infrastructure for subsea mining as you would for land.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 332.

    Another load of futuristic, sensationalistic rubbish that people have taken the bait with. But I suppose anything that gets away from the real news is good for some.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 331.

    Don't tell Argentina as they will put a claim on the area.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 330.

    329.andredaniel1949

    "we never stop do we, the raping of the earth"

    Always have done, always will. The only difference is there is a lot more of us now.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 329.

    we never stop do we, the raping of the earth

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 328.

    Yeah, lets mine the seabed for metals and completely mess it up just so we can satisfy our insane craving to upgrade our mobile phones every year. Humans are living completely unsustainably. Maybe an economic meltdown will help to put us on a more sustainable footing.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 327.

    We live in this world, just like the animals and plants we are so buisy destroying - strange to think we lack the imagination to connect the natural world with ours.
    The bbc produces some information but nowhere near enough on what is happening - for instance the environmentaly friendly cars that run on batteries - what are the batteries made of and where does it come from?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 326.

    the lies the BBC will go to to support the tory mantra of giving everything uk away to other countries if its 1% cdant steal it is give voice in this non truth
    UK Seabed Resources is a subsidiary of the British arm of Lockheed Martin.
    they use uk twice when in truth it is an american owned and american tax paying company
    but david doesnt want that to be said so the BBC lie yet again

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 325.

    The primary target for UK mineral exploitation is Antarctica, which is why Cameron is so pleased about the recent smug decalration from the squatters on Las Islas Malvinas.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 324.

    I am by no means eco friendly, I can't stand all the green rubbish and the fact that the government uses it as a very poor excuse to tax us more. However, why is man intent on destroying it's own planet? Leave the sea alone and leave the Antarctic alone. They are acting as if we're running out. We've got plenty left, we just can't keep up with demand right now.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 323.

    I live on the coast of Norway, about level with iceland. The Norwegian government has been persuaded by an American company to let them harvest seaweed, this they do by scraping the seabed completely - this occurs in many other countries - all marine biologists agree that there has been a major change in the seas in the last 20 years - and now they want to finish the job in the deeps.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 322.

    I'd rather we try to mine astroids before we go for the ocean floor.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 321.

    Like fracking, deepsea mining won't amount to much. Nautilus shares have plummeted 75%. They've announced their leaving the Ftse AIM soon.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 320.

    This is a terribly short sighted solution to the issue of dwindling resources on land. We understand so little about the ocean, we cannot possibly know the extent of the environmental impact of mining these vents. (Lockheed Martin happens to be a US defence and engineering group. )

 

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