Deep sea mining 'gold rush' moves closer

Nautilus operation The idea of exploiting precious metals on the ocean floor has been considered for decades

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The prospect of a deep sea "gold rush" opening a controversial new frontier for mining on the ocean floor has moved a step closer.

The United Nations has published its first plan for managing the extraction of so-called "nodules" - small mineral-rich rocks - from the seabed.

A technical study was carried out by the UN's International Seabed Authority - the body overseeing deep sea mining.

It says companies could apply for licences from as soon as 2016.

Start Quote

I don't think we own the deep ocean in the sense that we can do what we like with it”

End Quote Dr Jon Copley University of Southampton

The idea of exploiting the gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and other metals of the ocean floor has been considered for decades but only recently became feasible with high commodity prices and new technology.

Conservation experts have long warned that mining the seabed will be highly destructive and could have disastrous long-term consequences for marine life.

The ISA study itself recognizes that mining will cause "inevitable environmental damage".

But the report comes amid what a spokesman describes as "an unprecedented surge" of interest from state-owned and private mining companies.

Sharing the proceeds

The number of licences issued to prospect for minerals now stands at 17 with another seven due to be granted and more are likely to follow. They cover vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

One of the most recent to be granted was to UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the British arm of Lockheed Martin, the American defence giant.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the ISA was set up to encourage and manage seabed mining for the wider benefit of humanity - with a share of any profits going to developing countries.

Chimneys The chimneys of hydrothermal vents contain many metals in high abundance

Now the ISA is taking the significant step of moving from simply handling bids for mineral exploration to considering how to license the first real mining operations and how to share the proceeds.

The ISA's legal counsel, Michael Lodge, told the BBC: "We are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining."

The lure is obvious. An assessment of the eastern Pacific - a five million sq km area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone - concluded that more than 27 billion tonnes of nodules could be lying on the sand.

Those rocks would contain a staggering seven billion tonnes of manganese, 340 million tonnes of nickel, 290 million tonnes of copper and 78 million tonnes of cobalt - although it's not known how much of this is accessible.

A map shows the spread of licensed areas across the zone.

Right incentives

According to the planning study, the ISA faces the challenge of trying to ensure that nodule mining's benefits will reach beyond the companies themselves while also fostering commercially viable operations.

The plan relies on providing operators with the right incentives to risk what would be expensive investments without losing the chance for developing countries to get a slice of the proceeds.

But the ISA identifies what it calls a "Catch-22" in this brand new industry as it tries to assess which companies are skilled enough to carry out the work.

"Competence cannot be gained," it says, "without actual mining at a commercial scale, but at the same time mining should not be allowed without prior demonstration of competence."

A key factor in the ISA's thinking is the need for environmental safeguards, so the document calls for monitoring of the seabed during any mining operation - though critics wonder if activity in the ocean depths can be policed.

The prospect of deep sea mining has already sparked a vigorous debate among marine scientists, as I found earlier this year on a visit to the British research ship, James Cook, exploring the hydrothermal vents of the Cayman Trough.

The expedition's chief scientist, Dr Jon Copley, a biologist from the University of Southampton, urged caution.

"I don't think we own the deep ocean in the sense that we can do what we like with it," he said. "Instead we share responsibility for its stewardship.

"We don't have a good track record of achieving balance anywhere else - think of the buffalo and the rainforest - so the question is, can we get it right?"

Extinction risk

And Prof Paul Tyler, also a biologist, of the National Oceanography Centre, warned that unique species would be at risk.

"If you wipe out that area by mining, those animals have to do one of two things: they disperse and colonise another hydrothermal vent somewhere or they die.

"And what happens when they die is that the vent will become biologically extinct."

However, marine chemist Prof Rachel Mills, of the University of Southampton, called for a wider debate about mining generally on the grounds that we all use minerals and that mines on land are far larger than any would be on the seabed.

She has carried out research for Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm planning to mine hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea.

"Everything we are surrounded by, the way we live, relies on mineral resources and we don't often ask where they come from," she said.

"We need to ask whether there is sustainable mining on land and whether there is sustainable mining in the seas.

"I actually think it is the same moral questions we ask whether it's from the Andes or down in the Bismarck Sea."

This debate is set to intensify as the reality of the first mining operations comes closer.

David Shukman presents a documentary on deep sea mining on Discovery on the BBC World Service on Monday.

Follow David on Twitter


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  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Nowhere near enough info here to make an informed opinion. That said, as long as the environmentalists keep pushing for proper controls and those controls are applied, mining can take place in a sustainable way. Yes there will be some environmental damage, that is unavoidable, just as someone mentions fishing, dredging the sea bed does damage.
    The key, proper controls = sustainability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    riff77 - totally agree

    Also most deep see life congregates around hydrothermal vents.
    There are none in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone that has been earmarked for mining.

    In effect it is an undersea desert

    Everything at the moment is very small scale

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I hope when the UN issues the licences it will make them conditional on transparency and accountability. No hiding behind "commercial confidentiality". The ocean beds are a shared treasury, they belong to no one. All the data and technology should be open to public and academic scrutiny. No secrecy if this proceeds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    How many people here are posting from their own phones, computers etc...??
    Some of these rare earth metals have made the technology we have come to depend on so common, small, reliable and INEXPENSIVE!
    Beryllium, Tantalum, Scandium are just a few that have enabled portable communications and computing so affordable, so small!
    See - for more examples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    It appears that paranoia & contempt for major companies is overruling reality. Someone already rightly mentioned 'vacuuming' the ocean floor. The technology is good, but not good enough to be actually excavating at those depths, either safely or economically. The 1st photo accompanying the article along with the comment "on the ocean floor" (not beneath it) should offer the biggest clue!

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Its not just long term consequences for sea life, everything mankind does has an impact on tomorrows generations, 99% negative

    I abhore religions, but I can now see why historically religions so strongly attempted to prevent science & advancment. Yes advances bring tempory solutions, but they create twice as many new problems in their wake mainly so a minority can enjoy excessive wealth & waste

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    as we have the technology to gather materials from the deapths of the sea why not use it. gives something more to invest in and provides much needed material for our species to thrive upon.
    naturally there is a price to be paid by nature, but that has so far has not detered us from doing more or less as we please with our planet, after all there is no higher authority than man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Many posters on this article are hypocrites; let's not pretend our lifestyles don't create the need for this kind of resource extraction.

    You're using computers - which contain gold and other precious metals necessary to work. Then of course they also rely on electricity to function, which is generated in power stations using mined/drilled fossil fuels.

    It is our fault this exploitation happens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Hmmmm, let me think about this one. Huge global companies, trashing the seabed to make millions of pounds profit.........NO

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Is nowhere safe from the greed of mankind?

    Just because we can do it, doesn't mean we should.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    God put the minerals on the sea bed. If God has given us the ability to mine them, then it is only right that we should do that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Here we go again! Destroying another unique environment,and they say they will share the profits with the poorer countries! That will never happen in this greedy destructive business.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Exploratory mining is already in progress in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Japan, China, Korea, France, Russia and Germany all have approved sites in the zone, along with the Interoceanmetal Joint Organization, comprised of sponsors from Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia and Slovaki

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I wonder how many nations newly found to be rich in gold off their coasts will suddenly be declared as "Evil Dictatorships" by the Right Wing Capitalist nations ?
    I'm of the opinion that Cuba decided to halt their Oil exploration for that very reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    The article doesn't mention gold, it states that the minerals are manganese, copper and cobalt. The phrase "gold rush" is used to connote a market where there is a mining rush.Why do people leap to judgement and angry conclusion? This is a development that needs very careful monitoring, proceed with care.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    @19. Its

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Oil's long been heavily regulated yet since the Seventies's been endlessly caught fiddling.

    Ditto banking.

    Ditto medicine.

    When profit's all that counts what d'you expect?

    If while our tropical rain forests continue to be severely depleted we now allow our other already poisoned lung and great carbon store the oceans to be churned up we'll deserve all we get.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.


    Please read the first line of my post again - 'This is not about gold and diamonds'. Meaning just that, its not gold they want to mine for. A vast majority of things we use today - phones, computers, cars, cables, planes, satellites...all use a variety of rare earth metals. Copper, cobalt and nickel are mentioned specifically in the article, but there are plenty more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Why dont we just recycle dead humans, they have metals inside them & numerous other minerals, instead we bury them or burn them adding to yet more end of life polution. Could even use them for making soap & use for fertilizors.
    If stuffed could make nice hat stands. Recycle the brains & use them for electrical connectors.

    Whats good for other species!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    This idea makes me sick. No matter the sea-life that may be extinguished no matter the human lives that may be los! If we need these metals so badly, why don't we trade for then fair & square? Perhaps, it's that we simply hate China, especially as a super-power? We have passed the age of negotiation, into the age of theft & destruction. The elite have gone insane with greed!


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