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 188.

    125.Bloated Bee

    That is why i said "harvested " it covers most of the methods currently under discussion.

    And to those who think its a desert down there, we are only now starting to see how much life there is at what we thought were impossible depths for life. I would suggest until we know more about it and what impact there will be ... that all minerals can be found on land.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    No for goodness sake their is enough gold in the world if needed for anything other than decoration and vanity , leave the oceans alone we have done enough damage to the seas and the land , if its needed for medical use melt a bit down .

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Actually. looking deeper, it's only Microsoft/consumerism that 'obliges' us to change out computers and therefore recycle the precious metals, for example. The free operating systems [Linux, BSD etc.] are less bloated and not driven by profit, so therefore longer life for your computer. I give this as one simple example of how profit makes 'us' [them, actually] rip up the planet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    @184. slinkyworm
    you only have to see the damage caused by fishing for prawns off the west coast of Scotland to see the damage that can be done, using robots to rip..
    I boycotted Prawns over it's massive bycatch years ago, but metals are harder to avoid! It's worrying. :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Are the wealthy and political leaders really interested in the planet and the life it supports? I think not or they wouldn't be even thinking of doing this, you only have to see the damage caused by fishing for prawns off the west coast of Scotland to see the damage that can be done, using robots to rip the seabed apart for human gain will destroy this unique part of our planet for centuries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    And then space - we as humans are so stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Who gave who permission to mine international waters?

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    The article implies that the mining will be done at geothermal vents because a scientist is quoted as saying it would be devastating if it was carried out on vents. But would it? Wouldn't the mining be more likely to be carried out any many other places on the sea floor. Way to go in linking thermal vent devastation to mining when there is no real connection. Just FUD from a churnalist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    You get feeling that the environmentalists consider the whole sea floor to be teaming with life. It isn't like that. There are huge swathes of sea floor which are like deserts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    As our capacity to dominate the planet increases the repercussions get ever more worrying.

    I see it's another mention for Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, the folk we paid £150+ million to process our census forms. I hope Mother Earth is safe in their hands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Another design and project of further damaging our beautiful and natural world...

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    No house NEEDS more than 1 telly, 1 computer etc
    Actually, no one NEEDS even 1. Funny how the sanctimonious like to define greed as being just above their own level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    More destruction of the environment, leading to the enrichment of the few and the impoverishment of the many.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    @51 America moved off the Gold Standard because the intrinsic value of the $ could no longer be supported by the amount of physically held gold reserves.

    It did work, but was limiting, in that it restricted Govt borrowing. Hence the move to a fiat currency as a way of deristricting the ability to overspend desite the $ now having only a notional value.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Please leave the sea bed aqlone.

    The world does not need anymore gold.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    There seems to be no end to the unbridled greed of rapacious predators
    whether in the guise of human development or poverty alleviation.
    It is useful to remind countries, corporations and companies that "we have not inherited the planet earth but borrowed it from our children, grandchildren and their progeny" . It is well to remeber and honour our obligations to future generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    It appears that nothing has been learned during our short and devastating history on our ocean planet. Having destroyed or irrevocably changed so much of the Earth's land environment, our rapaciousness is now having measurable effects on the oceans through overfishing, acidification, refuse,oil spills, reef destruction etc. Mining will be one more nail in the coffin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Have we not polluted our oceans and sea life enough already with plastic?This planet will only take so much before it decides to make us extinct. The planet will still be here and will recuperate but we will all be forgotten history. “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” - Albert Einstein

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    As if the oceans were not under enough pressure already? The deep sea is so vastly unexplored and that its would be such a shame to lose or potentially damage more of this environment before we even get to gain a full understanding of it. And to all those who say it can be "sustainable", HOW is mining in anyway sustainable, the whole principal is to removal raw material which is not replaced!

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    @156.Steve T
    "Where did this myth of "exploding population" come from?"

    1980s - 5 billion
    1990s - 6 billion
    2012 - 7 billion


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