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 268.

    As if we havent polluted our oceans enough....We need bio-diversity and a clean ocean much more than we need more gold, but of course prospectors only ever care about their individual needs or wants. Why as a species are we so bent on destroying what we need to live so that the destroyers can sell solutions back to us and make us dependent. Its a mad, mad world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    These companies want to exploit the earth, and they will do it as liberally as they are able. If the lawmakers don't make serious regulations now, then they will do it after the seafloor has been destroyed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Then we can take the ore by ship to a country with little or no pollution policing or standards, hail it as an economic boon and laugh all the way to the bank.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    The popular view seems to be to oppose all human development, no matter how beneficial it is for humanity. Any human development is automatically seen as inherently evil and destructive, no matter what involves. Fundamentally it is the desire to de-industrialise the world, to return to the caves, to just lay down and die as a species. It's a hatred of self-interest, hatred of man & hatred of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Agent Smith (from the Matrix):Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. [six] A virus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    When it's the mining company, especially the American mining company, extracting minerals its 'raping the planet'.

    When it's me and all my kids getting affordable smart-phones made from that gold and rare earth minerals. Well it's our right isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    Not content with gradually decimating life above the water, mankind now wants to do the same below it.
    Is there truly not a few human beings in power in most countries of the whole planet who can pause for a moment to reflect what kind of world we are going to leave our descendants?

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    I'm always surprised when the environmentalist card is played regarding deep sea mining. Seventy per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water and the ocean floor is virgin territory. Besides, if a huge amount of gold is discovered, its value would decrease immediately!

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    #47. "Licensing implies regulation" suggesting safety. Was BP not licensed, and therefore regulated, when it had the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

    It is depressing to read Prof. Mills (of the Southampton Oceanography Centre) suggesting that simply because of mining on land occurs and the size of marine mine would be smaller than its terrestrial equivalent exploitation of the sea is fair game.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    Just wait till we can mine & drill properly, we are going to liberate some of the island countries soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    When will man realise we cannot eat money when there is nothing left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    How low can we go

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    That 'over-population' myth keeps rearing its ugly head. We have actually become under-resourced through material obsession via media manipulation. It's so bad that major companies use every dirty trick to keep ahead. But do they? We have more cars alone per head than ever, but is that new car, TV, cellphone etc really the bee's knees, or is it just a shape-shifted clone with a different gimmick?

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    "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." MY A**

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Re: 47 Midnight special comments.
    Rare earth elements are fairly evenly spread throughout the world. China has a near monopoly of supply purely because they undercut previous suppliers by selling cheaper putting others out of business.
    They could supply rare earth elements cheaper because wages are lower,energy is cheaper,there is less environmental legislation, etc in China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Will people consume the resources recovered? Yes. Will people make money from it? Yes. Will the environment suffer? Yes. Will wildlife suffer Yes? Does anyone care enough about the last 2 points to change the answers to the first 2, sadly not. While we are sitting in our comfortable homes tapping away on our laptops can we really claim the moral high-ground?

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    We have contaminated a lot of both our land and shore in particular through industralisation in this country and many others have followed suit.

    Whilst this kind of mining is inevitable, there should be an emphasis on protecting those unsullied with excessive industrialisation. Where they do dig they should look to enhance habitat by one means or another to ensure equilibrium.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Only 250 comments in over ten hours of this topic.
    Could it be we have far more important things to comment on?

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    So we are to waste useful resources, destroying ecosystems, in order to get useless resource?

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    The article talks about several million tons of copper, nickel and cobalt.
    Although these are valuable metals, they are not rare-earth metals such as palladium or platinum. These are just three fairly common metals, whereas the sealife that inhabits these areas is already under immense pressure.
    Overfishing is bad. Deep-sea mining is bad. Both of these together would probably be catastrophic.


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