By Joel D Adriano
MANILA – As global commodity prices rise and regional competition for resources intensifies, a scramble is underway to secure mineral rights in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. The emerging trend towards more deep-sea mining threatens to stir new conflicts among competing resource-hungry countries, including those already at loggerheads over potentially oil-and-gas rich maritime areas in the South China Sea.
Private and state-linked companies are driving the deep-sea competition. Canadian mining firm Nautilus Minerals Niugini Ltd will be the first company in the world to undertake commercial undersea mining, including for copper and gold, when its Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea commences operations in 2013. The publicly listed company has also staked claims off the coasts of Tonga and Fiji.
Another private Western company, the Nevada-based Neptune Minerals, plans to mine offshore areas around New Zealand. South Korean state interests launched deep water exploration for minerals in April in the deep-sea areas off the island of Tonga after securing a license from the island nation’s government. It aims to excavate 300,000 tonnes of minerals every year for the next 20 years.
More controversially, last month China and Russia secured permits from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to explore for polymetallic sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The Jamaica-based organization was established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and regulates mining in territorial waters beyond individual countries’ exclusive economic zones.
The international body’s authority, however, is already becoming politicized. A decision handed down to allow China to explore for deep-sea minerals in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar reportedly sent shockwaves in India. New Delhi is reportedly concerned about China cornering mining rights in maritime areas it considers its geographical sphere of influence.
That’s raising questions about how the ISA will deal with potential overlapping claims to deep-sea areas. Ramon Echebei, Palau ambassador to the Philippines, noted that if his island nation applied the continental shelf argument it could lay claim to parts of the Philippines’ claimed national waters, similar to China’s argument for claiming most of the South China Sea as part of its territory. There is potentially much at stake as deep-sea areas are believed to be rich in gold, silver, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc.
deep-sea mining could soon change the pricing of the rare earth minerals used in flat screen TVs, iPods and other advanced touch screen gadgets. Japanese researchers recently found supposed rich deposits of rare earth minerals at undisclosed locations in the Pacific Ocean. China currently accounts for 97% of the world’s production of 17 rare earth minerals.
Interest in deep-sea mining started in the 1960s with the discovery of manganese nodules which cover vast ocean areas. Then low market metal prices and technical difficulties dampened interest in large scale commercial production.
But new technological advances and rising global commodity prices have spurred new commercial interest. Because oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface, mining companies now see deep-sea areas as a new, largely untapped mineral frontiers.
The deposits will be mined largely using hydraulic pumps and bucket systems devised to raise ores to the surface for processing. Many of these minerals are located around hydrothermal vents, similar to terrestrial hot springs.
In the industry parlance, the vents are known as “black smokers” because they resemble underwater chimneys that spew black, fine-grained effluent. The vents are typically in areas with heavy seismic activity, particularly in the Pacific Ocean’s so-called Ring of Fire and in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Yet the idea of mining companies vacuuming the seafloor for mineral riches is raising concerns among scientists, environmentalists and legal experts due to a lack of international guidelines and safeguards. Many island nations with jurisdiction over massive underwater sulfide deposits have struggled to craft internationally accepted environmental regulations for the concessions they plan to put up for international bidding.
Maurice Tivey, chair of geology and geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said deep-sea mining raises a number of questions about the sustainable use of these resources and the impact on the underwater environment. The hydraulic pumping process will increase the concentrated nutrients in deep-sea areas and could potentially cause algal blooms that contaminate waters, he warned.
Others are concerned that sediments raised in the process will threaten various maritime species, including rare organisms that live near thermal vents such as giant tube worms, blind shrimp and foot-long clams. Environmental watchdog Greenpeace fears that many understudied or undiscovered species, including those with potential use for medicine and science, will be lost to deep-sea mining activities.
Some island nations are already ringing alarm bells. Palau ambassador Echebei said his country is worried that the lightly regulated impact of deep-sea mining in neighboring areas will inevitably wash up on its shores. Unlike land-based mining, where pollution is confined to local areas, deep-sea mining threatens to spread pollution through currents across political boundaries, he said.
Such sentiments represent political risks for emerging deep-sea miners. Nautilus Minerals Niugini’s planned production in Papua New Guinea has already met environmentally conscious resistance from indigenous coastal tribes. They have raised concerns that underwater mining could damage areas that they depend on for their food and livelihoods and asked the government to rescind the concession. As large scale deep-sea mining projects proliferate across the region, so too will conflicts over rights, sovereignty and ecology.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People’s Tonight.