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Deep marine mining faces multiple challenges

With on-land deposits depleting fast, the seabed, which is thought to be rich in nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese, is the obvious place to look next.

But deap-sea mining faces serious challenges, according to GlobalData’s mining technology writer Heidi Vella.

2017 04 20 114457Vella says: “Preparations for a marine mining economy are already underway. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous international organisation that manages all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area, has already signed 30 contracts with governments, research institutions and commercial entities for exploration-phase sea bed mining.

“China holds five contracts, with interest from other countries including Belgium, Britain, Germany and Poland, as well as from the Middle East.

“ISA, which was created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is planning to create mineral exploitation rules as early as July 2020. In February next year, the ISA will meet to discuss and develop further draft exploitation regulations. Once agreed and concluded permits could be issued within two to three years, with operations starting a few years later.

“The real riches of the sea floor are to be found in areas such as the Clarion–Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a remote part of the Pacific Ocean which is thought to have one of the world’s largest untapped collections of rare-earth elements. It is teeming with potato-sized deposits loaded with copper, nickel, manganese and other precious ores.

“However, the nodules in the CCZ are located some 4,000 metres below the ocean surface, making mining much harder.

“One company that has been trying to carry out exploration activities in some of these areas is Nautilus Minerals, which has been exploring areas offshore Papua New Guinea and Tonga. It is looking for copper- and gold-rich discoveries using proven technologies from the offshore oil and gas industries.

“Proof of just how difficult this has been is that escalating costs have forced the company to ask for protection from its creditors after total expenditures incurred reportedly reached just short of $461m.

“As well as being technically difficult, seabed mining is also controversial due to the damage it may cause to marine biodiversity. There is a concern that marine species may be harmed before they are even discovered.”

Dr Kirsten Thompson, lecturer in ecology at the University of Exeter. told GlobalData: “Ecologically the area is quite different than the continental shelf, it will have a completely different ecosystem which is potentially more complex in its topography.

“To go and mine those areas without knowing what lives there seems really counterproductive to all sorts of activities we might want to do in the future, such as carbon burial for example.”

There is also a concern around the governing body, ISA.

Thompson says: “My understanding of ISA is that there are certain technical groups which are not allowed to sit in on meetings, meaning there is no scrutiny from any other parties other than those that happily support seabed mining, from a civil service point of view that isn’t right.”

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