The unplumbed riches of the deepSo, still think that undersea mining is right around the corner for the Marianas?
May 14th 2009 | WOODS HOLE, MASSACHUSETTS
From The Economist print edition
And why they’ll wait a while longer before being disturbed
IN TEENSPEAK, if a star such as Madonna or J.Lo is huge, that is a reference not to her size but to her popularity. Similarly, in the world of seabed geology, if a sulphide deposit is massive, it is not necessarily big, but formless and rich in metals. As it happens, seafloor massive sulphides are also huge—at least they were until recently. The collapse in commodity prices last year has diminished them a bit, but many expect their popularity to recover.
Apart from the Russians, the only company mining the seabed at present is De Beers, which gathers diamonds off the coasts of Namibia and South Africa. These gem-quality stones were once carried down the Orange river and have since been swept up the coast, some even borne ashore by tide and wind. But they lie only about 100 metres down, so scooping them up is fairly simple.
Two other companies have shown serious interest in seabed mining. One is Neptune Minerals, an Australian-based company that applied for a mining licence in 2008 for two deposits in about 1,250 metres of water near the Kermadec islands off New Zealand. It has also been granted exploration licences in territorial waters off Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu. But it is nowhere near mining commercially. The other company is Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm whose Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea’s territorial waters contains 60,000-100,000 tonnes of copper, and gold too. It was due to start production next year, but most operations are now on hold.
Moreover, mining companies much prefer the known difficulties of operating on land to those of operating on the seabed. The risks of working in a place where volcanic activity seems to have stopped but may suddenly resume are uncertain. So indeed are the possible obligations to repair the underwater environment: no legal codes are yet in place for deep-sea mining. That helps to explain why the only places in which companies have dipped more than a toe in the water are in exclusive economic zones, which are not just shallower than many parts of the distant ocean but also within the legal ambit of a national authority.
One day, however, deep-sea mining will surely start to look commercially attractive again. At present China and Russia are the two countries most interested in massive sulphides, followed by India and South Korea. Russia, which has been grubbing around on the seabed for years, knows exactly what it wants and where: it has found four massive-sulphide deposits of over 10m tonnes each in the past four years, all on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. China is less sure of what it is after, but has become interested in the southern Indian Ocean, as well as the zone in the North Pacific where most of the manganese-nodule licences have been granted. While China makes up its mind, it is blocking all decision-making at the International Seabed Authority, which was due to issue legal, environmental and revenue-sharing regulations about mining in international waters this month but is unlikely to do so. Fortunately, no miners are in a hurry to get started—and massive sulphides, unlike huge rock stars, can wait. [emphasis mine]
Friday, May 15, 2009
Undersea Mining Bummer
Posted by Angelo Villagomez
The economist has an interesting article on undersea mining this week. You can purchase the print edition, or read it online.