Monday, July 05, 2010

Deep-sea Mining Update

The Internet says that the Chinese are going to make an attempt at deep-sea mining. From the Independent:
The Chinese government has just lodged the first application to mine for minerals under the seabed in international waters, in this case on a ridge in the Indian Ocean 1,700 metres (more than 5,000ft) below the surface.
This is worrisome. First of all, even on land, mining is one of the most dangerous endeavors a nation can undertake. It seems like every few months there are reports of coal miners dying in West Virginia, China or South America. If mining is dangerous and difficult to do on land, undoubtably mining is going to be even more difficult and more dangerous at the bottom of the ocean.

The technology hardly exists to put (living) humans on the ocean floor. In fact, there have been more men on the moon than there have been on the deep ocean floor; and more robotic exploration of the surface of Mars than of the ocean. I'm not taking crazy pills; do a Google search of "Philippines [or insert some other third world country] mining disaster" to see the horrible, permanent damage mining has done across the globe. Combining the inherent risk of mining disaster with the potential of ocean currents to transport the damage over hundreds of miles of open ocean only multiplies the danger of undersea mining. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should serve as a cautionary tale of how wrong things can go at depth.

I am also concerned that it is China undertaking this endeavor. To put it lightly, working conditions in Chinese factories are often not up to the standards of most developed nations. I do not think the Chinese are very likely to implement the environmental safeguards an undersea mining operation would need. Hell, BP, the supposed "green" oil company, didn't implement the environmental safeguards necessary to prevent their oil spill.

And now for the official Saipan Blog, Saipan angle:

According to scientists from the United States Geological Survey, the most likely places for undersea mining in the Northern Mariana Islands are the extinct submarine thermal vents off the coast of Rota. Politians on Saipan, desperate to make a quick buck, want to figure out a way to "harvest" those resources. I think they are shortsighted; even with the close proximity, I doubt any of the economic benefits from mining would accrue to the local economy.

For example, any mining operation would likely not be based in Rota, due to the lack of a harbor or infrastructure to support a mining operation; the operation would likely be based out of Guam, if not Singapore. Also, any royalties from the mining would go the United States government, not the Northern Mariana Islands government or the local Rota government. The only economic benefits to Saipan or Rota would be residual, mainly from mining employees spending their paychecks in the local bars (similar to the economy of the pre-positioned ships off the coast of Saipan, the operation of which is done from Guam).

However, even though the Marianas' economy would only benefit peripherally from undersea mining, they would have to take on all of the environmental risk. So let's imagine for a moment that the environmental impact of an undersea mining sediment plume is as large as say, the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A quick visit to If It Was My Home shows the spacial extent of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill superimposed over anywhere on the globe. Here it is superimposed near one of the thermal vents off the coast of Rota:

oil spill rotaIt may be difficult to gauge the extent of the affected area from this map, since there is so much ocean in this screen capture, but were the Gulf of Mexico oil spill superimposed to Rota, it would swamp all the inhabited islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, destroying all fishing, all SCUBA diving, and all other economic activity related to the ocean (i.e. tourism) in the entire Commonwealth. What would happen to the economy, not to mention the culture, of the Northern Mariana Islands, if the the ocean was no longer habitable? I, for one, am not willing to take this risk.

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