Seabed Mining (SBM) is an experimental industrial field which involves extracting submerged minerals and deposits from the sea floor. There are interests both for and against seabed mining, however, the science around the environmental impact of SBM is incomplete and unproven. In addition, there is also new interest to explore Deep Sea Mining (DSM), which requires intensive, destructive processes to retrieve deposits laid down over thousands of years around underwater hot springs or hydrothermal vents in the ocean.
Although the distinction between shallow-water mining and Deep Sea Mining (DSM) is not formally demarcated, an emerging consensus says that DSM is the removal of minerals from seabeds deeper than 500 meters. Under that definition, DSM does not yet exist. Its first incarnation will most likely occur off the coast of Papua New Guinea in late 2017 / early 2018 when the Nautilus Minerals Inc. seeks to remove gold and copper from inactive hydrothermal vent zones at depths between 1000 and 1500 meters.
The Nautilus venture will take place within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a nation state. However, most of the marine deposits of minerals prized by world markets are found beyond the EEZs, on the seabeds of the High Seas. The exploration and exploitation of these High Seas mineral deposits is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) under authority conferred by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The ISA has awarded TK exclusive Exploration Contracts to member nations seeking to inventory mineral deposits and assess their commercial potential within a defined area. In theory, holders of Exploration Contracts would later seek Exploitation Contracts to conduct mining operations. That has not yet happened, largely because world prices have not risen high enough to justify the considerable costs.
Spurred by the Nautilus example and by advances in deep-sea technologies, ISA member-states have directed the ISA Secretariat to hasten the drafting of environmental regulations that would govern Exploitation Contracts. It is expected that the Secretariat’s final draft of a regulatory code will be presented not earlier than 2017, with formal approval by the ISA Assembly not earlier than 2018.
The drafting of ISA Exploitation Contract regulations is regarded as a crucial exercise, both by would-be exploiters and by marine conservationists. The final regulations will govern all seabed mining in the High Seas. But it will also affect EEZ seabeds, since UNCLOS requires its signatory states to govern their seabeds in accordance with ISA standards. The next half-decade therefore presents a unique opportunity in human affairs: a chance to devise a regulatory regime to govern an important extractive industry before it begins.
- Authoritative Intros. Basic surveys of SBM in general and Hydrothermal Vent Zones in particular are provided by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The United Nations Environment Program provides an excellent overview. More detailed introductions – though thoroughly comprehensible by non-specialists – are provided by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
- ISA Essentials. The International Seabed Authority website is indispensable. It’s where you go for both official documents (many of them excellent soporifics) and the scientific papers and workshop discussions that wield gratifyingly strong influence on ISA decision-making.
- Pacific Treasure Chest. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community provides an excellent array of materials that synthesize geological, oceanographic, economic, legal, and ecological aspects of SBM. The papers are the product of a European Union / Pacific Community cooperative enterprise. Clearly written, helpfully illustrated, thankfully judicious.
- Conservation-Minded Scientists. DOSI (Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative) is a good introductory source of SBM-relevant scientific papers and general information. The well-endowed EU-sponsored MIDAS Project is where to go to further your education.
- Advocates. The Nautilus Minerals Inc. is the only entity in the world committed to making SBM a reality. Nautilus embraces the need for conservation-mindedness and provides ecological and operational details that are rarely encountered in the extractive industry sector. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition adopts an overall stance of commitment to the Precautionary Principle and speaks in modulated tones. Among civil society organizations concerned with the environmental damages of seabed mining, the most prominent and active may be the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an Australia- based global federation of NGOs and individuals (and a TOF-sponsored organization). DSMC has helped organize meetings and demonstrations in Pacific Island states and recently presented a formal submission to the International Seabed Authority that calls for a moratorium on ISA contract issuances until strict precautionary-minded environmental regulations are approved.
"Nautilus Minerals admits Papua New Guinea is a sea bed mining experiment." 1 June 2016. Media Release from the Papua New Guinean Alliance of Solwara Warriors and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.
As Nautilus Minerals holds its AGM in Toronto today (6/1/16), the Papua New Guinean Alliance of Solwara Warriors and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign encourage investors to think carefully about holding shares in this company. The 2015 Annual Information Form lodged with the Canadian Securities Administrators reveals that the world first licensed sea bed mine is in fact a huge environmental, financial and technological experiment.
"World Bank Report Urges Caution in Deep Sea Mining in the Pacific." 28 April 2016. Press Release from the World Bank.
A World Bank report recommends caution to communities in the Pacific when engaging in deep sea mining ventures as it will likely bring about irreparable damage to the ecosystem as well as the society due to the current lack of established governence.
SMD Delivers Deep Sea Mining Vehicles. Hydro International. 2 February 2016.
Subsea engineering company SMD has passed a significant milestone as the MV Happy Delta, loaded with the world’s first deep sea mining vehicles, has left the Port of Tyne in the UK.
Broad, William. "The 40,000-Mile Volcano," The New York Times. 12 January 2016.
An extremely interesting and engaging aricle about the midocean ridges, and the life that resides there. Recently scientists have inaugurated a major new effort to study these deep sea volcanoes. Off the West Coast, they have wired up a highly active ridge with hundreds of sensors and cameras, as well as cables that flash the readings to shore. The ocean observatory is to operate for at least a quarter century. This month (January), the surge of data is hitting the Internet. "Hundreds of scientists around the globe will now be able to monitor one of Earth’s most restless and enigmatic features as effortlessly as reading their email."
World’s first deep sea mining proposal ignores consequences of its impacts on oceans. (29 September 2015). Media Release. Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Economist at Large, MiningWatch Canada, EarthWorks, Oasis Earth.
As the deep sea mining industry chases investors at the Asia Pacific Deep Sea Mining Summit, a new critique by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign reveals indefensible flaws in the Environmental and Social Benchmarking Analysis of the Solwara 1 project commissioned by Nautilus Minerals. Find the full report here.
Analyzing the Promise of Deep Sea Mining
Even-handed survey by mildly pro-exploitation MIT analysts.
Deep Sea Mining Campaign Fact Sheet 1: Deep Sea Mining - What is it all about? (July 2012).
A fact sheet providing concise information about the potential impacts of deep sea mining and what you can do to take action to stop experimental seabed mining in the Pacific.
Deep Sea Mining Campaign Fact Sheet 2: Deep Sea Mining - The Need for Transparency (November 2012).
The fact sheet gives information about Nautlus Solwara 1 deep sea mining project in Papua New Guinea.
Managing Impacts of Deep Sea Resource Exploitation (MIDAS)
Estimable, deep-pocketed EU project on seabed ecologies and their vulnerabilities.
Marine Geoscience - Mineral Resource of the Future
IFREMER is the excellent French government-sponsored source of SBM-related information.
Society of Economic Geologists
Good links to information on the market-realism of SBM.
Identifying Toxic Impacts of Metals Potentially Released during Deep-Sea Mining—A Synthesis of the Challenges to Quantifying Risk
In January 2017, the International Seabed Authority released a discussion paper on the development of Environmental Regulations for deep-sea mining (DSM) within the Area Beyond National Jurisdiction (the “Area”). With the release of this paper, the prospect for commercial mining in the Area within the next decade has become very real. Moreover, within nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones, the exploitation of deep-sea mineral ore resources could take place on very much shorter time scales and, indeed, may have already started. However, potentially toxic metal mixtures may be released at sea during different stages of the mining process and in different physical phases (dissolved or particulate). As toxicants, metals can disrupt organism physiology and performance, and therefore may impact whole populations, leading to ecosystem scale effects. A challenge to the prediction of toxicity is that deep-sea ore deposits include complex mixtures of minerals, including potentially toxic metals such as copper, cadmium, zinc, and lead, as well as rare earth elements. Whereas the individual toxicity of some of these dissolved metals has been established in laboratory studies, the complex and variable mineral composition of seabed resources makes the a priori prediction of the toxic risk of DSM extremely challenging. Furthermore, although extensive data quantify the toxicity of metals in solution in shallow-water organisms, these may not be representative of the toxicity in deep-sea organisms, which may differ biochemically and physiologically and which will experience those toxicants under conditions of low temperature, high hydrostatic pressure, and potentially altered pH.
Blue Growth Opportunities for marine and maritime sustainable growth Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions COM(2012)
Comprehensive digest of EU-financed information that showcases examples of the pro-mining and anti-mining sentiments of the schizophrenic European approach.
“Deep-ocean mineral deposits as a source of critical metals for high- and green-technology application: Comparison with land based resources,”James R. Hein, Kira Mizell, Andrea Koschinsky, Tracey A. Conrad Ore Geology Reviews (Impact Factor: 3.38). 12/2012; 51:1-14. DOI: 10.1016/j.oregeorev.2012.12.001
Informed statement of the basic case for DSM as a necessary element of green tech growth.
EPA Staff Report EEZ000006 Chatham Rock Phosphate Limited Marine Consent Application. August 2014. New Zealand Government, Wellington, New Zealand, pp. 1-175.
Watchdog at work: New Zealand’s EPA says that proposals to conduct phosphate mining at 400 meters deep in the Chatham Rise area of the country’s EEZ are unacceptable.
Global Ocean Commission (November 2013) Policy Options Paper #5. Strengthening deep seabed mining regulation.
Judicious summary of recommendations on how to govern SBM. Solid work.
Hannington, Mark, et al. The Abundance of seafloor massive sulfide deposits. Geology, December 2011
Likely sources of undersea strategic minerals.
International Seabed Authority. Developing a Regulatory Framework for Mineral Exploitation in the Area: A discussion Paper on the Development and Implementation of a Payment Mechanism in the Area for Consideration by Members of the Authority and All Stakeholders.
Not for the faint-hearted: an exhaustive consideration of how SBM can support the costs of its regulators.
International Seabed Authority. Environmental management plan for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, adopted July 2012
Precedentially significant ISA document to govern manganese nodule prospecting in the Pacific.
International Seabed Authority. Environmental management plan for Clarion-Clipperton Zone. A partnership approach.
The process through which the plan was produced.
Luick, John L. Physical Oceanographic Assessment of the Nautilus EIS for the Solwara 1 Project. November 2012. Prepared for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign (affiliated with Friends of the Earth Australia)
This report reviews the oceanographic elements of the Nautilus Solwara 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and concludes that the EIS downplays the risks facing local communities and the marine environment. The report conveys the need for heavy assessment and input from diverse audiences in environmental impact statements.
Mengerink, K.J., et al., 2014. “A Call for Deep-Ocean Stewardship”
Collective public pronouncement by leading marine scientists.
MIDAS, 2014. “Deep-Sea Mining:An Introduction.”
Michelle Allsopp, et al. “Review of the Current State of Development and the Potential for Environmental Impacts of Seabed Mining Operations.” Greenpeace Research Laboratories Technical Report (Review) 03-2013: 50pp.
A useful compendium of information from a good-SBM-is-no-SBM point of view.
Rosembaum, Helen. Out of Our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor in Papua New Guinea. October 2011.
The report details serious environmental and social impacts expected as a result of unprecedented mining of the ocean floor in Papua New Guinea. It highlights the deep flaws in Nautilus Minerals EIS like the insufficient testing by the company in the toxicity of its process on vent species, and has not sufficiently considered toxic effects on organisms in the marine food chain.
Helen Rosenbaum, Helen and Grey, Francis. Accountability ZERO: A Critique Of The Nautilus Minerals Environmental And Social Benchmarking Analysis Of The Solwara 1 Project.
As the deep sea mining industry chases investors at the Asia Pacific Deep Sea Mining Summit, this critique, endorsed by a coalition of economists, scientists and civil society groups, reveals indefensible flaws in the Environmental and Social Benchmarking Analysis of the Solwara 1 project commissioned by Nautilus Minerals. The proposed Solwara 1 deep sea mine, situated in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea, is the world’s first to receive an operating license.
Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Series
SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project
1A - Sea-Floor Massive Sulphides A physical, biological, environmental, and technical review
1B - Manganese Nodules A physical, biological, environmental, and technical review
1C - Cobalt-rich Ferromanganese Crusts A physical, biological, environmental, and technical review
2 - Deep Sea Minerals and the Green Economy
Invaluable set of resources.
United Nations Center for Biological Diversity. “Statement by the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity on the Occasion of 21st Session of the International Seabed Authority.” 13-24 July 2015, Kingston, Jamaica.
The CBD announces its plan to work with the ISA to provide the best available scientific information on marine and coastal biodiversity for effective and legitimate environmental impact assessments.
Van Dover, C.L., 2014. Impacts of anthropogenic disturbances at deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems: A review. Marine Environmental Research (0).
Indispensable review from the world’s leading expert on hydrothermal vent zones.
China is stepping up activity in one of the final frontiers of mineral wealth – the remote seabeds lying kilometres beneath the Indian and Pacific oceans.