Posts Tagged ‘seabed mining’

Seabed Mining is Real

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Seabed mining is a new frontier and the payoff for the miners is going to be huge. This is mining beyond the continental shelves, beyond 200m depth, on the continental slopes and beyond, down to the deep hydrothermal vents that occur around the widening rifts where tectonic plates slowly separate. The mining will be industrial scale, and it will be out of sight.

The mineral deposits, particularly around deep sea vents, are extraordinarily rich in copper, gold, iron, cobalt, and invaluable rare earth metals. They are irresistible.

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface.   (nautilus.com)

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface. (nautilus.com)

Seabed mining has been a dream of the rich nations and corporations for decades. Figuring out how to govern it in international waters almost scuttled the Law of the Sea in the early 1990s, but the community of nations eventually agreed to postpone those decisions until seabed mining became a reality, and most of the remaining reluctant nations ratified the Law (pretty well all did except for the US).

Well, now instead of being decades off in the future, seabed mining is real, imminent, and the governance by the UN International Seabed Authority is weak. We are not prepared.

Though a number of countries or companies are licensed to explore sites in the Pacific to begin mining, the first to hit the seabed will be Nautilus Minerals, whose regular press releases provide a drumbeat for its accumulating progress. It’s worth checking out the company, for it provides a sense of the scale of interest and the inevitable exploitation that lies ahead. Though it is exploring opportunities in international waters, this first actual mining will be at a depth of 1600 m in EEZ of Papua New Guinea – a rare site where hydrothermal vents occur in national waters.

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Nautilus Minerals is registered in Canada, its main office is in Brisbane, the surface ship is being built and will be outfitted in Fujian Province on the coast of China, the three huge mining machines/vehicles are being built in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the UK, the motors for the ship are under construction in Norway, and the major investor is Oman. PNG is of course well paid for the license. The ore will be stock-piled in PNG and then sent to refineries around the world. A cyber attack from an unknown source very recently cost the company $10 million. This is as global as it gets.

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter the to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The Nautilus video tells us that the payoff of mining the 11 hectares under license will be a billion dollars, that there really are no fish there to worry about, and the environmental damage will be negligible. Believe what you like.

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The questions are now urgent.
– How much of the seabed should we protect from mining?
– How do we fairly govern mining in international waters?
– Can we give the International Seabed Authority the vision and power it needs, or do we need new organization?
– How do we enforce any agreements that are made?
– How do we monitor what we can’t see except through very expensive remote sensing?

And there’s more. Will the profits be shared only by the nations and investors who can afford to mount the efforts? Surely that is not fair. But then how will the profits be shared by the world’s less affluent nations?

The existing UN Law of the Sea, ratified by almost all the countries of the world except for the US, is by far the best tool available to address these questions. It can be modified, expanded, used to prevent the potential huge abuse of the seabed mining initiative that is now upon us.

This time it should be guided by the Precautionary Approach, by agreement that the seabed, at least in international waters, is a world resource, and the US should finally ratify the Law of the Sea so that it can play a real part in the emerging agreements.

Meanwhile we can all watch what Nautilus Minerals does. With everyone watching, they may truly try to do it right.

The famous, giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

The famous giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

Seabed Nodules and Rare Earth Elements

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Manganese nodules, about the size of potatoes, litter the deep-water seabed. Sometimes they are so abundant that they cover 70% of the seabed surface. They have been tantalizing potential miners for decades, and now they are suddenly back in play.

Manganese nodules at 5000m in the South Pacific (teara.govt.nz)

A nodule grows slowly, adding about 1cm to its diameter over the course of several million years. It grows around a core – a tiny fragment of shell or sand – with concentric layers of iron and manganese hydroxides, along with copper, nickel and cobalt oxides, precipitating from the water around it, reaching 5-10cm in diameter. Most of the nodules lie on the abyssal plains, 4000-6000m deep.

A manganese module split in half (nytimes.com).

The Challenger expedition of 1872 first dragged some up. Serious efforts to try to exploit them didn’t occur until the 1970s and 1980s, but the practical, economic and political problems were just too great to resolve.

For problems there are. For instance, who do the nodules belong to? Because they lie mostly in deep water, beyond the 200 mile limits of Exclusive Ecological Zones, the UN Law of the Sea eventually established that they are the Common Heritage of Mankind: whoever succeeds in mining them will have to share the profits with the rest of the world. Not exactly an attractive prospect for profit-oriented corporations.

Besides the question of who owns the nodules, and the taxes that will accompany any deep seabed mining venture, how do we get them to the surface? No one yet has a particularly good idea. Imagine trying to control a vacuum cleaner with a hose a few km long.

The biggest problem, though, is that, pure as the nodules might be, there are land-based sources of manganese, iron, copper and nickel where the costs of mining the ore have remained much less than any estimated for retrieving nodules from such deep water.

So nothing much has happened.

Until now. Since a publication in 1968, we have known that the nodules also contain low levels of Rare Earth Elements (REEs), and very recently Rare Earth Elements have caught everyone’s attention. They are the elements that are piled up in a ‘pull-out’ near the bottom of the Periodic Table with unfamiliar names such as Cerium, Dysprosium, Yttrium, and Lanthanium.

The 16 Rare Earth Elements on the Periodic Table (pubs. usgs.gov)

Modern technology can’t do without Rare Earth Elements. We use them increasingly in magnets, lasers, fiber optics, disc drives, memory chips, superconductors, liquid crystal displays, rechargeable batteries, smart phones, smart bombs. The magnets of green technologies of wind turbines and hybrid cars depend on them.

The 16 Rare Earth Elements aren’t actually rare, they just rarely occur in economically exploitable ore pockets. China now has 95% of world production, acquired through its familiar combination of low labor costs and particularly lax regulation of the environmental hazards – which include strip mining, acidification of watersheds, creation of toxic reservoirs, and accumulation of radioactive sludge. A reminder that our potentially green economy is currently dependent on very dirty mineral extraction.

China's monopoly is a recent development (pubs.usgs.gov)

Rare Earth mineral mining in China - strip mining, acid reservoirs, radioactive thorium accumulation (

And then a couple of months ago, China stopped shipment of REEs when Japan arrested one of its fishing vessels. The five week embargo caught the world’s attention. Though China eventually lifted the embargo, it says it needs most of what it produces its for own uses, and has told other countries to mine their own REEs, or move their companies to China.

So everyone is now looking at other sources of REEs. Companies are emerging in California, Greenland, Australia, Canada, South Africa and unfortunately Congo Republic to mine them, but it will still be about 10 years before the dependency on China will be broken.

And that brings us back to the seabed nodules. The value of their common minerals has been increasing, and now their REEs have become very attractive as well. Soon, despite the problems of profit sharing and accessibility, a new seabed mining industry will develop.

Competitive, high seas, deepwater seabed vacuuming. What could go wrong with that?