After having drilled millions of hectares on land, and also on the continental marine platforms, now it is the turn of the great ocean depths. A Canadian company is trying to secure the funding and technical means to launch the first large-scale subsea mining project. The objective is to extract various metals, mainly gold and copper, 1,600 meters deep under the waters of the Bismarck Sea, in an area of sovereignty of Papua New Guinea, whose Government has granted the appropriate licenses.
The Solwara 1 project aims to exploit a huge deposit of polymetallic sulphides some 30 kilometers off the coast of the province of New Ireland, on the second largest island in the world, which is divided between Papua and Indonesia. Just over two years ago, Nautilus Minerals Inc., based in Toronto (Canada) announced the signing of the agreement with the country's administration, the first in the history of its kind, after two years of discrepancies that kept it paralyzed due to the company's demand that the Papuan government disburse 113 million dollars (about 100 million euros) as a 15% equity stake. With that obstacle overcome, neither the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has put but some to the initiative.
The deep seabed of the Pacific attracts large international mining groups
The company's forecasts were that, if nothing remedies it, the extractive work will begin during the first half of 2018, but its problems in obtaining the precise means seem to indicate that this deadline will not be met.
Meanwhile, environmental defense organizations cry out to the skies at this first precedent of massive underwater mining, due to the enormous impact it can have on the ecosystems of the area, at a time when the international community seems to be approaching conviction of the need to protect vast areas of the planet's oceans, threatened by overfishing, industrial waste, plastics and climate change that is even changing the composition of water itself. A campaign promoted from the Avaaz.org platform has already collected more than a million signatures against the first underwater mine in the world.
The Deep Sea Mining campaign promoted by The Ocean Foundation notes that "one of the biggest problems with deep sea mining is that very little is known about its possible consequences on the environment. Scientists are not able to extrapolate which class populations would be affected by extensive mining because the deep sea is still largely unexplored, and the biodiversity in potentially mining areas is incredibly vast. " The area chosen to run Solwara 1 is home to rich coral communities and is the habitat of species of cetaceans such as the sperm whale.
The largest ecological footprint
Faced with the growing demand for metals such as copper, manganese or cobalt from sectors such as electronics or automotive, among others, and the progressive depletion of land reserves, the deep bed of the Pacific has become the center attraction of large international mining groups. "We already have a kind of new gold rush," admits ISA Deputy Secretary General Michael Lodge. The agency has already granted some thirty permits to explore possible deposits in an area the size of Mexico under the central Pacific.
In the chosen area there are rich coral communities and various species of cetaceans live
Given that Nautilus considers that, if only half of the possible sulfide deposits detected in the so-called Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone, in the central Pacific, 2,000 kilometers from Hawaii and 5,000 meters deep, were viable for mining, could extract billions of tonnes of copper a year - when total landmines produced 19,000 tonnes of this metal in 2012? Oceanographer Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii fears that the new sector will generate the largest ecological footprint of any human activity on the planet.
The Bismarck Sea is not the first attempt to obtain mineral resources from the seabed, but it is the first at great depth and on a large scale. In addition to the numerous oil and gas operations in shallow coastal waters in many regions of the planet, and the massive extraction of sand from the coastline to use it as construction material, mining operations such as diamond extraction already operate in areas between 90 and 140 meters deep in Namibian waters.
Off the coast of Mexico's Baja California, the US company Odyssey Marine Explorations intends to dredge more than 91,000 hectares of seabed in the Gulf of Ulloa to extract 350 million tons of phosphate due to the extreme concern of the tourism and fishing sectors. The seas are the last frontier, but also the last hope to preserve the environment. You will have to choose.
No to the Mine