Agreement reached on deep sea mining

Deep sea mining The project will extract ores of copper, gold and other valuable metals from a depth of 1,500m

Plans to open the world's first mine in the deep ocean have moved significantly closer to becoming reality.

A Canadian mining company has finalised an agreement with Papua New Guinea to start digging up an area of seabed.

The controversial project aims to extract ores of copper, gold and other valuable metals from a depth of 1,500m.

However, environmental campaigners say mining the ocean floor will prove devastating, causing lasting damage to marine life.

The company, Nautilus Minerals, has been eyeing the seabed minerals off Papua New Guinea (PNG) since the 1990s but then became locked in a lengthy dispute with the PNG government over the terms of the operation.

Under the agreement just reached, PNG will take a 15% stake in the mine by contributing $120m towards the costs of the operation.

Mike Johnston, chief executive of Nautilus Minerals, told BBC News: "It's a taken a long time but everybody is very happy."

"There's always been a lot of support for this project and it's very appealing that it will generate a significant amount of revenue in a region that wouldn't ordinarily expect that to happen."

The mine will target an area of hydrothermal vents where superheated, highly acidic water emerges from the seabed, where it encounters far colder and more alkaline seawater, forcing it to deposit high concentrations of minerals.

The result is that the seabed is formed of ores that are far richer in gold and copper than ores found on land.

Mr Johnston said that a temperature probe left in place for 18 months was found to have "high grade copper all over it".

Bulk cutter Construction of the largest machine - the 310-tonne Bulk Cutter - was completed in the UK

For decades, the idea of mining these deposits - and mineral-rich nodules on the seabed - was dismissed as unfeasible because of the engineering challenge and high cost.

But the boom in offshore oil and gas operations in recent years has seen the development of a host of advanced deep sea technologies at a time when intense demand for valuable metals has pushed up global prices.

The mine, known as Solwara-1, will be excavated by a fleet of robotic machines steered from a ship at the surface.

The construction of the largest machine, a Bulk Cutter weighing 310 tonnes, has just been completed by an underwater specialist manufacturer, Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), based in Newcastle, UK.

The plan is to break up the top layer of the seabed so that the ore can be pumped up as a slurry.

The agreement with PNG now clears the way for Nautilus to order a specialist vessel to manage the operation. Mining itself could start within five years.

Environmental campaigners have long argued that seabed mining will be hugely destructive and that the precise effects remain unknown.

Richard Page, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, said: "The emerging threat of seabed mining is an urgent wake-up call for the need to protect the oceans.

Drill core For decades, the idea of mining these deposits was dismissed as unfeasible

"The deep ocean is not yet mapped or explored and so the potential loss of fauna and biospheres from mining is not yet understood.

"Only 3% of the oceans and only 1% of international waters are protected, which makes them some of the most vulnerable places on earth - what we desperately need is a global network of ocean sanctuaries."

According to Nautilus, the mine will have a minimal environmental footprint, covering the equivalent of about 10 football fields and focusing on an area which is likely to be rapidly re-colonised by marine life.

Mr Johnston said: "It's a resilient system and studies show that life will recover in 5-10 years. An active venting site 1km to the southeast has the same bugs and snails and the current will carry the bugs and snails to the mine site. We expect it to recover quite quickly."

But this will be the first attempt to extract ore from the ocean floor, so the operation - and the company's assurances about the impacts - will be watched closely.

So far, 19 licences to search for seabed minerals have been awarded by the International Seabed Authority, the UN body policing this emerging industry.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which has welcomed the Nautilus Minerals agreement with Papua New Guinea, is currently drawing up guidelines for the environmental management of future seabed mining.

Michael Lodge of the ISA told the BBC: "This is a very exciting opportunity and we are looking forward to learning from the tests of the new machine, which is a world first and should give us some valuable insights into technical feasibility and environmental impact."

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    the future generations will thank us not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    290 - "Technology always has the answer..."

    I think you may have been watching too much Doctor Who...

    Take another look at this game that everyone is playing, using up all the Earth's resources so that some people can make more money and thereby have more of the Earth's resources for themselves, leaving others without any.

    You can call that an answer if you want.

    I call it plain greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    Exactly Red Neck. It would be enviromentally advantageous. We would compensate for global warming. People get so doom laden saying this is wrong and man and the earth are doomed. Yet when technology advances we can slow the earths rotation and compensate for global warming. Technology always has the answer and it's never as bad as it seems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    Yeah I remember that film too. There should also be diamonds the size of houses which we could hollow out for designer housing for the uber rich :)
    Temperature and pressure at those depths are years beyond our technology.
    In reality If you were to drill down that deep the pressurized molten core would shoot up through the borehole and form a new volcano.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    your not really an environmentalist are you. We should all take a balanced view. If you start exploiting the earths core, this will lead to slow down of the earths rotation, and enhance the onset of the next ice-age! Who mentioned Global warming? Exploiting replenishable resources is another matter.
    Thats it from me. Good night.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    Solid metal. The Earths core even contains gold and platinum. It's like a massive round jewellers. We really need to get down to the core, that's where the real riches are. I'm not even sure the Earth needs it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    We are really only touching the surface at the moment, literally. Think of the vast power that can be harnessed from the earths core. It's sold metal surrounded by loads of hot stuff. We need to start chipping away at that, just think of the value this would be for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    "When it is all gone......only then will they CANT eat money!! This disgusts me. Greed..pure and simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Comments like: ""The emerging threat of seabed mining is an urgent wake-up call for the need to protect the oceans." just make me wonder what these people would be saying now if we were just starting to mine coal or if we were only now and for the first time suggesting piping gas under the streets and into homes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    its not as simple a that, some things in the eco-system are recyclable, other not.
    are there really people out there who believe that finding flight MH 370 would not be a good thing, and that having comprehensive ocean floor charts would have helped in that; as they would have in this discussion about deep sea mining?

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    If it's there it's there for a reason. It's like a big easter egg hunt. We find it, we use it. It's there for our benefit so let's grab it quick. The earth will make some more in time. You all need to stop worrying and stop being so alarmist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    @It_s yerself
    enough said, so much for sentiment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Greed will destroy everything in time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    @Machiavellian Hamster
    theres nothing to nip, seems we are in accord, the point was rhetorical :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    "great, another vital ecosystem we can allow big business to exploit (destroy)"

    You're at least one step ahead of the rest of us - how did you get access to the evidence? You're clearly a moral person in which case that you won't hesitate to share your sources (in the public and environmental interest)?

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    Just a small point, lets nip this line of argument in the bud. Long before the sun dies the only remenants left of humans will probably be trace DNA in whatever speices is banging about at the time. By the time the sun dies, there are many models predicting what will occur but almost all have the same conclusion. Nothing will be alive on this planets surface.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    Great to hear a UK company is getting in there. Oh dear, the greenies make me sick. They oppose everything without any evidence one way or another. Fracking offers a way forward but still the hordes of wide eyed unwashed, unemployed continue to dog progress. Evidence is things recover very quickly. The sooner someone sinks greenpeace the better. The Russians soon shut them up! LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    273. red_neck
    would you dig up you parents graves to make room for your local supermarkets new car park, just because they felt they might just possibly make more profit by doing so?

    My parents want to be cremated and their ashes scattered over our own land.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    great, another vital ecosystem we can allow big business to exploit (destroy) in a short sighted pursuit of profits....

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    @It_s yerself
    well, ah-hem,
    would you dig up you parents graves to make room for your local supermarkets new car park, just because they felt they might just possibly make more profit by doing so?
    I take it you are being facetious, and not serious!


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