Deep-sea mining is not a new concept, but it’s gaining international attention thanks to both its potential rewards, and uncertain risks. The United Nations (UN) has described the scale of mineral deposits in the world’s oceans as ‘staggering’ and with mineral commodities gaining value, the seabed makes for a tempting opportunity. On January 11, 2013, the US federal agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that there are nearly 20 million tonnes of gold in the seabed, but warned that current technology makes accessing it expensive.
Regardless of current risks the lure of the precious metals is gaining pace and since 2001, the International Seabed Authority has issued 13 licences for mining rights on the seabed. Interest has come from Chinese and Japanese firms for cobalt rich areas in the western Pacific, and in 2011, Russia signed a 15-year contract to prospect for metals in the Atlantic. More recently on March 14, 2013, UK Seabed Resources purchased a $500,000 licence from the UN for 15 years to explore the ocean seabed south of Hawaii and Mexico.
But it’s still early days for exploration, and problems are already emerging in the Pacific. In 2011, Nautilus Minerals – a Canadian seafloor exploration and mining firm – purchased a 20-year licence to mine 19 miles of coast in the south-west Pacific Ocean using technology from offshore oil and gas industries. This project to mine copper, silver and gold – estimated to involve upfront costs of $400 million – already stalled in June 2012, due to a legal dispute over project costs with the Papua New Guinea government.
In addition to legal hurdles, there are also considerable environmental challenges. The deep-sea mining environment is more extreme than its land-based equivalent, with pressures 160 times greater and temperatures ranging from below freezing to 600 degrees. Although the deposits can yield as much as ten times the desirable minerals than what is mined on land, deep-sea mining makes for a more expensive and more risky extraction procedure – the new technology required to mine in this environment will come at a price. Not only are there financial risks, marine ecologists and conservationists warn of catastrophic impacts for the seabed ecology. Over the next few years a greater understanding of the technological requirements and environmental risks upon marine ecology and sea life is needed.
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