AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Underneath the ocean floor there are vast, hard-to-reach quantities of oil and gas deposits, but what about the ocean floor itself? Turns out oceans are likely to be Earth’s richest repository of minerals, ranging from precious metals to uranium to large deposits of copper, zinc, iron, sulfur and more. And where there’s immense mineral deposits, there’s also immense potential for mineral wealth.
Many of these minerals are used to make the components of modern life — cell phones, computers, solar panels, even steel. So as long as consumption and economic growth remain key pillars of globalization, seabed mining stands to increase in prominence. The potential of mining the ocean floor has been known for several decades, but the technology to make this a feasible economic reality is just now coming online.
A relatively new industry, the first commercial seabed mining operation was granted to Canadian firm Nautilus by the Papua New Guinea government in 2012 to extract copper, gold and silver from the floor of the Bismarck Sea. The United Kingdom is also at the forefront of this underwater frontier, with PM David Cameron choosing American defense company Lockheed Martin Lockheed Martin earlier this year to spearhead the country’s drive to collect rare earth minerals.
According to a recent Greenpeace report:
A growing number of companies and governments — including Canada, Japan, South Korea, China and the UK — are currently rushing to claim rights to explore and exploit minerals found in and on the seabed. There are currently 17 exploration contracts for the seabed that lies beyond national jurisdiction in the deep seas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, compared with only eight contracts in 2010.
The Greenpeace report states that only three percent of the oceans are protected and less than one percent of the high seas, making them some of the least protected places on Earth. And the protection is also one of the most legally vague, which explains why companies are sticking to exclusive economic zones surrounding land and within the legal ambit of a national authority. Seabed mining beyond a country’s territorial waters is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Much like the case with hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ the science and research necessary to establish the safety and overall impacts of seabed mining is lagging behind the rush to profit from it. There are a number of methods of extraction, ranging from large robotic machines excavating deep-sea hydrothermal chimneys to seabed vacuums. These technologies are untried on a commercial scale up to this point, and public opposition to the first commercial scale project off Papua New Guinea remains strong, largely based on the environmental uncertainties.
As the industry marches forward into uncharted territory, the Southwest Pacific is one of the focal points. Recently Mark Brown, Cook Islands’ finance minister, said seabed mining has the potential to increase the 15-island archipelago’s gross domestic product by a hundredfold.
Brown also said the potential income for the Cook Islands could be so vast that a sovereign wealth fund would be set up to manage the cash for future generations and provide a safety net if the islands are swamped by rising sea levels as a result of climate change.
In Australia, the Northern Territory government faces a looming court battle with BHP Billiton and two other companies over its surprise June decision to impose a ban on seabed mining following years of pressure from the local Indigenous community.
New Zealand’s government has also been enticed by the possibility of financial gain from seabed mining, with nearby undersea volcanoes providing the necessary mineral riches. One such area is the North Island’s west coast, where the iconic beaches are made up of purple and black sand, part of which is iron. This same iron is found in an even greater amount in the nearby seabed.
According to Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, or KASM, these iron sands could be New Zealand’s biggest resource, covering nearly 480 kilometers of coastline and 20,000 square kilometers of seabed in layers up to 30 meters deep.
Trans Tasman Resources has applied for a mining permit with New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals and hopes to have a 65-square-kilometer mining permit in the area by the end of 2014. Trans Tasman Resources is about 97 percent foreign-owned, although the company has registered itself in New Zealand, and placed one New Zealander on its board of directors, former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley.
Cindy Baxter, an environmental activist and consultant, lives in the small coastal town of Piha, about a 45-minute drive from Auckland. “The government set up the Environmental Protection Authority to fast track applications like this because essentially they were getting bogged down in regional councils where they could be taken to court and get appealed and it could take years,” she explained. “So the EPA was created so they can call it a special project, and it gets one hearing for public input and can only be appealed on points of law.”
According to Baxter, this also means small activist groups, like KASM, can have their applications court challenged by the opposition on the basis that they won’t be able to pay the legal costs if they lose. So the big companies gain significant legal advantage over the public and small communities up and down the coast based on their financial status.
Baxter has been involved in a number of campaigns against environmental degradation and natural resource exploitation over the years, but this is the first time she’s been personally caught in the cross-hairs.
“If you take hundreds of millions of tons, literally, of sand, off the sea floor and dump a lot of it back again it’s a big question mark really,” Baxter remarked during an interview in her bungalow house nestled in the lush forest above the beach. “The modeling just hasn’t been done. And there’s so many different things that could be affected by this. Fishing. The iconic beaches. And the Maui’s dolphin.”
The Maui’s dolphin is one of the world’s rarest and smallest dolphins, with only around 50 of them remaining in the wild off the west coast of New Zealand. The New Zealand government recently proposed widening a ban on the use of large fishing nets in the region to help protect this critically endangered species while at the same time supporting seabed mining.
Baxter said that as soon as coastal residents hear about the proposed mining they are appalled. Earlier this year local children gathered and created their own protest video with the support of KASM. Nathan Argent is the Policy Advisor for Greenpeace New Zealand based in Wellington, the capital. In an interview at a local cafe he said, “Let’s just pause for thought. We can take assurance from industry that everything is going to be alright. If you think about the industrialization of our seabed and the potentially negative impact it could have on those marine ecosystems, before we race headlong into this, we need to think about generating a body of evidence that says this is going to be alright. And we don’t have that at the moment.”
Argent thinks we need a moratorium on seabed mining until better baseline studies can be established, and even then, it should be approached with caution. “In the same way we wouldn’t allow loggers or oil companies to go into our national parks,” Argent said. “There’s some really pristine environments in the seabed around New Zealand, we shouldn’t give them up too quickly.”