Gold, copper, silver, platinum, and zinc are a few of the metals that hide deep within the ocean floor and camp out in deep-sea vents. As hoards of precious metals plummet and the metals become scarcer, exploring and mining beneath the waves seems more commercially viable. British engineering company Soil Machine Dynamics is creating the first deep-sea machines to mine “poly-metallic” minerals such as gold, silver and copper from the ocean floor. If the engineering process moves quickly, excavation work could begin in 2010.
There is little doubt that undersea mining has the potential to be highly profitable for companies involved, but there has still been little information released about the environmental impact of this process. The general reputation of mining is already less than glowing, given past problems with toxic mines, contaminated water, and pulverized landscape. The International Seabed Authority hopes to persuade governments in the Pacific to consider the environmental implications of seabed mining before allowing exploration. There are concerns that underwater mining could have a severe impact on sea creatures, due to the destruction of the ocean floor and aquatic habitats. “It may interfere with ecosystem processes and have consequences for other activities, such as fishing, by destroying important fish habitats,” warns Nilesh Goundar, a Pacific Oceans team leader for Greenpeace. He adds that independent groups should conduct a number of studies before corporations initiate seabed excavations.
Following two years of research, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization released one of the first scientific reports on seabed mining late last week. The report, called “Exploring the Social Dimensions of Australia’s Sea Floor Exploration and the Mining Industry,” focused on the social side of seabed mining and warns that there are “inadequate regulations addressing the record world demand for Australia’s deep sea materials.” Without legislative reform, seabed mining is vulnerable to politics and big business. The remaining uncertainty over environmental impact adds to the problem, but the report suggests an alternative: “Copper, gold and even diamonds also exist on ocean floors and could feasibly be mined without digging down, according to the CSIRO.”
Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals supports the report from CSIRO, but argues that their own scientific study proves the mining process is safe for the environment and oceanic ecosystem. As far as we know, this report is still unpublished, but it should provide an interesting read. Company representative Scott Trebilcock shares information about the environmental concerns: “There’s no disturbance to the site around the mine,” he said. “We’ll have no waste rock. Everything we take up will be smelted. Oil and gas (companies) disturb a far larger area when they open up a new field. The dredging industry takes millions of tons off the ocean floor. We have significant (environmental) advantages over land-based companies.”
The company plans to mine several seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) deposits, including copper, zinc, gold and silver. Nautilus Minerals has compiled test extractions in Papua New Guinea and started explorations in Tahiti. In addition, the company has exploration licenses pending for Fiji, Solomon Islands and New Zealand. The WWF protests these future actions, and the above-linked Australian article notes that the WWF, similar to most consumers, hopes to see a “thorough, independent impact assessment before any mining work begins.” This assessment would have to be independent, because the massive earnings that are possible during current commodity booms would make a mining company want to keep any negative press discrete.
A controversial topic, there is still much to uncover as far as underwater mining and its environmental and social implications. We look forward to providing more commentary on this topic in the future. Whatever your stance, feel free to share your thoughts on the matter!