MAC: Mines and Communities

Critics See PNG as Guinea Pig in Deep-Sea Mining

Published by MAC on 2011-03-14
Source: Radio Australia

Since  2007, MAC has warned of huge potential risks posed by marine (sea-bed) mining - particularly that proposed for waters surrounding Papua New Guinea. See: Independent scientific review slams Nautilus's environmental plan

Despite growing criticism of the practice, the European Union is now reported to be offering help  to fifteen other Pacific Island nations, to develop laws aimed at facilitating similar projects.

Critics See PNG as Guinea Pig in Deep-Sea Mining

Untried technology, unknown environmental impacts

By Karon Snowdon

Radio Australia

1 March 2011

MELBOURNE, Australia - Papua New Guinea's (PNG) government is being criticized for approving the world's first deep-sea mine.

Mining rig: a Canadian group plans to use existing technology from the offshore oil and gas industries
Mining rig: a Canadian group plans to use existing technology
from the offshore oil and gas industries to mine up to two
kilometres below the sea surface off northern Papua New
Guinea. Photo: ABC

Nautilus Minerals, of Canada, was awarded a license in January to extract gold and copper from the floor of the Bismarck Sea, about 50 kilometers north of Rabaul.

[PIR editor's note: The resource reportedly has 2.2 million tons of ore, including an indicated resource of 870,000 tons at grades of 6.8 percent copper and 4.8 g/t gold.]

The project's environmental impact statement has been approved by the PNG government and work is set to start within two years.

But critics are accusing Nautilus of wanting to use the Pacific as a testing ground for untried technology, with unknown environmental consequences.

With demand and prices rising sharply, mining for gold, copper and other minerals from the deep sea-floor is now economically viable.

The Solwara One gold and copper project off PNG's north coast is the first attempt of its kind.

Fifteen other Pacific Island nations are being offered help from the European Union to develop laws to facilitate similar projects.

That has worried groups in PNG and across the Pacific, like the Pacific Network on  Globalization - a regional non-government grouping concerned with economic justice.

Maureen Penjueli, the network's coordinator, says the region is being to test an untried technology.

"We are pretty much guinea pigs in this particular process," she told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat.

"So I think that's why we need to err on the side of caution and really go through this thoroughly, rather than rush through based on the economic arguments alone."

Concerns have been raised over the potential impacts of mining on fishing, and on largely unknown plants and animals that live around mineralized areas that exist near volcanic vents in the sea bed.

For Solwarra One, Nautilus will employ technology used by the offshore oil and gas industries to mine up to two kilometers below the surface.

For a 20-year license, the company made a security payment of US$18,000 and will pay royalties of 2 percent of its net returns once production begins.

Nautilus executive Stephen Rogers told Radio Australia in January: "As this industry emerges, it is going to present a significant contribution to the PNG economy.

"Over and above that we've carried out exploration in the territorial waters of Tonga and we have large tracts of land right across the western Pacific in countries like Fiji, New Zealand, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands."

The company commissioned environmental assessments from several universities and Australia's peak scientific body, CSIRO, with findings published in a 275-page study.

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