MAC: Mines and Communities

Pacific island states get in on seabed minerals rush

Published by MAC on 2011-08-08
Source: Statement, Asia Times, Times of India (2011-08-05)

But fears of the consequences are growing

The quest for polymetallic nodules lying at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean has been stepped up as seabed exploration plans are approved by the International Seabed Authority (SA) for the island states of Fiji, Nauru and Tonga. 

These join the well-advanced projects of Nautilus Minerals and Neptune Minerals, currently exploring offshore Papua New Guinea and Aoteaora-New Zealand.  See: Independent scientific review slams Nautilus's environmental plan

The Nauru and Tonga applications to explore were reportedly opposed by a number of "prominent" countries within the ISA.

No such opposition was recorded for similar applications made by Russia and China. Nonetheless, the Indian government is said to be concerned about a permit granted to China to plumb the depths of the Indian Ocean around Madagascar.

Just as the ISA hands out new licenses for seabed exploration, so worries about the impacts increase.

Nor is there, by any means. a consensus among small Pacific island peoples that Nauru and Tonga have made the right decision in backing a "vacuuming" of the sea-floor.

Palau's ambassador to the ISA says his country is "worried that the lightly regulated impact of deep-sea mining in neighboring areas will inevitably wash up on its shores.

"Unlike land-based mining, where pollution is confined to local areas, deep-sea mining threatens to spread pollution through currents across political boundaries".

Seabed Council Approves Four Applications for Exploratory Contracts with Authority in Deep Seabed Area

International Seabed Authority (ISA)

20 July 2011

Acting on recommendations of the Legal and Technical Commission, the Seabed Council yesterday afternoon approved the plans of work for exploration for polymetallic nodules and polymetallic sulphides in the international deep seabed Area submitted by four entities.

Adopting the four draft decisions (documents ISBA/17/C/2, 3,4 and 5), as amended during debate, the Council requested the Authority's Secretary-General to issue them with plans of work in the form of contracts with the Authority in accordance with the relevant regulations.

The entities are Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), sponsored by Nauru, and Tonga Offshore Mining Limited (TOML), sponsored by Tonga. They submitted their applications on 31 March 2008 for exploration for nodules in the reserved Area of the Clarion-Clipperton Fractured Zone.

The other two bodies are China Ocean Minerals Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA), and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of the Russian Federation which submitted their applications on 7 May 2010 and on 24 December 2010 respectively, for approval of their plan of work for exploration for polymetallic sulphides in the Area.

Click here for the full press release [http://www.isa.org.jm/files/documents/EN/Press/Press11/SB-17-11.pdf]


International Seabed Authority approve seabed exploration work-plans for Nauru and Tonga

Pacific Island Online Newsletter

20 July 2011

Jamaica - The applications were recommended for the council's approval by the Legal and Technical Commission of the Authority.

Fiji and Pacific Island countries are represented on this commission by Dr Russell Howorth, the Director of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's Suva-based Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC).

In contrast with the Chinese and Russian applications, the Nauruan and Tongan applications faced extended opposition from a number of prominent countries. The Nauruan application was submitted by Nauru Oceanic Resources Inc, and by Tonga Offshore Mining Limited.

Both applications related to work plans for exploration for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (a zone in the mid Pacific) in the mid-east Pacific Ocean.

Polymetallic nodules or manganese nodules, contain varying amounts of manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel. They occur as potato-sized lumps scattered about on the surface of the ocean floor, mainly in the central Pacific ocean but with some deposits in the Indian ocean.

Fiji is an elected member of the ISA's Council and its delegate, Ambassador Peter Thomson spoke strongly in support of the Nauruan and Tongan applications. He thanked them for their applications and the advancement the approvals represented in the work of the Authority.

Thomson pointed out that Pacific Island countries were at the forefront of international seabed matters, with Fiji having been the first signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Like other Pacific Island countries, Fiji has invested much time and resources towards responsible consideration of seabed mining.

Ambassador Thomson commended Nauru proposing to the authority last year that it request the Seabed Disputes Chamber in Hamburg for an advisory opinion on the responsibilities and obligations of State Parties in relation to deep sea mining.

Fiji had presented a statement to the chamber during its hearing in Hamburg in September 2010.

He reminded the council that while the chamber's advisory opinion had now been unanimously welcomed by the ISA's Council, many council members had tried hard to block the Nauruan proposal last year.

In thanking the four countries for their applications, Ambassador Thomson said their approval represented a significant advancement in the work of the authority.

The Nauruan and Tongan approvals are the first time the council granted approval to developing countries to have access to prospecting the seabed areas reserved for their use under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.


Deep-sea mining stirs risk concerns

BY Joel D Adriano

Asia Times

5 August 2011

MANILA - As global commodity prices rise and regional competition for resources intensifies, a scramble is underway to secure mineral rights in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. The emerging trend towards more deep-sea mining threatens to stir new conflicts among competing resource-hungry countries, including those already at loggerheads over potentially oil-and-gas rich maritime areas in the South China Sea.

Private and state-linked companies are driving the deep-sea competition. Canadian mining firm Nautilus Minerals Niugini Ltd will be the first company in the world to undertake commercial undersea mining, including for copper and gold, when its Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea commences operations in 2013. The publicly listed company has also staked claims off the coasts of Tonga and Fiji.

Another private Western company, the Nevada-based Neptune Minerals, plans to mine offshore areas around New Zealand. South Korean state interests launched deep water exploration for minerals in April in the deep-sea areas off the island of Tonga after securing a license from the island nation's government. It aims to excavate 300,000 tonnes of minerals every year for the next 20 years.

More controversially, last month China and Russia secured permits from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to explore for polymetallic sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The Jamaica-based organization was established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and regulates mining in territorial waters beyond individual countries' exclusive economic zones.

The international body's authority, however, is already becoming politicized. A decision handed down to allow China to explore for deep-sea minerals in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar reportedly sent shockwaves in India. New Delhi is reportedly concerned about China cornering mining rights in maritime areas it considers its geographical sphere of influence.

That's raising questions about how the ISA will deal with potential overlapping claims to deep-sea areas. Ramon Echebei, Palau ambassador to the Philippines, noted that if his island nation applied the continental shelf argument it could lay claim to parts of the Philippines' claimed national waters, similar to China's argument for claiming most of the South China Sea as part of its territory. There is potentially much at stake as deep-sea areas are believed to be rich in gold, silver, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc.

Deep-sea mining could soon change the pricing of the rare earth minerals used in flat screen TVs, iPods and other advanced touch screen gadgets. Japanese researchers recently found supposed rich deposits of rare earth minerals at undisclosed locations in the Pacific Ocean. China currently accounts for 97% of the world's production of 17 rare earth minerals.

Interest in deep-sea mining started in the 1960s with the discovery of manganese nodules which cover vast ocean areas. Then low market metal prices and technical difficulties dampened interest in large scale commercial production.

But new technological advances and rising global commodity prices have spurred new commercial interest. Because oceans cover over 70% of the earth's surface, mining companies now see deep-sea areas as a new, largely untapped mineral frontiers.

The deposits will be mined largely using hydraulic pumps and bucket systems devised to raise ores to the surface for processing. Many of these minerals are located around hydrothermal vents, similar to terrestrial hot springs.

In the industry parlance, the vents are known as "black smokers" because they resemble underwater chimneys that spew black, fine-grained effluent. The vents are typically in areas with heavy seismic activity, particularly in the Pacific Ocean's so-called Ring of Fire and in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Yet the idea of mining companies vacuuming the seafloor for mineral riches is raising concerns among scientists, environmentalists and legal experts due to a lack of international guidelines and safeguards.

Many island nations with jurisdiction over massive underwater sulfide deposits have struggled to craft internationally accepted environmental regulations for the concessions they plan to put up for international bidding.

Maurice Tivey, chair of geology and geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said deep-sea mining raises a number of questions about the sustainable use of these resources and the impact on the underwater environment. The hydraulic pumping process will increase the concentrated nutrients in deep-sea areas and could potentially cause algal blooms that contaminate waters, he warned.

Others are concerned that sediments raised in the process will threaten various maritime species, including rare organisms that live near thermal vents such as giant tube worms, blind shrimp and foot-long clams.

Environmental watchdog Greenpeace fears that many understudied or undiscovered species, including those with potential use for medicine and science, will be lost to deep-sea mining activities.

Some island nations are already ringing alarm bells. Palau ambassador Echebei said his country is worried that the lightly regulated impact of deep-sea mining in neighboring areas will inevitably wash up on its shores. Unlike land-based mining, where pollution is confined to local areas, deep-sea mining threatens to spread pollution through currents across political boundaries, he said.

Such sentiments represent political risks for emerging deep-sea miners. Nautilus Minerals Niugini's planned production in Papua New Guinea has already met environmentally conscious resistance from indigenous coastal tribes. They have raised concerns that underwater mining could damage areas that they depend on for their food and livelihoods and asked the government to rescind the concession. As large scale deep-sea mining projects proliferate across the region, so too will conflicts over rights, sovereignty and ecology.

Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.


China gets first-ever chance to enter Indian Ocean for exploration

By Saibal Dasgupta

Times of India

3 August 2011

[Map of the exploration area can be viewed here]

Beijing - China is stepping into the Indian Ocean for the first time, something it has been unsuccessfully seeking through alliances with Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It is doing it for mineral exploration. But the move is bound to draw close scrutiny from India, which is worried about China's military goals in the area.

The China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association announced on Tuesday the country has obtained approval to explore a 10,000-square-km polymetallic sulphide ore deposit in an international seabed region of the southwest Indian Ocean.

Its application for prospecting the region was recently approved by the International Seabed Authority, the association said.

It is not clear if India and other countries had a say in the decision taken by the ISA. China also gained exclusive rights to prospect in a 75,000-square-km polymetallic nodule ore deposit in the east Pacific Ocean in 2001.

The latest move will make it possible for China to sign a 15-year exploration contract with the ISA later this year, the association said. What is more, China will enjoy preemptive rights to develop the ore deposit in the future.

China's state energy group CNPC last year begun building a crude oil port in Myanmar. It is part of a pipeline project aimed at cutting out the long detour oil cargoes take through the congested and strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait.

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