MAC: Mines and Communities

China pushing towards seabed mining

Published by MAC on 2015-06-05
Source: India Today

The Dragon's oceanic splash

Resource-hungry China plumbs the depths of the Indian Ocean as India plays catch-up in the race to the seabed

Ananth Krishnan

India Today

4 June 2015

Beijing - In 2002, China's leaders gave their blessing to an ambitious project named the Jiaolong or "Aquatic Dragon". Top scientists from more than 100 universities and companies were summoned to Beijing. Their task: to build the world's most advanced submersible that could explore the deepest parts of the ocean floor, a little-known region more than 7,000 metres under the sea that has stayed beyond the reach of mankind.
In the 1980s and 1990s, China's government devoted billions of dollars towards building a national space programme. Its first space station is likely to be operational by 2020. In December 2013, it conducted the first soft landing on the moon since the 1970s, joining the United States and the former Soviet Union in achieving this feat. Beijing is preparing now for a manned lunar mission. For China's planners however, space is not the final frontier: the following decade, it put on a par with its space mission a programme aimed at exploring the depths of the oceans, after having concluded that the battle for technological superiority that was playing out thousands of metres below sea level was not only as compelling as the "space war" but perhaps held greater significance.

Scramble for the Seabed

Attempts to explore the oceans go back more than a 100 years. In the late 19th century, studies for the first time detailed the wealth that lies on the ocean floor. Just as the Earth's crust holds vast resources of minerals, the ocean floor houses untapped deposits of valuable minerals, from copper and gold to manganese and rare earth elements (REEs), a group of 17 elements that are difficult to mine on land. The first attempts to mine the oceans took place in the 1960s but proved economically unviable.

Recent improvements in technology have, however, opened up new possibilities. Last year, the first- ever agreement to open a deep-sea mine was reached between Canada's Nautilus Inc and Papua New Guinea to mine gold, copper and other minerals from a depth of 1,500 metres. While substantial mineral resources are located within the Exclusive Economic Zones of many Pacific countries, the biggest deposits are thought to be in the international waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Exploration of the global oceanic commons is regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous body set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The ISA is headquartered, surprisingly, in far- away Jamaica. Breakthroughs in exploration have in recent years triggered a scramble for securing exploration contracts with the ISA. These are agreements purely for exploration: it may still be a few years at least before the seabed may be mined. For one, there are persisting doubts about the technology despite recent breakthroughs- the Papua New Guinea deal, countries say, will serve as a test case. While the ISA is yet to agree on a global regime for exploitation-in April, the body put forward a first draft financial mechanism for exploitation for its members to discuss-countries that secure exploration contracts, usually granted for a 15-year period, have been assured preferential rights.

So far, China, which has three contracts, Japan and Germany are among countries that have taken the lead. India has secured one contract, for exploration of polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean. As of today, the ISA has opened up as much as 1.5 million sq m in the Indian and Pacific Oceans for exploration, with two dozen-plus licences issued. One reason for the wide interest is the prevalence of REEs, a key component for most high-tech electronics, from tablet computers and rechargeable batteries to renewable energy devices. China has control of around 95 per cent of REE production on land. For the rest of the world, the oceans could provide a way out of China's monopoly. For China, it is an opportunity to consolidate its foothold.

Taking the Lead

China's efforts in building one of the world's most advanced deep-sea mining capabilities is being led from the offices of the China Ocean Mineral Resource Research and Development Association (COMRA), a little-known government-backed body. COMRA's offices are housed in the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) building in Beijing, a stone's throw from the Communist Party leadership's Zhongnanhai compound. While the Indian equivalent would be the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the SOA is endowed with a vast budget.

The Jiaolong submersible project is the jewel in the SOA's crown. It was readied within six years of the project's launch at a cost of only 470 million yuan or Rs 470 crore, a figure disputed by foreign observers. Two years after launching, the Jiaolong achieved a depth of 3,759 metres, making China only the fifth country to do so after the US, France, Russia and Japan. In 2012, it went as far as 7,062 metres below sea level in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, one of the ocean's deepest regions, and brought back three water samples, two sediment samples and one organism sample.

Speaking to India Today in a rare interview in COMRA's headquar- ters, its Deputy Director He Zongyu says the Jiaolong has "played a critical role in current surveys". COMRA's first contract with the ISA was signed in 2001, for exploration of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific Ocean, west of Hawaii, which has one of the world's largest deposits. China signed another contract last year in the Western Pacific to explore for Ferromanganese Crusts, which are rich in REEs.

Implications for India

While Western countries have placed most attention on the Pacific, much of China's focus has been on the less-explored but mineral-rich Indian Ocean. COMRA's 2011 contract with the ISA to explore for polymetallic sulphides in the southwest Indian Ocean-the first in this vast southern region-was seen by some Indian strategists as a foray by China into India's backyard. He Zongyu of COMRA says that an "around the world" survey undertaken by China in 2005 led to an assessment that "the quality of mineral resources in the Indian Ocean is relatively high" compared to elsewhere.

For India, the opening up of ocean exploration-and particularly the strides that China is taking-has enormous implications. Under its 2011 contract with the ISA, COMRA has the exclusive right to explore for sulphides in a vast area in the southern Indian Ocean. COMRA as the first contractor will have priority, says He Zongyu.

Even the Jiaolong's recent voyages have been focused on the Indian Ocean region. In April, the submersible returned to China's ocean research base in Qingdao after its longest ever expedition: a 118-day stay in the Indian Ocean over which the Jiaolong, in addition to gathering some 700 samples, discovered "an active chimney vent" in a hydrothermal area. Shao Zongze, a scientist part of the expedition, described the vent "as a rare find" in an interview with state media. Deep-sea vents contain rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, zinc and other minerals.

Over the past few years, India has also stepped up its programme that started in 1993. It has secured an exploration contract from the ISA to mine polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean over 150,000 sq km. M. Atmanand, director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology, says India has developed its own remotely operated underwater vehicle that can reach a depth of 7,000 metres; a programme for a manned submersible like the Jiaolong has commenced. For India, the stakes are higher. Unlike China, it has not developed a rare earths production base on land on a similar scale. As Atmanand points out, India also does not have terrestrial resources of cobalt and nickel. "A lot more is to be done to be on a par with developed nations such as the US, Japan, France. Lack of manpower to work in this area is an impediment," he says.

China, for its part, isn't stopping with its push to reach even greater depths of the ocean. Its next step is developing the successor to the Jiaolong, called Rainbow Fish. This submersible, scientists hope, will be able to go as deep as 11,000 metres-the deepest parts of the ocean floor. He Zongyu says both India and China face similar challenges. "COMRA is willing to cooperate with India in every aspect," he says, playing down the prospect of rivalry.

Green Fears

How will this exploration push affect the oceans? Green groups have expressed more than a little alarm over the impact on thriving marine ecosystems. The Deep Sea Mining Campaign, which started in 2011, says this mining activity is taking place "in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little known ecosystems of the deep sea".

On May 15, the campaign submitted a brief to the seabed authority not to allow exploitation without the consent of indigenous peoples close to the deposits and without peer-reviewed research on the impact of mining on ecosystems. Will their fears be heeded? With billions of dollars worth of mineral resources at stake, and countries from Germany and Japan to new entrants China and India investing in ambitious programmes to reach unexplored depths of the oceans, that still remains far from clear.

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