MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Brazil beds down with Africa in ocean minerals' quest

Published by MAC on 2009-06-02

The prospects and perils - both political and environmental - of deep sea (or seabed) mining are ones we've dealt with on this website for the past two years. See: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/list.php?r=1031

The implosion in metal prices of the last nine months hasn't prevented states and private companies from staking out claims to potentially the world's richest resources of sulphide minerals, including cobalt, copper, gold, silver and manganese.

There have been belated scientific calls for prudence before this minerals' scramble becomes a veritable rush.

However, even more sovereign states are now hoisting their flags, whether literally or figuratively, over resources which some claim should be the heritage of humankind - if not left alone for ever.

Brazil wants African allies in seabed mining quest

By Raymond Colitt

Reuters

19th May 2009

BRASILIA - Brazil is trying to forge an alliance with African and South American countries to defend seabed mining rights and strategic shipping lanes in the South Atlantic, its defense minister said on Tuesday.

Brazil is concerned it could fall behind as leading developed countries race to divvy up the rights to mineral and maritime resources in international waters.

Potentially huge deposits of manganese, copper, cobalt and other minerals are at stake, with the seabed in international waters covering more than 50 percent of the world's surface.

"Brazil can't fall behind in this (race)," Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said in a briefing with foreign reporters in the capital Brasilia.

Latin America's largest country is already developing massive oil reserves under thick layers of salt rock beneath the ocean floor, which could make it one of the world's top 10 oil exporters. It is also overhauling its military and developing a nuclear-powered submarine to safeguard the newfound oil reserves.

Under the 1984 United Nations Law of the Sea and a 1994 implementation agreement, countries can request exclusive mining rights in blocks of 100 square kilometers (38.61 sq mi), following initial prospecting.

The International Seabed Authority, or ISA, created under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, has already granted eight exploration contracts with rights to 2 million square km (772,704 sq mi) in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, according to Brazil's defense ministry.

German and Russian firms are prospecting in an area some 450 miles (833 km) off Brazil's southern coast, Jobim said.

Brazilian geologists say there is considerable mining potential below the ocean floor halfway between Africa and South America, where the two continental plates meet.

"There is Brazilian interest in exploring the region, to invest there, because these are natural resource in Brazil's sights," Jobim said. Brazil is a major mining country and Vale, which is based in Rio de Janeiro, is the world's largest iron ore exporter, with operations in West Africa and throughout South America.

The ISA is finalizing new regulations for prospecting and exploration and Brazil wants South America and West Africa to adopt a common stance. "I'm unifying South America and at least West Africa so we can have a minimally coherent position," Jobim said. "Every country has a vote."

Jobim has raised the issue in recent months at the South American Defense Council, which Brazil helped create. He will take the message to several West African countries in a visit to the region next week.

SHIPPING LANES THREATENED

In addition to securing mineral supplies for coming decades, Brazil wants to protect its commercial shipping lanes. One country can claim up to 25 blocks, potentially forcing a considerable detour of shipping lanes, Jobim said.

"Who is going to pay for that? Are exploration rights going to be free?," Jobim asked, adding that he was also concerned about the likely presence of foreign naval ships protecting exploration rights.

Brazil intends to accelerate its own prospecting and seek alliances with South American or African nations, Jobim said. It does not entirely oppose joint-ventures with developed nations but thinks they should include African countries.

African and South American countries should request an extension of their maritime borders, Jobim said, from 200 nautical miles to 350 nautical miles.

Brazil recently received provisional approval for its request to extend rights to 350 nautical miles, well beyond its newfound oil reserves, Jobim said. (Reporting by Raymond Colitt; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)


Mining the ocean floor

It's not yet a gold rush to the ocean floor, but seabed prospecting is raising concerns.

By Peter N. Spotts

The Christian Science Monitor

22nd May 2009

Pompeii worms, clams, and snails with iron scales armoring their feet are not exactly the cuddly icons that open checkbooks during environmental fundraisers.

But these denizens of the very, very deep are emerging as poster children for concerns about the environmental effects of mining minerals on the deep-sea floor - in particular, around hydrothermal vents that appear in vent fields dotting the length of the globe's mid-ocean ridges.

For decades, the prospect that companies would seek fortunes on the seafloor has seemed remote, says Porter Hoagland, a marine-policy specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.

From the 1950s through the '90s, the dawn of the age of deep-sea mining was always considered to be 10, 15, or 20 years away, he says. "It was kind of a receding horizon." But, he adds, conditions have changed.

Deep-sea exploration and extraction technologies have improved. Until the current global economic slump, rising prices for metals added luster to undersea deposits of gold, copper, and other metals. And the International Seabed Authority (ISA) - tasked under the Law of the Sea Treaty to set up rules governing mining and mining exploration under the sea - is moving to draft regulations governing prospecting and exploration of massive sulfide deposits.

The reason: Nautilus Minerals Inc. in Toronto has applied to the government of Papua New Guinea for a lease to mine deposits of copper and gold on the slopes of an active undersea volcano about a mile beneath the Bismarck Sea. Hearings on the application wrapped up in early April.

To be sure, Nautilus's effort remains a baby step, given the unrealized, widespread hype over deep-sea mining in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Indeed, the regulations are being crafted "for an industry that doesn't exist yet," says Nii Odunton, the ISA's secretary-general.

But the effort is being watched closely. To many researchers and environmentalists, now is the time to ensure that seafloor ecosystems have advocates at the table. Some marine ecologists are trying to figure out how regulators might set up marine-protected areas along mid-ocean ridges.

But, like deep-sea mining itself, the effort is tentative. Marine biologists haven't thought much about strategies for minimizing the impact of mining on ecosystems found on or around massive sulfide deposits, says Cindy Van Dover, an oceanographer who heads the marine science and conservation department at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham, N.C.

"This has not been on our radar screen," she says. "And this has got to change."

In many ways, renewed interest in seafloor mining has as much to do with scientists' discoveries as it does with technology and economics. The first ecosystems around hydrothermal vents were discovered in 1977 along a rift in the eastern Pacific, between the Galápagos Islands and the South American coast. Since then, researchers have identified three types of ridges as they sampled a small portion of the 41,000-mile undersea ridge system.

First were the fast-spreading ridges, identified via the high level of geothermal activity scientists detected as they towed remote sensors through the plumes of hot material the vents erupted, notes Chris German, another marine scientist at Woods Hole.

As researchers discovered successively slower-spreading ridge types, few thought that they would host active hydrothermal hot spots. Hydrothermal activity was thought to tie directly to the speed of spreading.

But with each new type came the discovery that it, too, displayed significant hydrothermal activity. While vents on fast-spreading ridges were fueled by heat from plumes of magma pushing up close to the surface of the crust, the ultraslow ridges displayed a different type of heat source. Water heats as it seeps into deep faults that reach the bottom of the crust. It returns through fault networks to the ridge surface, picking up dissolved minerals and metals along the way.

From the perspective of mining exploration, sulfide deposits along ultraslow ridges have the potential for some of the highest yields. Exposed deposits can build over millenniums. On volcanically active ridges, fresh deposits often get buried by fresh lava flows or undersea landslides.

Yet even here, researchers say they have found significant sulfide deposits (often under sediment) away from ridge centers, where most of the action takes place. That difference between fast and ultraslow has a bearing on the marine ecosystems each type contains and how they might respond to mining disturbances.

On fast-spreading ridges, organisms may have adapted to sudden changes brought about by quakes and eruptions. On the ultraslow spreaders, one could imagine organisms there as the "old-growth forests" of the mid-ocean ridges - evolving over time under relatively stable conditions.

It might seem that after closely studying 200 to 300 active and inactive vent systems worldwide, researchers would have many of the answers they need to begin crafting conservation strategies. Yet, based on estimates of the number of vent fields along the ridges, this represents only about 3 percent or less of the world's estimated vent fields. Researchers have barely scratched the surface as they try to gauge the biodiversity there.

Yet, ecologists may have enough experience with land-based and shallower marine ecosystems to offer a couple of plausible ways vent communities recover from a catastrophe, suggests Kim Juniper, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Organisms may be hard-wired to recover in place. Or the devastated spot could get reseeded with larvae drifting in from elsewhere, leading to a far different mix of organisms from the ones that were there originally.

Scientists got a chance to check on the incoming-larvae idea following a series of eruptions on the East Pacific Rise in 2005 and 2006, he says. All the organisms in several vent communities were destroyed, although the vents continued to function. "The really shocking thing about what happened here," he says, "is that the organisms that repopulated the site came from 180 miles to the north. No one had seen them here before."

That gives some sense of how far larvae travel and lends weight to the idea that a disturbed site may not host the same critters it did originally.

He and his team are now trying to monitor the area to see if the changes are permanent.

The implications of this for mining, he adds, are that when someone asks for a prediction of its effects, the answer is: It depends - on the distance to an alternative source of larvae, on the timing of organisms' reproductive cycles, and on the changes mining can bring to the seafloor topography.

Such information is crucial if scientists and regulators try to design marine- protected areas when any mining operations are approved.

Craig Smith, a University of Hawaii biological oceanographer who has played a key role in designing marine reserves and protected areas, notes that reserves must be built in networks of protected areas large enough to contain a representative sample of ecosystems and close enough to allow for larvae to travel from one to the other quickly enough to reduce the chance of being eaten by predators. Ideally, reserves would protect 30 to 50 percent of each habitat type in a region.

"We should be thinking about these steps for hydrothermal vents and massive sulfide deposits," he says. "Ocean ecosystems, including vents, are increasingly being impacted by human activity and urgently need protection."


The unplumbed riches of the deep

The Economist

14th May 2009

And why they'll wait a while longer before being disturbed

IN TEENSPEAK , if a star such as Madonna or J.Lo is huge, that is a reference not to her size but to her popularity. Similarly, in the world of seabed geology, if a sulphide deposit is massive, it is not necessarily big, but formless and rich in metals. As it happens, seafloor massive sulphides are also huge-at least they were until recently. The collapse in commodity prices last year has diminished them a bit, but many expect their popularity to recover.

The excitement arose because oceanographers had started to find these mineral-rich deposits on the network of submerged mountain ranges that run along the seabed between continents. Such ridges occur where the great plates of the Earth's crust are spreading apart, and the seafloor holds formations of hot, volcanic rock.

Ever since the dredges of HMS Challenger on her voyage of scientific discovery in the 1870s brought up from the depths "immense numbers of more or less circular nodules", it has been known that lots of minerals lie on the seabed. However, most of these plum-sized objects-known as manganese nodules, though they contain several other metals-are several kilometres deep. Russia mines some in territorial waters in the Gulf of Finland and several other countries hold exploration licences, but bringing them to the surface has never become economic.

In the 1960s, however, mineral deposits of a different kind were found in the Red Sea, where the spreading seafloor impels the slow separation of Africa and Arabia. A similar stretching takes place wherever two tectonic plates move apart, for example, in the Galápagos Rift off Ecuador, and it was here in 1977 that the first deep-sea hydrothermal vents were discovered.

These vents form above cracks in volcanic areas of the ocean floor through which seawater seeps, there to be heated by hot, sometimes molten rock. The water dissolves minerals deep in the Earth's crust before rising like a geyser from the seafloor at temperatures of up to 400°C.

This mineral-laden fluid, if it is rich in iron and sulphur, emerges to create a plume of black "smoke", from which, when it meets cold bottom water, the minerals are precipitated. Tall chimneys form, growing up to six metres (20 feet) a year, and around them live strange creatures: giant tubeworms, for instance, with neither mouth nor stomach nor anus, that live on microbes whose energy derives not from the sun but from chemical compounds in the fluids from the crust. Over time the chimneys collapse, creating the deposits of high-grade massive sulphides that so excite the deep-sea miners.

Hydrothermal vents of this kind are found roughly every 100km (54 nautical miles) along the 65,000km or so of mid-ocean ridge. They are also found in volcanic "back-arc" basins behind ocean trenches, where one tectonic plate is sliding beneath another. Many of these basins are in the western Pacific, part of a great "ring of fire" that runs in a horseshoe from New Zealand north through Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan, eastward through the Aleutian islands and then south along the Pacific coast of North and South America, encompassing most of the world's active and dormant volcanoes.

High-grade stuff, just sitting there

One reason massive-sulphide formations beguile miners is that the metals they contain - notably copper, gold, zinc and silver - are highly concentrated. Another is that they are often big, 200 metres wide and long, tens of metres thick, and may contain several million tonnes of ore. All lie on the surface of the seabed, and many are only 1-2km below water level.

At that depth technology developed for the offshore oil industry can nowadays be employed for mining. In particular, the deep-water pumps and suction pipes developed to bring subsea oil up to the surface can be used in the riser pipes needed to bring minerals (mixed with water) up from a massive-sulphide mine. The oil industry has also developed remotely-operated vehicles to make trenches for seabed pipelines, which can be adapted for cutting ore, even though it may lie much deeper, at, say, 1.5km down. In general the technology in the machines needed to carry out deep-water mining is no longer exotic. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has a vehicle that can reach depths of 11km.

Apart from the Russians, the only company mining the seabed at present is De Beers, which gathers diamonds off the coasts of Namibia and South Africa . These gem-quality stones were once carried down the Orange river and have since been swept up the coast, some even borne ashore by tide and wind. But they lie only about 100 metres down, so scooping them up is fairly simple.

Two other companies have shown serious interest in seabed mining. One is Neptune Minerals, an Australian-based company that applied for a mining licence in 2008 for two deposits in about 1,250 metres of water near the Kermadec islands off New Zealand . It has also been granted exploration licences in territorial waters off Papua New Guinea , the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu . But it is nowhere near mining commercially. The other company is Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm whose Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea's territorial waters contains 60,000-100,000 tonnes of copper, and gold too. It was due to start production next year, but most operations are now on hold.

Corbis

Smoke without fire-just copper, zinc, gold and silver, and creatures unimaginable. The big mining companies have been watching these two ventures with interest. Anglo American, one of the biggest, has an 11% holding in Nautilus (and 45% in De Beers), chiefly, it says, to keep abreast of the possibilities of seabed mining. But Chris Carlon of Anglo is emphatic that the world's mining industry is not yet eager to tackle the deep ocean. For a start, there is a glut of copper, the metal that probably has to cover the cost of any massive-sulphide mine, leaving gold or some other more valuable metal to provide the profit. Last year the industry produced 360,000 tonnes of copper that turned out to be unwanted. Second, plenty of land-based deposits still remain to be exploited. Anglo American alone produces on land as much copper as the likely output of 100 massive-sulphide mines. As for gold, a tonne of old mobile phones contains about three times as much of it as a tonne of typical ore, even though recovery may be problematic.

Moreover, mining companies much prefer the known difficulties of operating on land to those of operating on the seabed. The risks of working in a place where volcanic activity seems to have stopped but may suddenly resume are uncertain. So indeed are the possible obligations to repair the underwater environment: no legal codes are yet in place for deep-sea mining. That helps to explain why the only places in which companies have dipped more than a toe in the water are in exclusive economic zones, which are not just shallower than many parts of the distant ocean but also within the legal ambit of a national authority.

Seafloor mining beyond countries' territorial waters is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. So far it has issued only eight licences, all for exploration, not production, all for nodules, not massive-sulphide deposits, and all to governmental or quasi-governmental agencies (of China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and an east European consortium). No wonder. Commercial miners want both a clear title to their holding and exclusive rights to exploit it. They also have to answer to shareholders.

One day, however, deep-sea mining will surely start to look commercially attractive again. At present China and Russia are the two countries most interested in massive sulphides, followed by India and South Korea. Russia, which has been grubbing around on the seabed for years, knows exactly what it wants and where: it has found four massive-sulphide deposits of over 10m tonnes each in the past four years, all on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. China is less sure of what it is after, but has become interested in the southern Indian Ocean, as well as the zone in the North Pacific where most of the manganese-nodule licences have been granted.

While China makes up its mind, it is blocking all decision-making at the International Seabed Authority, which was due to issue legal, environmental and revenue-sharing regulations about mining in international waters this month but is unlikely to do so. Fortunately, no miners are in a hurry to get started-and massive sulphides, unlike huge rock stars, can wait.

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