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Policy paper asks for more study before deep sea mining begins
July 10, 2015

Nautilus Minerals is ready to begin mining off the shores off the shores of Papau New Guinea at the Solwara Mine and the company said it believes its deepsea mining process could change the face of the mining industry.

However, not everyone is on board with the idea of extracting minerals from the sea floor. A policy paper “Managing mining of the deep sea bed,” published in Science is asking authorities to hold off on approving any more underwater mining contracts until more environmental controls are put in place.

The paper was released as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. The ISA is the arm of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that governs mining in international waters. ISA has already issued exploration permits to both national and private companies all eager to begin deep sea mining. In this year's session, ISA is expected to figure out how to impose some environmental regulation on the nascent underwater mining industry, Popular Science reported.

Deep-sea mining of the ocean floor is still very much in the exploration phase. The real action likely won't start for a few more years. Nautilus Minerals, one of the leading deep sea mining companies expects to have its deep sea mining vessel built in 2017, and would start mining in 2018.

The scientists writing paper want the ISA to hold off on issuing new permits until a network of protected marine areas can be put in place, potentially safeguarding an environment that we know very little about.

Nautilus Minerals hired the environmental consulting firm Earth Economics to try to assess how a seabed mine might compare with a terrestrial mine. The analysis, released in June, compares likely impacts of the Solwara Mine with three terrestrial mines of similar proportions -- Bingham Canyon in Utah, Prominent Hill in Australia, and the proposed Intag mine in Ecuador.

The analysis found that, unlike with terrestrial mines, there aren’t issues like community displacement, use of freshwater supplies, erosion, or loss of land for other uses like food production, recreation, or cultural and historic conservation. Deep-sea mining would cause a loss of habitat and genetic resources, affect air and water quality, and use energy and raw materials, according to the analysis. But the overall environmental impact of deep-sea mining would not be as severe as that of an onshore mine, the analysis said.

However, the authors of the policy paper warn that deep sea environments tend to recover very slowly when disturbed, some so slowly that they likely wouldn’t recover in a human’s lifetime, if ever.

A European team of scientists announced this year that they would be studying the ecological effects of deep sea mining on the environment and organisms living on the seafloor.

In the meantime, the ISA has the tricky task of balancing humanity’s need for valuable commodities of metals and rare earth elements against a biologically diverse seafloor that we're only just starting to explore.



 

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