Scientists weigh in on sea floor mining concerns

February 18, 2014

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, researches spoke about deep sea mining and the need for caution to ensure that the minerals that rest near the surface of the sea floor are extracted in a way that is environmentally sound.

To date, the International Seabed Authority, a UN body based in Jamaica, has approved 19 prospecting licenses for companies and government bodies in the deep ocean around the world. New technologies have made it possible to mine the area’s that were once out of reach and the demand of minerals remains high around the world.

To address this next frontier of mining Cindy Lee Van Dover, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory told the meeting that, “It is imperative to work with industry and governance bodies to put progressive environmental regulations in place before industry becomes established, instead of after the fact. One hundred years from now we want people to say: ‘They got this right, based on the science they had’.”

The Financial Times reported that in Namibia, the government has imposed a moratorium on plans to mine phosphates in deep offshore waters, while an environmental impact assessment is carried out.

Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company, has a mining lease to extract metals such as copper and gold from sulfide ores in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, though its subsea mining equipment is not yet ready.

“Our machines on the sea floor will cut and suck at the same time,” said Samantha Smith of Nautilus. “The seawater will be filtered and put back in the ocean where it came from.”

She said the environmental legislation in Papua New Guinea was modeled on Australian law.

“We have a huge emphasis on engaging with governments and other stakeholders,” Swift added.

Environmental scientists said they were not necessarily opposed to deep ocean mining, which might be less harmful than mining on land to extract an equivalent amount of resources.

“In terrestrial mining you might have to remove a whole mountain, while in the ocean [you] might just take off a few meters of the seabed,” said Linwood Pendleton, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Programe at Duke University. “Extraction from the deep sea is a trade-off. Is the value of what we’re extracting greater than the damage?”


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