Approximately 70 percent of earth’s surface is water, so why limit an essential industrial activity for mankind to less than 30 percent of its potential? Seabed mining could be the answer to replacing onshore resources exploitation in the near future. But, just as environmental impact is a huge industry concern onshore, for deep sea the fears of ecological harm are even more overwhelming.
A MINING BLUE OCEAN
The technological revolution is just slowly but surely incorporating itself into traditional mining operations, with the incorporation of IoT and Industry 4.0, among other technologies. But increasingly more technologies are being developed for offshore and deepwater oil and gas production and miners are beginning to turn to the oceans too. If it holds oil and gas potential, what other minerals exist beneath the seabeds? “I am convinced that deep-sea mining will become a vital alternative to traditional mining methods and a solution to resource scarcity in the future,” says Henk Van Muijen, Managing Director of IHC Mining.
Seabed mineral sites are usually rich polymetallic nodules with significant sulfide deposits of high-grade mineral concentration. “Minerals from the deep-sea like the polymetallic nodules, cobalt-rich crusts and polymetallic sulfides are considered as alternative sources for metals such as Cu, Ni, Co, Mn, Fe, that could be exploited in future by developing suitable technologies for mining as well as extracting metals from them,” writes ScienceDirect.
Given the upturn of mineral commodities prices, exhaustion of onshore deposits and the new technological advancements enabling offshore production, seabed mining is attracting the industry’s investment more and more. “Deep-sea deposits have, on average, much larger grades than those commonly found onshore and with commodity prices recovering, it is becoming more attractive by the day,” says Van Muijen.
IHC Mining is pioneering in taking offshore experience and technologies for oil and gas into the mining industry. In 2000 the company launched its first subsea crawler to operate in depths up to 1.5km. “There is a concentrated effort to improve the maximum operating depth of the subsea crawlers to at least 2km,” he adds.
But, is seabed mining too risky for marine life ecosystems?
TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) of the United Nations is the international institution in charge of managing and regulating underwater mineral resources. So far, it has granted 29 exploration contracts, but no exploitation or production permits. But some governments, such as Papua New Guinea, Namibia and New Zealand are out of its jurisdiction, limiting its scope of action.
The world’s first seabed mine is to start production in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea in 2019 with the Solwara 1 Project for high-grade copper, silver, gold and aluminum. Will Nautilus Minerals’ groundbreaking initiative be the pioneer that gives seabed mining green light abroad? If successful, probably yes. But its failure would be a setback that would be difficult for the industry to recover from, warns Van Muijen.
Regarding Mexico’s position, located between two oceans and with more than 11,000km of shoreline, not to mention the country’s already-discovered oil potential, seabed mining could represent a significant boost for the country’s economy. But with six recognized coral reef regions across 1,780km2 and the unknown environmental implications of deep-sea mining, there is hesitancy among the Mexican population to begin operations.
BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR: THE NEW FRONTIER
The first Mexican deep-sea mining project was proposed by Exploraciones Océanicas but was initially unsuccessful. The Don Diego offshore phosphate initiative, in Baja California Sur, was denied a license by SEMARNAT last May 2016. “Coastal communities living in Baja California Sur, Mexico, achieved a huge victory recently in blocking an offshore mining project — one of several proposed projects to dredge up minerals from the sea,” said EarthWorks Organization.
Given the Don Diego’s potential, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice overruled the denial of the project last March 2018 and unanimously gave green light to the high-grade phosphate project within Mexico’s Exclusive Economic Zone. “The development represents a significant step forward for other prospective marine miners in Mexico, with TSX-V- and NZAX-listed Chatham Rock Phosphate welcoming the ruling because it establishes a precedent for the consenting of marine phosphate mining,” reports Minining Weekly.
To further address deep-sea mining reluctance and shed some light on its potential environmental impact, the industry strives to develop new technologies to make this new technique sustainable. “If we are going to dig into the seabed, we are inevitably going to influence the ecosystem to a certain degree so we are working alongside various knowledge and research centers to minimize these impacts,” explains Van Muijen.
Deep-sea mining pioneers, such as IHC Mining and Nautilus Minerals, are carrying offshore environmental impact tests to measure variables like noise, plumes, CO2 footprint and seabed alteration. “Simulated seafloor mining experiments have revealed significant information on the potential impacts that may occur as also several measures for conserving the environment have been suggested,” ScienceDirect. The idea is not to close the door to deep-sea mining given its unknown risk, but to start treading its waters with extra precautions.