Is China's involvement in deepsea mineral exploration simply a foray into 'scientific' inquiry? Or is it part of a larger strategy to acquire vast resources of metals? Who is examining the economic and environmental issues?
By Patrick Whiteway
On April 13, 2011, Vancouver-based Nautilus Minerals made a starling announcement . In partnership with the German shipbuilding company Harren & Partner, it said, it will invest US$167 million to build a vessel designed to extract polymetalic sulphides from the seafloor. The so-called 'production support vessel' will be ready for action off the coast of Papua New Guinea within two years, the company said, and will include three remotely-operated mining machines on the seafloor and a 'riser lift' system that will bring chunks of metal laden rock to surface for processing on land for the recovery of copper, gold and zinc.
An artistic conception of a production support vessel being built by Harren & Partner (Nautilus Minerals)
From a public relations perspective, the timing of the announcement couldn't have been worse, coming as it did on the first anniversary of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Is the Nautilus announcement a harbinger of the full-scale exploitation of seabed mineralization in international waters in this century? In May, 2010, the International Seabed Authority enacted rules for exploring for polymetallic sulphides in international waters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first country to apply for an exploration licence under the new rules was the country which has the fastest growing economy, and therefore the greatest apatite for metals, in the world -- China. The area it proposes to explore for metals is in the deep Indian Ocean.
But does China have the technology needed to extract metals from the seabed at depths of 5,000 to 7,000 metres of water? In August 2010, China broke the Japanese deepsea diving record with its new submersible the Jiaolong, which dove to 3,000 m. This submersible is designed to go down to 7,000 m.
THE DREAM OF SEABED MINING has a long history. In the 1970s, Inco Ltd., for example, was involved in a consortia of mining companies that examined the feasibility of mining nickel-rich manganese nodules from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. That work included metallurgical recoveries and a 'back of the envelop' calculation of payback of capital invested.
What are the environmental implications of seabed mining? There are more unkowns than known. Can deepsea ecosystems, for example, withstand the massive disturbance of their environment that would be caused by fine sediment being stirred up on the ocean floor by mining activity? What would the impacts be on the oceanic food chain?
In the book "Linkages of Sustainability," a 532-page compilation of state-of-the-art thinking about global resource sustainability, land-based mineral resources are examined within the context of sustainability. Yet the book does not mention the possibility of seabed mining at all. Why the apparent gross oversight?
Given the energy, land and water resource constrains of land-based mining, maybe seabed mining is more sustainable. But a lot more information and study is needed before mining proceeds.
1. New York Times article on China's deepsea submersible 'Jiaolong'.
2. Nautilus Minerals news release describing a study: "Offshore Production System Definition and Cost Study" June 21, 2010, prepared by Phil Jankowski, Erich Heymann and John Blackburn of SRK (Australia) Pty Ltd. in Perth:
3. "The Unplumbed Riches of the Deep," The Economist, May 14, 2009:
4. "China to Dive for Buried Treasures" Wall Street Journal article (July 20, 2011) on China's Jialong http://on.wsj.com/qr85ED