Papua New Guinea Licenses Seafloor Mineral Mining

Project will extract minerals at 1,600 meters below the ocean's surface

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Following the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the idea of continuing deep water drilling sounded more than dubious. But, Interior Sec. Ken Salazar apparently found the idea perfectly sensible when he lifted the deep water drilling moratorium earlier this month, just weeks after the gushing BP well was finally shut down.

So, it hardly comes as much of a surprise that the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) similarly gave the thumbs up this week to a plan to mine minerals from the ocean floor off the island nation’s coast.

Prime Minister Michael Somare has licensed Nautilus Minerals, Inc. of Toronto, Canada, to extract copper, zinc and gold at depths of 1,600 meters below the ocean’s surface. The project, dubbed Solwara 1, has been in the works since the late 1990s. PNG’s Department of Environment and Conservation granted the project the necessary environmental permit in December 2009 for a term of 25 years.

Indigenous groups and others have decried the plan, voicing concerns for sea life and other organisms that will be harmed by the mining. But, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears as the project has pushed ahead and solid legal challenges have proved elusive.

The United Nation’s Law of the Sea Convention established rules governing exploration and development of ocean minerals, but the International Seabed Authority the convention spawned does not control each nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone, a 200-nautical mile area reaching from the coastline into open waters. Thus, PNG has just as much legal justification to destroy its seafloor in search of minerals as the United States has to destroy the Gulf in search of oil.

While deep water mineral mining has been discussed since the 1960s, the idea has drawn increased interest recently as demand for precious metals has grown while deposits have diminished.

Most recently, Japan announced plans to develop seafloor mineral mines within its Exclusive Economic Zone waters. Predictably, seafloor mining would result in massive environmental impacts, the extents of which are unknown due to the nascent technology’s untested nature. Yet, just as predictably, Nautilus claims that any environmental consequences will be mitigated by its careful attention to minimizing the mining’s impact on the surrounding sea life. Concerns raised thus far include increased water turbidity, underwater noise generation and the destruction of ocean habitats.

And, by the way, has anyone mentioned how crazy this all sounds?

Seriously, the advent of deep water mineral mining is a new low in the depth governments and private companies will sink to in order to make a buck and sustain the world’s technology-based economy dependent on precious metals.

The real question is: where does it stop?

The earth has been mined and stripped of its minerals, the seafloor is set to be plundered and some are worrying the moon might be next. At what point does humanity stop and take notice of the insanity created by this insatiable lust for resource extraction and the resulting economic rewards? At what point do we stop searching for our next fix of copper, zinc or oil and start creating a new economy where resource extraction is a last resort rather than the consensus rallying cry?

Hopefully it won’t take a seafloor mineral mine disaster on par with the Deep Water Horizon tragedy to finally catalyze the world’s governments to consider an alternative approach.

David Lawlor was a writer in the Development department. His environmental activism stems from an affinity for nature and the deep ecology philosophy espoused by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.