While PNG made news for being the first country in the world to issue a licence for deep-sea mining, more and more Pacific Islands countries are getting approaches from companies interested in exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals. The questions that arise are—what are the risks? What are the benefits? What do Pacific Islanders need to know to make the right decisions here?

Many islanders have learnt, the hard way, the consequences of not knowing what they were getting into with mining and unsustainable development—phosphate mining on Nauru perhaps being the most dramatic example of a mining boom…and then a bust. Is deep-sea mining different?Time is critical, says Dr Jimmie Rodgers, Director-General, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC): “Is it urgent? Is it important now? Yes! Because multinationals are not going to wait to give Pacific Islands countries time to look at all the studies, environmental analysis, before they come in—they push in.”

Over 300 exploration licences have been granted in Pacific Islands countries like Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga. It seems deep-sea mining promises riches and risks. In the Pacific, most of the mineral deposits considered profitable to mine are known as Seafloor Massive Sulphides (SMS). Some countries have manganese nodules and cobalt-rich crusts on the seafloor, mining of which are likely to have greater environmental impacts than SMS. For instance, nodules, small lumpy concretions that form over millions of years as metals from the seawater and seafloor sediments precipitate around a core, which may be a shark tooth or rock fragment. Nodules cover a significant area of the sea floor and contain minerals such as manganese, copper, nickel and cobalt.

Minerals are also found around hydrothermal vents—places where very hot fluid (around 400 degrees Celsius) that carries minerals comes into contact with cold sea water (around two degrees Celsius), resulting in the precipitation and deposition of minerals on the seafloor. The “chimneys” that form around the vents are the direct result of the accumulation of minerals on the seafloor over time. In most cases, the hot fluid resembles black smoke in the water column signifying the relatively metal rich fluid and resulting in their popular description as “Black Smokers”. This type of mineral deposits are known as Seafloor Massive Sulphides and are rich in copper, gold, silver, zinc and lead. Companies are now chasing these natural phenomena in the Pacific Islands region and other parts of the world ocean.

Deep-sea minerals have a use in everything from mobile phones to metal alloys, renewable energy technologies and batteries. Papua New Guinea’s Nautilus minerals venture was halted in 2012 after disagreement over government’s equity and benefits. Meanwhile, projects now go ahead in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand and other countries. The companies and scientists are quick to point out the consequences of sea mining versus land mining are different—land mining can produce more than 99 percent waste and less than one percent ore. Waste materials when exposed for an extended period of time produce acid by the reaction of sulphide minerals with fresh water and oxygen, as well as liberated heavy metals that can pollute the environment.

In SMS mining, sulphide in waste materials cannot react with the alkaline seawater hence acid cannot form in the ocean. SMS due to the small size of the mineral rich deposits do not produce as much waste as land mining, or leakage of minerals into the environment. On the other hand, as deep-sea mining is new, some are skeptical of claims it will have minimal impact on the environment.

As part of the work of SOPAC (the Applied Geoscience & Technology Division of SPC) which provides technical support and advice to Pacific Islands countries, the division has been assisting countries to improve technical capacity, community involvement and government management of deep sea mineral resources. One of the elements of the Pacific Deep-Sea Minerals Project, started in 2011 with funding from the European Union, is that it recommends national policies and laws before any mining takes place.

Papua New Guinea is one of the places that has also struggled with balancing economic development and the environment (for example, the Ok Tedi mine was previously held up as a case study of irresponsible, polluting mine development). In PNG, Wenceslaus Magan, from Mas Kagin Tapani (Guardians of the Sea), said in order to believe deep-sea mining by Nautilus Minerals could be sustainable, he needed to see it: “There has never been a deep-sea mining occurring anywhere in the world from that depth—5000 metres deep. “So theory is one thing, but actually doing it and experiencing the impact of that is another thing, so I’m not going to buy into what Nautilus has said. Because like all miners, they have to come up with something to convince the government of the day to give them the licence. So at this stage, we’d rather say that, let them go and do it in Canada first, or let them go and do it in US or elsewhere, but not in Papua New Guinea. We have to be cautious.”

Another thing worrying the islanders is the pressure they feel to say “yes” or “no” to an “all or nothing” deal from mining companies, says Dr Rodgers. He advises: “Governments need to be very clear on what is it they want to get out of this. They have to have fairly definite milestones that are not negotiable and use that as a negotiating basis because there are many companies out there and governments should not look at the very first one that offers to invest. “They should actually be looking at it from the perspective of what is the best deal for my country that can give me: (a) the resources at the level I need, and; (b) that harvest the resource in a way that is environmentally and economically sustainable.” Then, there are nations like the Cook Islands, whose natural environment supports industries like tourism, who worry about the consequences of deep-sea mining for the future.

Teina Mackenzie from environmental NGO Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) says the money from mining is finite and needs to be put to good use: “With mining—if there are going to be financial benefits—make sure they really get to where they need to be, to the people, and they don’t get held up anywhere else or used in any other manner. “In our particular case, we’ve got nodules, and once those are taken, that’s it, it’s a non-renewable resource for thousands of years—so if you’re going to utilise that and get wealth from it, make sure the rest of the generations will benefit.”
These fears need time to discuss and resolve, agrees Jonathan Lowe, Vice President, Strategic Development & Exploration, Nautilus Minerals, who muses: “People are afraid of the dark. It’s a case of, in the absence of knowledge, their default reaction is to be conservative and worried, and that’s probably a well-learned habit over time. “And so what we’ve got to do is shine the light into those dark corners and explain what we’re doing and show that there is nothing to fear when you switch the light on.” In addition, laws are needed to be put in place to protect citizens, governments and their oceans to deal with deep-sea mining.

Rodgers says: “At the moment, none of the Pacific countries and territories have properly developed legislative frameworks that will guide the protection of these resources in the countries, that will guide procedures for harvesting them in a way that is sustainable and protects the environment, and therefore the danger is that when multinational companies see this as a resource, they’re not worried usually about the countries. What they’re worried about is, how do we get that resource?” SOPAC is keen to point out its advice is neutral—it does not advocate countries to say “yes” or “no” to deep-sea mining, but it does encourage countries to ask SOPAC for advice and technical expertise so governments can make the right decisions. SOPAC’s work around deep-sea mining also advocates communities and NGOs are part of the decision making process, so SOPAC provides financial and technical support for consultation workshops and involvement of people in decision-making through other means.

There have long been tales of treasure chests of gold that lie at the bottom of the sea, from the days when old trading and pirate ships sunk. But who would think that gold and other precious minerals had been lying on the bottom of the sea all that time, not in treasure chests, but in the seafloor itself? Who knows whether deep-sea mining will in the next decade become a reality for the Pacific Islands, or like so many tales of hidden treasure chests at the bottom of the sea, become just an illusion, out of reach? At least, nowadays, we do not need to consult treasure maps and rumours—we know a lot more about what minerals are there and how to get them. With the right information, we can weigh the pros and cons to decide about what to do with the minerals lying deep beneath our shores.

By Anouk Ride