How deep-sea mining could destroy the 'cradle of life on earth'

A 'black smoker' vent,
National Oceanography Centre

Some scientists believe deep-sea hydrothermal vents systems may be where life first evolved on earth (Image: National Oceanography Centre)

With Papua New Guinea giving the go-ahead to a Canadian mining company to dredge its coastal seabed for minerals, new species of life could be extinct before they have even been discovered. Tom Levitt reports
Deep-sea hydrothermal vents systems may be where life first evolved on earth

It was perhaps only a matter of time before mining the deep seas took off. Following in the footsteps of deep-sea fishing and drilling for oil it has been lurking in the minds of exploration companies like Nautilus Minerals, which is behind a major project in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The idea of digging up the seabed one mile beneath the ocean surface to extract mineral-rich deposits such as copper and zinc first emerged in the 1960s. An initial flurry of interest in the 1970s was put off by low metal prices and UN regulations that exist on exploiting resources in international waters.

But with rising demand from China and India for rare earth metals like copper, and deep-sea surveys having now found concentrations of minerals four to five times those on land, it has returned but this time in the ‘unregulated’ territorial waters of PNG, conveniently close to the Asian markets.

Ecologists say the PNG government is allowing Nautilus to go ahead with the first ever commercial deep-sea mining project without properly considering the environmental impacts or local opposition. Nautilus investors include the mining giant Anglo-American which is ignoring indigenous opposition to a gold and copper mine in Alaska.

‘Cradle of life on earth’

As well as being metal-rich, the volcanogenic hydrothermal deposits which Nautilus plans to mine are home to a unique ecosystem that is still largely unknown to scientists since being discovered in the late 1970s. Initially, the deep sea was thought to be full of soft sediment and little else but the discovery of hydrothermal vents on the seabed, which produce the deposits, revealed a completely novel ecosystem, unreliant on photosynthesis.

‘It’s the cradle of life on earth,’ explains Dr Rod Fujita from the Environmental Defense Fund and author of studies looking into deep-sea mining, ‘and the only one that does not depend on sunlight. There are species there that are found nowhere else on earth. It’s not like any land habitats we are used to; in fact you have to have your perspective altered to appreciate this deep-sea world,’ he says.

The mining process in PNG will take the top 20-30m off the seabed at a depth of 1,500m and lift it up to the surface before transferring it by barge to processing sites on land. ‘You will destroy fauna just by lifting the land,’ says deep-sea ecologist Professor Paul Tyler, from the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton University. ‘It is possible you might mine at a distance [from the hydrothermal vents] but by mining close by you will affect the flow and the vents might switch off and then all the animals die – you lose a huge biomass.’

'Flimsy' environmental report

Nautilus has attempted to fend off these criticisms by publishing an environment assessment, co-produced by a respected deep-sea biologist Dr Cindy Van Dover. In it they admit the impact to vents and seafloor habitats will ‘inevitably be severe at the site scale’ and that they will take ‘many years’ to recover.

However, other ecologists say the assessment is ‘flimsy’ and fails to give a full account of the potential damage mining will cause. Professor Richard Steiner, from the University of Alaska cites the incompleteness of classification of species found at the sites and an inadequate assessment of the risks associated with sediment and waste rock disposal. He also cites the effects of increased light and noise in the deep ocean environment and the toxicity of the dewatering plume [the process of removing water from the mined deposits] to deep-sea organisms, which will not be able to differentiate between food and junk sediment.

Of particular concern are the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste that will be produced by the mining process, which Steiner compares to that of a ‘giant underwater tractor’ and which will be pumped onto deeper seabeds nearby. Dr Fujita said the physics of water as well as weather and currents made it difficult to predict or contain any spill and that deep-sea mining had the capacity to produce pollution that could travel across into international waters.

A smoking hydrothermal vent on the ocean seabed

Exploitation or financial gain?

‘I don’t think the project would be allowed to proceed anywhere else in the world based on such a poor analysis of risks,’ says Steiner. The USA is known to have similar deposits off the coast of Washington as has Canada but mining is not thought to be imminent. Dr Fujita suggests Nautilus is just the latest overseas mining giant to take advantage of lax regulations in the country. ‘In PNG they have a poor record of mining on land resulting in lots of poor conditions and that bad record and lack of oversight is now moving from land to sea,’ he says.

Only this week the PNG government was accused by Greenpeace of allowing rampant logging and failing to respect the rights of indigenous groups who depend on the forests.

Nautilus has reportedly suggested the country would benefit by more than $200 million from the mining but Steiner says the benefits to local people or the economy of PNG were likely to be disproportionately low compared to the scale and risk of the project. ‘While the project could gross almost $1 billion USD in its 30-month lifetime, it expects to provide only $41 million in total taxes and royalties to the government, a $1.5 million development fund and a few dozen jobs at most to PNG nationals,’ he said.

Prof Steiner is also acting as a science advisor to Mas Kagin, a group formed in 2008 to give a voice to coastal indigenous people in PNG oppose any commercial mining. The group says it depends on the coastal waters for their ‘livelihood, culture and way of life’ and has a right to oppose the seabed mining. In a campaign video community groups from two provinces expressed their fears.

‘When we first heard that Nautilus was going to mine the seabed using technology that had never been used anywhere else it felt as though we were becoming a science lab…and our very lives part of an experiment to test this new technology,’ it says.

Nautilus conducted workshops with local villages to explain its proposals but rejected calls to set up a permanent citizens advisory council. The company also declined to respond to concerns raised in this article but has previously said it took great pride in ‘leading the mining industry into the deep ocean’.

Opening the floodgates

It has estimated several billions tons of copper could be extracted from seafloor sites around the world. Dr Tyler acknowledges that the deep-sea has ‘not even had its surface scratched with what it might contribute to the economy’ but fears PNG’s decision to approve Nautilus mining plans will ‘open the floodgates’ before proper assessments have been made of the impact. China is known to be seeking to mine similar deposits in the South-West Indian Ocean.

‘Deep-sea fishing is a good example. We can ring alarm bells but there is no regulation of it. If I had my way the whole area of deep-sea would become a protected area and people who want to exploit it would have to apply to a body who can ensure that they were doing a proper environmental analysis before they were allowed to exploit it. At the moment there is no requirement at all and we end up looking at the damage done,’ he says.

Steiner agrees and says there is too much wrong with the PNG project: ‘the way this first deep-sea mine proceeds will set the tone for all others, and this is a very, very bad start’. He argues investment in reusing copper and gold made more sense than continuing to pay mining companies to take bigger risks in an effort to dig up more.

‘The global economy simply does not need the gold or copper that would be recovered at these deep-sea hydrothermal vents. We know how to recycle and reuse much of the copper already up out of the ground, run through the economy, and discarded in waste dumps. It is a unidirectional waste of resources, energy and money. And we know better.’

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