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Mining debate gaining momentum

Tuesday April 02, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

The deep-sea mining debate is gaining steam at home and abroad, as technological advances make mining more possible and economics make it more likely.

This month UK Seabed Resources – a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin UK, which itself is an arm of US company Lockheed Martin – announced it will be prospecting for minerals across 58,000 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean located south of Hawai’i and west of Mexico.

The company is looking for polymetallic nodules, which generally contain concentrations of copper, nickel, manganese, and rare earth minerals. Its parent company, Lockheed Martin, has said it hopes to eventually use extracted minerals for “aerospace, communications and defense activities.”

To mine for the nodules on an exploratory basis, UK Seabed Resources has secured support from the British government and permission from the International Seabed Authority.

One licence with a lifespan of 15 years cost the company $500,000, a price that implies a significant return. For purposes of comparison, a commercial fishing licence from the Cook Islands government costs $5000, and opens the door to a resource worth millions. Deep-sea mining is an industry potentially worth hundreds of trillions of dollars, but at this stage all figures are speculative.

UK Seabed Resources assures the public via its website that seabed harvesting is “ecologically sound.” Company owner Stephen Ball told BBC science editor David Shukman it would be “perfectly feasible to create a benign method to extract these minerals from extreme depths without disturbing the seabed.”

But a number of scientists and researchers are suspicious of such a definitive statement given there is little research to support it. Their fears have been echoed by environmental groups and Pacific peoples who fear for the future of their seabed resources.

Fear is an instinctual psychological and physiological reaction to situations whose outcomes we can’t predict. Sometimes fear is irrational, but in general it does serve a purpose – to keep us from launching headfirst into potentially harmful situations.

In this case, fear of seafloor mining is rooted in uncertainty.

While mining is a potential economic driver, the precautionary approach – upon which the Cook Islands Marine Resources Act is based – mandates that the data set surrounding its impact must be complete before activity commences. Right now, the data are meagre.

Duke University Marine Laboratory director Cindy Van Dover told National Geographic that the scientific community doesn’t yet understand what the commercialisation of the deep sea will mean for marine ecosystems and nearby landmasses.

“We don’t yet know what we need to know,” she told reporter Meghan Miner.

To science journal Nature, Van Dover said of deep-sea mining: “I don’t think there are red flags but I do think there are yellow flags.”

We learned this week from London professor David Cronan that the volume of our mineral nodule resource could exceed 10 billion tonnes. Mining it could substantially pad Cook Islands coffers, but because these nodules have formed over billions of years, there is no truly sustainable way to harvest them.

It follows that mining is a venture that must be managed meticulously and with extreme caution.

A stringent system of checks and balances must govern its regulation. One of the main arguments against Solwara 1, a project being developed by Canadian company Nautilus to mine an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of minerals per year from the Bismarck Sea, pertains to regulation. The Papua New Guinea government holds a 30 per cent equity share in the extracted minerals, and some advocacy groups argue this arrangement compromises its capacity to act as a regulatory body.

That’s food for thought.

Legally, the onus is on the mining companies interested in the Cook Islands resource to prove commercial activity will not have harmful environmental and health impacts.

Morally, the onus is on the people of the Cook Islands to ask the hard questions and to keep mining companies and government accountable. It’s encouraging to note that the Cook Islands has been hailed as a regional leader in the field of deep-sea mining.

Let’s make sure we lead responsibly.

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