Ocean mining exploration gathers momentum

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In the not-too-distant future, massive mining operations may be stripping mineral-rich nodules from the ocean floor between Hawaii and the mainland.

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In the not-too-distant future, massive mining operations may be stripping mineral-rich nodules from the ocean floor between Hawaii and the mainland.

The International Seabed Authority, which has controlled mining in international waters since 1982, is moving ahead aggressively to create the rules that would govern extraction from such regions as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a mineral-rich area that starts 500 miles southeast of Hawaii and stretches in a gigantic swath toward the mainland.

There are 15 exploratory permits allowing corporations from around the world to prospect for baseball-sized chunks of nickel, copper, manganese, cobalt and rare elements lying on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone — and more permits are pending. Countries with an interest in developing the mineral sources include China, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, France, Kiribati and Belgium.

At stake is a potential sunken treasure of mineral wealth — if it can be recovered without too high of an economic and environmental cost.

The ISA last year declared “an urgent need” to begin creating the rules for exploiting these deep sea sources and others. That code — plus the extension of exploration contracts — are the agency’s top priority this year, according to documents published by the authority. On May 29, the ISA, based in Kingston, Jamaica, held a briefing at the United Nations in New York to bring interested parties up to speed on what it is doing to develop the rules governing where minerals will be taken and how.

As deposits on land dwindle, companies that are piling in to assess underwater harvest of the polymetallic nodules include Lockheed Martin’s UK Seabed Resources, Ocean Minerals Singapore, Cooks Islands Investment Corp., Marawa Research and Exploration and China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association, to name just a few. The University of Hawaii has also gotten in on some of the action by leasing its research vessels to international prospecting teams.

In touting Lockheed’s plunge into the venture in March 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron said the mining by the UK subsidiary of the American defense firm could yield 40 billion pounds over 30 years, according to British newspapers.

The technology is still in development, and it is not yet clear if the mining will be profitable or how it will be conducted, but tens of millions of dollars are being poured into finding the answers. Equally unclear is how the activity will impact the environment and how those effects will be regulated.

That’s worrying to Shelley Mahi, a Big Island member of the Native Tenant Protection Council.

“The mining is to take place at the base of pelagic seamounts, which are nursery grounds for ahi,” said Mahi. “I feel it’s important for all the fishermen to know about it.”

Mahi worried that the plan to exploit the seafloor seems to be moving ahead inexorably. She believes that giant silt plumes from the mining could drift northwest and impact Hawaii’s fish and other sea life.

“I feel if no one stops it, they will go ahead and do it,” Mahi said. “It violates the heritage of the sea.”

Concerns about ocean mining and its possible impacts on Hawaii date back decades. In the early 1980s, environmental groups and lawmakers worked hard to head off a plan by the U.S. Department of the Interior to lease federal waters around Hawaii for manganese crust mining. Ocean pollution and impacts to species topped the list of concerns, along with the specter of on-land pollution from mineral processing in Hawaii.

The mining being tested three decades later could instead impact a huge number of species inhabiting the deep.

The activity stands to disturb tens of thousands of square miles of the abyssal sea floor and potentially the deep water column, said Craig Smith, a University of Hawaii oceanographer who helped draft a stop-gap conservation plan that the ISA is using until more concrete rules can be set.

“These areas have very high biodiversity, but the habitats are also vast,” he said.

Smith doubted the effects would extend to Hawaii. And because processing costs would be lower on the mainland, it’s unlikely the metals would be extracted in facilities on the Hawaiian Islands, he said.

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“I think abyssal polymetallic nodule mining in the international areas under ISA jurisdiction will very likely have zero environmental effects on waters near Hawaii,” he said. “I also think it is likely to be managed to have very little impact on the upper water column, even near the mining vessels.”

“Most impacts are likely to be restricted to the deep sea,” he said, “and within a few hundred kilometers or so of the mining operation, in my opinion.”

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