Underwater “Gold Rush” Now Closer to Reality with UN-Granted Licenses
Mining companies can now apply for deep sea mining licenses from as soon as 2016, BBC News Science and Environment reports. This takes the deep sea mining “gold rush” closer to realization amid concerns about the inevitable destruction deep sea mining will inflict on marine ecosystems.
The United Nations has published initial plans on how to manage extraction of mineral-rich rocks from deep seabeds. This was supported by the UN’s International Seabed Authority’s publication of a technical study regarding deep sea mining. At present, a total of 17 companies has been granted deep sea mining licenses, with seven more due to be granted and several others likely to follow. The licenses grant the companies permit to work on vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
Raising the Stakes
Surveys reveal immense numbers of valuable metal nodules lying on the seabeds in the said areas. Estimates are largely rough as exact assessments of the resources are hard to conduct. A UN official describes the extent of mineral deposits on the ocean floor west of Mexico and south of Hawaii as having several hundred years’ worth of cobalt and nickel. A five million square kilometer area in the eastern Pacific, known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, is said to have over 27 billion tonnes of valuable metal nodules. These nodules contain an estimated seven billion tonnes of manganese, 78 million tonnes of cobalt, 290 million tonnes of copper, and 340 million tonnes of nickel. A map showing the licensed areas in the Clarion-Clipperton zone (courtesy of ISA) can be seen here.
The nodules found on the seabed are known to contain up to 10 times the proportion found on their land counterparts, raising the stakes for companies scrambling to get a piece of prime metal-rich seabed real estate.
The licenses are valid for 15 years and cost $500,000 each. These are mostly bought by private companies, state-owned corporations and government organizations. The companies which have acquired licenses belong to wealthy countries including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, among others.
Michael Lodge, general counsel for the ISA, asserted that the governing body encourages exploitation of seabed minerals by the mining industry within strict environmental controls. Yet he admitted that there may be risks and uncertainties: “The nodules are generally lying in sediment that is between 2-6in (5-15cm) thick that’s been there undisturbed for millions of years. We simply don’t know the recovery times or the distribution of species – there are lots of uncertainties.”
The ISA was originally set up under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to oversee seabed mining for the greater benefit of humanity. This includes sharing mining profits with developing countries. Still, the risks of deep sea mining far outweigh its alleged benefits, if indeed they can be delivered.
Professor and marine chemist Rachel Mills of the University of Southampton clinches the question on deep sea mining: “Everything we are surrounded by, the way we live, relies on mineral resources and we don’t often ask where they come from. We need to ask whether there is sustainable mining on land and whether there is sustainable mining in the seas.”
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