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Mining Heads Into The Deep Sea, Raising Environmental Concerns

Mining in the deep sea for minerals is uncharted territory, but one company is well on its way to making it a reality. Now, the company is trying to convince skeptical audiences it’s a good idea.

Shontel Norgate, chief financial officer of Nautilus Minerals Inc., pitched a roomful of ocean advocates at last month’s World Ocean Summit on the idea of deep-sea mining for minerals like copper and gold.

Mining offshore, said Norgate, has a smaller environmental footprint than mining on land. Plus, she said, it doesn’t require relocating communities or accounting for other human consequences of terrestrial mining. Deep-sea mining, she argued, “appears to be significantly better from environmental and social perspective.”

Moreover, Norgate said, many energy technologies of the future, including wind, solar, and hybrid and electric cars, use copper components. “If we’re saying no to fossil fuels, we’re effectively saying yes to more copper,” Norgate told the crowd. “Where is that copper coming from?”

Toronto-based Nautilus has received permission to move forward with a plan to mine one mile below the ocean’s surface, off the coast of Papua New Guinea — the first project of its kind in the deep sea. While oil and gas operations have ventured into deep waters for years, it’s new territory for mining.

Nautilus expects to begin production at its Solwara 1 mine in 2018. The company predicts the mine will yield around 80,000 tons of copper and 150,000 ounces of gold per year. If the project is successful, the company will seek to expand to two other sites, in Papua New Guinea, and off the coast of the Polynesian nation of Tonga.

Many are skeptical of deep-sea mining’s supposed benefits, and its environmental implications are relatively unknown. Nautilus has hired the environmental consulting firm Earth Economics to try to assess how a seabed mine might compare with a terrestrial mine. The analysis, released last month, compares likely impacts of the Solwara mine with three terrestrial mines of similar proportions — Bingham Canyon in Utah, Prominent Hill in Australia, and the proposed Intag mine in Ecuador.

The analysis found that, unlike with terrestrial mines, there aren’t issues like community displacement, use of freshwater supplies, erosion, or loss of land for other uses like food production, recreation, or cultural and historic conservation. Deep-sea mining would cause a loss of habitat and genetic resources, affect air and water quality, and use energy and raw materials, according to the analysis. But the overall environmental impact of deep-sea mining would not be as severe as that of an onshore mine, the analysis said.

The report also predicted that demand for copper, for wiring and other needs, is likely to continue, and neither land-based mines nor recycling are likely to supply enough.

Maya Kocian, a senior economist at Earth Economics, said the firm was cautious in taking on the analysis. Earth Economics normally studies the value of parks and recreation areas, she said. “Nautilus had to come to Seattle to convince our board to do it,” said Kocian. “There was hesitation to move forward.”

In the end, Kocian said, the firm found that there would be environmental impacts, but the comparison yielded interesting findings.

“Mining destroys habitat,” said Kocian. “But we have to make tradeoffs.” And a full accounting of the impacts can help set appropriate standards for mining, she said. “The mining industry is going to move forward and continue to mine for copper,” said Kocian. “It is important that we set standards in place now for both mining on land and in the deep sea.”

But environmental groups are skeptical of the supposed benefits of deep-sea mining.

“We are opening up a totally new industry in the deep-sea environment, and the deep-sea environment is a vulnerable environment,” Monica Verbeek, executive director of Seas At Risk, a Brussels-based association of European environmental groups, told The Huffington Post. “It’s low in light, energy, and it takes forever for these deep sea creatures to grow and mature. You can do a lot of damage there very quickly.”

Verbeek argued that the more environmentally sound option would be to invest more in recycling existing minerals and finding alternatives to copper. “Why start this whole industry in a very deep, very fragile environment where working conditions are very difficult?” she asked.

“The truth is that we don’t yet know what the true environmental impacts of deep seabed mining are as yet,” said Richard Page, an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace, via email. Because the Nautilus operation will be the first, it is being watched with special interest said Page. “We know little about the ecology of the deep sea and the resilience of the system, and the effectiveness of the proposed efforts to assist natural recovery are unknown.”

Nautilus’ Norgate argued that the newness of the exploit into the deep sea gives the company a chance to do things differently. “I certainly believe that if we get this right — and I am a great believer that we will get this right because of the amount of work we’ve done — it does have the potential to start a new industry and change the way we’ve been mining copper for decades,” Norgate said in an interview.

“We have a clean piece of paper here to decide how we want to do this, how we want this industry to be,” Norgate continued. “We don’t have the baggage that comes with the terrestrial mines or the oil and gas industry. We can take the best of all of those and create a new industry.”