First deep sea mining support ship is under construction

Signal of change / First deep sea mining support ship is under construction

By Juliette Aplin / 17 Aug 2015

Nautilus Minerals has announced that its first deep-sea mining support vessel is under construction. The aim is to have the vessel built ready for use in the world’s first deep-sea mining project, Solwara 1, expected to commence in  2017 in an already identified location in the Bismarck Sea, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. 

Nautilus Minerals is one of two major companies looking to start undersea mining commercially. Growing demand for expensive metals such as gold, cobalt and lithium has driven significant advancements in the technologies needed to mine previously unattainable deep sea deposits. These sought-after metals are essential in the production of flat-screen televisions, modern batteries, and touch-screen devices.

The support vessel is designed to hover over an underwater mining site, while huge industrial equipment on the seabed grinds the rock up into a slurry, and pumps it back to the support vessel. Nautilus has produced an animation providing further details of how the vessel will be used.

Image credit: University of Washington Office of News and Information / Flickr

So what?

This announcement brings plans to start deep sea mining significantly closer to fruition, and urges discussion of the environmental implications. The complexity of deep sea ecosystems is such that the impacts of mining are unpredictable, especially in the long term. Moreover, the Global Ocean Commission raises the point that a regulatory system for exploitation is yet to be agreed.

The UNEP briefing on deep sea mining has warned that, “Governance mechanisms for international water and the seabeds need to be strengthened. The precautionary approach should be used to avoid repeating instances of well-known destructive practices associated with conventional mining”.

Nautilus Marine claims it has the necessary environmental permits to proceed. Analysis conducted by Earth Economics found that the support vessel and pumping mechanism proposed are not expected to contaminate surface or ground water environments at the proposed Solwara 1 mining site. The report concludes that deep sea mining here would have comparatively less environmental and social impact than terrestrial mines.

Demand for deep-sea mining is driven by intense consumption of technology metals which is set to increase as demand for batteries and touch-screen devices grows – with people continuing to invest in multiple devices in developed economies, and the rise of the middle class in emerging ones. Could exploitation of sea-based ore deposits be checked by alternative models for consumption – with companies leasing and recycling devices?

Technology metal recycling is an emerging market, with gold, platinum and battery recycling plants established in Belgium and the UK. Integrating closed-loop systems into business models within resource-intensive industries could minimise resource depletion and other environmental impacts. What subsidies, incentives or regulation will be required to encourage companies to make this change?

Sources

Nautilus Minerals (July 29, 2015) Press Release: Vessel dewatering plant detailed design contract awarded

Lloyd’s List Asia, (April 22, 2015) Aronnax: A new ship type is born

Asia Times Online, (August 5, 2011) Deep-sea mining stirs risk concerns

UNEP (May, 2014) Wealth in the Oceans: Deep sea mining on the horizon?

Global Ocean Commission (November 2013)  Policy options paper #5 Stregthening deep seabed mining regulation

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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