Tag Archives: economics of mining deep seabed

Certainly Not a Bed: the seabed

Walking across the seabed (US Navy). image wikipedia

Patania One became in May 217the first robot in 40 years to be lowered to the sea floor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), about 5,000 metres beneath the Pacific ocean…There it gathered data about the seabed and how larger robots might move carefully across it, sucking up valuable minerals en route.

The CCZ is a 6m square-kilometre (2.3m square-mile) tract between two of the long, straight “fracture zones” which the stresses of plate tectonics have created in the crust beneath the Pacific. Scattered across it are trillions of fist-sized mineral nodules, each the result of tens of millions of years of slow agglomeration around a core of bone, shell or rock. Such nodules are quite common in the Pacific, but the CCZ is the only part of the basin where the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates such matters beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of individual countries, currently permits exploration. Companies from Japan, Russia, China and a couple of dozen other countries have been granted concessions to explore for minerals in the CCZ. The ISA is expected to approve the first actual mining in 2019 or 2020.

This could be big business. James Hein of the United States Geological Survey and colleagues estimated in a paper in 2012 that the CCZ holds more nickel, cobalt and manganese than all known terrestrial deposits of those metals put together. The World Bank expects the battery industry’s demand for these, and other, minerals to increase if the transition to clean energy speeds up enough to keep global temperatures below the limits set in the Paris agreement on climate.

One of the firms attracted by this vast potential market is DEME, a Belgian dredging company ….Korea, Japan and China all have state-run research projects looking to dredge nodules from the deep sea with robots: “It really is a race,” says Kris Van Nijen, who runs DEME’s deep-sea mining efforts…

[It was expected]that deep-sea mining would develop rapidly by the 1980s. A lack of demand (and thus investment), technological capacity and appropriate regulation kept that from happening. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which set up the ISA, was not signed until 1982. (America has still not ratified it, and thus cannot apply to the ISA for sea-floor-mining permits.)

Mr Van Nijen and his competitors think that now, at last, the time is right. DEME is currently building Patania Two, or P2… In order to satisfy the ISA, this new machine does not just have to show it can harvest nodules; it also has to show that it can do so in an environmentally sensitive way. Its harvesting will throw up plumes of silt which, in settling, could swamp the sea floor’s delicate ecosystem. A survey of CCZ life in 2016 found a surprising diversity of life. Of the 12 animal species collected, seven were new to science…

The CCZ is not the only sea floor that has found itself in miners’ sights. Nautilus, a Canadian firm, says it will soon start mining the seabed in Papua New Guinea’s EEZ for gold and copper, though at the time of writing the ship it had commissioned for the purpose sits unfinished in a Chinese yard. A Saudi Arabian firm called Manafai wants to mine the bed of the Red Sea, which is rich in metals from zinc to gold. There are projects to mine iron sands off the coast of New Zealand and manganese crusts off the coast of Japan. De Beers already mines a significant proportion of its diamonds from the sea floor off the coast of Namibia, although in just 150 metres of water this is far less of a technical challenge.

If the various precautions work out, the benefits of deep-sea mining might be felt above the water as well. Mining minerals on land can require clearing away forests and other ecosystems in order to gain access, and moving hundreds of millions of tonnes of rock to get down to the ores. Local and indigenous people have often come out poorly from the deals made between miners and governments. Deep-sea mining will probably produce lower grade ores, but it will do so without affecting human populations.

Undersea Mining: Race to the Bottom, Economist, Mar. 10, 2018

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The Ever-Present Human: digging deep into the sea

hydrothermal vents. image from http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/vents.html

In the 1960s and 1970s, amid worries about dwindling natural resources, several big companies looked into the idea of mining the ocean floor. They proved the principle by collecting hundreds of tonnes of manganese nodules…rich in cobalt, copper and nickel. As a commercial proposition, though, the idea never caught on. Working underwater proved too expensive and prospectors discovered new mines on dry land.

The International Seabed Authority, which looks after those parts of the ocean floor beyond coastal countries’ 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, has issued guidelines for the exploitation of submarine minerals.

One of the most advanced projects is that of Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm. In January 2016 Nautilus took delivery of three giant mining machines (two rock-cutters and an ore-collector) that move around the seabed on tracks, like tanks. It plans to start testing these this year. If all goes well the machines could then start operating commercially in Nautilus’s concession off the coast of Papua New Guinea, which prospecting shows contains ore with a copper concentration of 7%. (The average for terrestrially mined ore is 0.6%.) This ore also contains other valuable metals, including gold.

This approach (which is also that taken by firms such as Neptune Minerals, of Florida, and a Japanese consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) is different from earlier efforts. It involves mining not manganese nodules, but rather a type of geological formation unknown at the time people were looking into those nodules—submarine hydrothermal vents. These rocky towers, the first of which was discovered in 1977, form in places where jets of superheated, mineral-rich water shoot out from beneath the sea floor. They are found near undersea volcanoes and along the ocean ridges that mark the boundaries between Earth’s tectonic plates. They generally lie in shallower waters than manganese nodules, and often contain more valuable substances, gold among them.

They are not, though, as abundant as manganese nodules, so if and when the technology for underwater mining is proved, it is to nodules that people are likely to turn eventually. These really are there in enormous numbers. According to Dr Hannington, the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone, a nodule field that stretches from the west coast of Mexico almost to Hawaii, contains by itself enough nickel and copper to meet global demand for several decades, and enough cobalt to last a century.

Mining, whether on land or underwater, does come at an environmental cost, though… [T]he sediments the nodules are found in play host to microscopic critters that would be most upset by the process of trawling that is needed to bring the nodules to the surface. They might take decades to recover from it.

Excerpts from :Oceanography: Fruits de mer, Economist, Feb. 25, 2017

 

The Secrets of the Ocean Floor

Echo-sounding illustration. image from wikipedia

Three billion dollars sounds a lot to spend on a map. But if it is a map of two-thirds of Earth’s surface, then the cost per square kilometre, about $8.30, is not, perhaps, too bad. And making such a map at such a cost is just what an organisation called the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) is proposing to do. GEBCO, based in Monaco, has been around since 1903. Its remit, as its name suggests, is to chart the seabed completely. Until now, it has managed less than a fifth of that task in detail. But means of mapping the depths have improved by leaps and bounds over recent decades. So, with the aid of the Nippon Foundation, a large, Japanese philanthropic outfit, GEBCO now proposes to do the job properly. It plans to complete its mission by 2030….

Despite water’s apparent transparency, the sea absorbs light so well that anywhere below 200 metres is in pitch darkness. Radio waves (and thus radar) are similarly absorbed. Sound waves do not suffer from this problem, which is why sonar works for things like hunting submarines. But you cannot make sonic maps from a satellite. For that, you have to use the old-fashioned method of pinging sonar from a ship. Which is just what GEBCO plans to do.,,,

[The technique used to map the sea floor] is “echo sounding”, using sonar reflected from the seabed. Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen of Columbia University, in New York, pioneered the technique in the 1950s and 1960s by using technology developed during the second world war. With it, they mapped part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain chain…

Cable-laying companies, oil firms, academic oceanography laboratories, national hydrographic surveys and the world’s navies all have oodles of sounding data. One of GEBCO’s jobs is to gather this existing information together and sew it into a new database, to create a coherent portrayal of the known ocean floor.  The organisation is also keen to include data collected by helpful volunteers. A new digital platform overseen by America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration encourages the crowdsourcing of bathymetric data, letting mariners upload their findings easily. Recent political initiatives, such as a deal made in Galway in 2013 between America, Canada and the European Union to support transatlantic floor-mapping, will also boost efforts. National icebreakers are gathering information in parts of the ocean too frozen for other vessels to reach. And GEBCO is trying to persuade governments and companies with proprietary data on the sea floor to share them. One such firm, a cable-laying outfit called Quintillion, has already agreed to do so…

[A] accurate map of the seabed may help open this unknown two-thirds of Earth’s surface to economic activity. ..[T]he world’s navies (or, at least, those among them with submarine capability) will also take an interest—for an accurate seabed map will both show good places for their boats to hide and suggest where their rivals’ vessels might be secreted. Whether they will welcome GEBCO making this information public is a different question

Excerpt from Bathymetry: In an octopus’s garden, Economist,  Oct. 29, 2016

Mining Colonies in the Ocean: digging the ocean floor for phosphate

Ocean Floor Mining image from http://e360.yale.edu/feature/drive_to_mine_the_deep_sea_raises_concerns_over_impacts/2818/

A persistent fear of diminishing phosphorus reserves has pushed mining companies to search far and wide for new sources. Companies identified phosphate deposits on the ocean floor and are fighting for mining rights around the world….

From April 2007 to August 2008, the price of phosphate, a necessary ingredient in fertilizer, increased nearly 950 percent, in part due to the idea that phosphate production had peaked and would begin diminishing. Before prices came back down, prospectors had already begun looking for deep sea phosphate reserves around the world.

Since then, the fledgling seabed phosphate industry has found minimal success. While several operations are proposed in the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Mexico rejected attempts at offshore phosphate mining in their territory.  This means southern African reserves – created in part by currents carrying phosphate-rich water from Antarctica – are the new center of debate.

Namibia owns identified seabed phosphate deposits, and the country has recently flip-flopped about whether to allow mining. A moratorium was in place since 2013, but in September 2016 the environmental minister made the controversial decision to grant the necessary licenses. Since then, public outcry forced him to set those aside…

Three companies, Green Flash Trading 251 (Pty) Ltd, Green Flash 257 (Pty) Ltd and Diamond Fields International Ltd., hold prospecting rights covering about 150,000 square kilometers, roughly 10 percent, of  South Africa’s marine exclusive economic zone…[G]reen Flash companies received drill samples, which showed current prices could not sustain seabed phosphate mining.

This leaves Diamond Fields as the only remaining player in South African waters. The company announced in a January 2014 press release that it received a 47,468 square kilometer prospecting right to search for phosphate.  According to information the company published summarising its environmental management plan, prospecting would use seismic testing to determine the benthic, or seafloor, geology. If mining commenced, it would take place on the seafloor between 180 and 500 meters below the surface.  “A vital and indisputable link exists between phosphate rock and world food supply,” the company stated, citing dwindling phosphate reserves…

Environmentalists argue that not only would phosphate mining destroy marine ecosystems, but it would also lead to continued overuse of fertilizers and associated pollution. They call for increased research into phosphate recapture technology instead of mining.“We could actually be solving the problem of too much phosphates in our water and recapturing it. Instead we’re going to destroy our ocean ecosystems,” John Duncan of WWF-SA said.

The act of offshore mining requires a vessel called a trailing suction hopper dredger, which takes up seafloor sediment and sends waste back into the water column.  “It amounts to a kind of bulldozer that operates on the seabed and excavates sediment down to a depth of two or three meters. Where it operates, it’s like opencast mining on land. It removes the entire substrate. That substrate become unavailable to fisheries for many years, if not forever,” Johann Augustyn, secretary of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association, said….

Mining opponents also worry offshore mining would negatively impact food production and economic growth. Several thousand subsistence farmers live along South Africa’s coast, and the country’s large-scale fishing industry produces around 600,000 metric tonnes of catch per year.

“[Mining] may lead to large areas becoming deserts for the fish populations that were there. If they don’t die off, they won’t find food there, and they’ll probably migrate out of those areas,” Augustyn said.

South Africa is one of only three African nations – along with Namibia and Seychelles – implementing marine spatial planning. This growing movement toward organised marine economies balances competing uses such as oil exploration, marine protected areas and fisheries….[and mining.]

Excerpts from Mark Olalde, Phosphate Mining Firms Set Sights on Southern Africa’s Sea Floor, IPS, Nov. 17, 2016