Mining the Deeps

While the mining industry was struggling with the impacts of the economic meltdown, one Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, announced at the end of 2008 that it was ready to start mining the deep ocean floor. All Nautilus had to do was finish building special equipment and arranging permits to work at a site it had leased off the shores of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Then it would  commence grinding copper-rich rock on the seafloor into a slurry, vacuuming it up and pumping it to a ship on the surface.

The company would also recover precious metals such as gold, silver, zinc and other commercially traded metals. Then copper prices plummeted and Nautilus put many of its plans on hold. For some, especially scientists, the pause was welcome. Nautilus’ plans targeted hydrothermal vents, where chemical-rich fluids spewing from the seafloor spur the accumulation of not only metals, but also lush communities of curious organisms.

Ever since deep-sea vents were first  discovered in 1977, they have yielded a treasure trove of scientific clues about how our planet’s surface formed, how the ocean’s chemistry works, and even how life may have started on Earth. The main concern was that mining the seafloor would produce an undersea version of the environmental damage that mining has caused on land.

In April 2009, a wide range of stakeholders from 20 countries pondered that and other issues at a conference on seabed mining convened by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Environmentalists, representatives from Nautilus and other major mining companies, international policymakers and nearly one hundred scientists in a diverse range of fields gathered to share knowledge, seek common ground and discuss seabed mining guidelines. The results must have been positive; only a year later, in January 2010, the Papua New Guinea government issued an environmental permit, allowing for the world’s first commercial seafloor mining project to begin. And Nautilus was the company behind it. The company is proposing to develop the Solwara 1 Seafloor  Massive Sulphide (“SMS”) system in the territorial waters of PNG, whose government granted a 25-year environmental permit to Nautilus to mine copper and gold 1.7 kilometres below the Bismarck Sea.

Nautilus is using existing offshore oil technologies to cut ore from the seafloor and pump it to the surface as seawater slurry. Once the ore is dewatered, it is shipped to shore for processing.

Processing is conventional froth flotation and smelting/ refining, all of which will be contracted from existing facilities. “However, once Nautilus proves the mining system is technologically feasible, the plan is to build and run our own concentrator,” explains Scott Trebilcock, Nautilus Vice-President, Business Development and Investor Relations.

Highly Scalable and Low Cost

The main advantages of this new way of mining are, according to Trebilcock, its high scalability, low cost and small environmental footprint. “Unlike traditional mining, undersea exploration does not require the use of explosives or chemicals, does not need to displace people or construct roads and generates minimal waste,” he says.

Consulted about the environmental impacts, particularly in aquatic ecosystems, Trebilcock says that the company has plans to establish temporary refuge areas within the proposed mining area where animals can progressively return. The company has also conductedsmall-scale experiments installing appropriate artificial substrates to encourage animals to settle and re-colonize sites, as well as relocating animals out of the path of mining.

“We have even taken DNA samples to ensure that the aquatic life to be foundaroundourmining area in thefuture is the same [as] that [which] exists today,” adds Trebilcock. In 2005, Nautilus hired marine biologist Samantha Smith, who was an academic at the University of Toronto, first as a consultant and then as a full time employee to coordinate the environmental impact assessment thatthe company needed before it could be allowed to mine the east coast of PNG.

She has collaborated with government and organizations to accurately measure the impacts of seafloor mining in aquatic ecosystems. “Nautilus has engineered systems to prevent disturbances through the water columnup to the surface. Some sediment plumes [from mining activities] are expected to occur  at the seafloor, but detailed modeling indicates these will not rise in the water column above 1,300 meters water depth,” she says.

“At the surface, the only impacts envisaged are the production support vessel and barges, which will only be present while the mining is taking place,” she adds.

Those arguments do not convince Sabine Christiansen of the World Wildlife Fund.  “In [seafloor] mining, you take away the substrate; you add filtered water, and you never know how good that will be; you may raise clouds [of sediments],” she says. “There are a lot of open questions on acidification of the water, questions on bringing nutrients up with the water and disturbing the water column processes.”

Industry Support

Despite the ecological concerns, Nautilus has the backing of some majorplayers in the global minerals industry. Teck holds about 6.8% of the company and Anglo American is an even larger shareholder with an 11.1% interest. Among the  institutional investors, big names such as JP Morgan, Sun Valley Gold and Sprott can be found.

So far, Nautilus has raisedUS$ 340 million in equity capital, discovered 14 new SMS systems in PNG and 11 in Tonga and successfully used existing technology used in the oil and gas industry, adapting it to the project’s specific needs. In partnership with a company based in Texas, Nautilus has also developed its own equipment, such as the pumping technology already in place at Solwara 1. In partnership with Teck and the Vancouver-based Ocean Floor Geophysics Inc. It is currently developing, deploying and testing new deep-ocean electromagnetic technology.

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