Taking the Plunge in Papua New Guinea
Posted on Aug 15, 2012 / Author: Alanna Mackenzie / Tags: Global Economy, Human Rights and Development, Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment, ecology, environment, mining, ocean, Pacific islands, papua new guinea, PNG
Canadian companies have been embarking on ambitious resource extraction projects in Asia for years, but a recent business venture by Canadian mining firm, Nautilus Minerals Inc., may prove to be the most ambitious yet. The company plans to take the unprecedented step of extracting minerals from high-grade seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits off the coast of Papua New Guinea in an area of the Bismarck Sea known as the Manus Basin, for its Solwara 1 project. Nautilus is the first company to commercially explore the seafloor for SMS deposits, and if successful, its operations may encourage other mining companies to follow suit.
According to proponents of deep sea mining, land-based mining has potentially far greater environmental consequences and delivers lower financial returns. Yet such arguments must be weighed against those of scientists and conservationists, who assert that deep sea mining entails unequivocal risks. The SMS deposits that produce high-grade minerals are located on hydrothermal vents - underwater hot springs in volcanically active areas. Hydrothermal vents are characterized by highly unique ecological conditions, which give rise to diverse species that are found nowhere else on earth.
The unique ecology of the hydrothermal vents is not the only factor which makes deep sea mining a risky enterprise. Equally significant is the fact that scientific knowledge of the deep ocean is still extremely limited. Little is known about how ecosystems found around hydrothermal vents might react to mining, and whether or not marine life might re-colonize the site. To adequately safeguard the deep sea ecosystem, Nautilus needs to ensure that it integrates the precautionary principle, an established norm of international law, into its operations. This principle requires that, where threats of serious or irreversible damage to the environment exist, a lack of complete scientific certainty should not be a reason to postpone measures to prevent environmental degradation. Redressing the effects of deep sea mining might prove an impossible task unless steps are taken to prevent and mitigate damage before the project begins.
Before any precautionary measures are taken, however, Nautilus needs to first acknowledge the potential impacts of deep sea mining. According to a recent report, Nautilus’ Environmental Impact Statement, which was submitted to the PNG government in 2008, provided an inadequate review of these impacts. While the statement addressed impacts on marine life in the Manus Basin, it omitted a reference to the potential impact of mining on organisms outside this 11 hectare region. This omission is important because of the contiguous nature of the ocean; according to scientists, toxin-laden sediment plumes from the mining could harm species inhabiting the mid to upper ocean, and could indirectly impact Papua New Guineans who rely upon the sea for sustenance and economic welfare.
Not surprisingly, the PNG government’s approval of Solwara 1 in 2011 ignited controversy and resistance from numerous stakeholders. Indigenous Pacific communities and a coalition of environmental groups, including Mining Watch Canada, have vocally opposed the project, arguing that the input of communities and civil society members, as well as more rigorous research on potential impacts, must help to shape regulatory frameworks for deep sea mining. Solwara 1 also faces another hurdle: a recent undisclosed commercial dispute between Nautilus and the PNG government. The PNG government has optioned to take up to a 30% stake as a joint venture partner, yet recently backed down on contributing its share of the initial investment, arguing that Nautilus has failed to meet its obligations as a partner. This dispute could delay or altogether cancel the project, which is set to commence in 2013.
Mining companies around the world are watching to see how Nautilus performs before attempting deep sea mining. The Asia Pacific region is a hotspot for this type of mining; it is estimated that 1 million sq km of sea floor in this region is under exploration license. Last year, both China and Russia secured permits from the International Seabed Authority to explore hydrothermal vents in the Eastern Pacific. In July, South Korea acquired exclusive mining rights to a region in the Indian Ocean. As these countries press farther into the new frontiers of deep sea mining, they will likely face many hurdles - until they adequately address the risks of deep sea mining upon the ocean’s fragile ecosystems, and the communities that depend on them.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.