The United Nations (UN) has published its first plan for deep-sea mining and has announced that companies could apply for mining licences as soon as 2016. This comes at a time when this form of mining is becoming an increasingly attractive investment proposition.
After the release of a technical study by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body managing the industry, it is taking steps on how to move from bids handling mining exploration to considering how to license the first operations.
To date, the ISA has issued 17 exploration permits, while seven applications are currently being processed. They cover vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.
“We are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining,” ISA legal counsel Michael Lodge told a BBC interviewer.
It is generally acknowledged that the world’s largest and most valuable resources of gem-quality diamonds are contained in the exposed marine gravel beaches along the Namibian and South African west coasts and on the submerged beaches in the adjacent territorial waters.
More than 90% of the diamonds currently mined from the sea and adjacent coastal areas are of gem quality because only the best-quality stones survived the transport-ation process to the coast.
However, amid increasing interest in deep-sea mining, a vital question remains: What impact will deep-sea mining have on the environment?
State of Deep-Sea Mining in South Africa
Experts say that not much deep-sea mining is taking place in South Africa, unlike in neighbouring Namibia, where Debmarine Namibia has a fleet of five ships mining at depths of 90 m to 140 m using drill and crawler mining technology. De Beers environment principal and marine ecologist Dr Patti Wickens adds that there are also smaller vessels and shore-based diamond divers working off the west coast of Southern Africa.
Panda Marine Mining & Exploration CEO Kobus Pansegrouw observes that, currently, the industry is “pretty quiet”, attributing this state of affairs to the collapse of the diamond price a few years ago. But he adds that the South African deep-sea mining industry has a lot of potential, as there are minerals available for extraction.
He also notes that the slowdown in the South African deep-sea mining industry can be attributed to the political challenges that have been dominating South Africa for the last 20 years, resulting in many operations relocating to, and continuing in, Namibia.
De Beers’ view is that profitability, and not politics, is the essential challenge facing diamond mining operators in South African waters, who have been affected by diamond production profiles characterised by smaller, lower-value diamonds than those mined off the Namibian coast.
One of the biggest challenges facing deep-sea mining in South Africa is attracting foreign investment.
“The biggest challenge is capital investment because this is a very expensive business. Currently, investors are shy, owing to the ongoing situation with land-based mining operations,” says Pansegrouw.
“Investors are hiding and will not be willing to commit to investing in projects until all the unrest at land-based mining operations has been resolved. Marine mining is still lagging behind, but once opportunities emerge and investors show interest, there will be major benefits from deep-sea mining.”
The South African land-based mining industry will continue to suffer unless key stakeholders come together to realise a common goal for the future of the industry, notes BDO head of mining Ursula van Eck.
Further, retaining jobs in land-based mining remains a challenge, owing to the volatile labour environment. Mining executives may find that there is little room to manoeuvre in terms of introducing new technology, owing to added pressure from government to create and retain jobs.
These challenges are making it difficult to generate positive recognition of the opportunities that exist in the land-based and deep-sea mining industry, making it even more difficult to garner support for deep-sea mining.
“As a deep-sea mining industry, we are always trying to generate interest for foreign investment. We still find that there are some investors that have an appetite specifically for deep-sea mining. There is a huge interest in deep-sea mining worldwide, but the challenge is in trying to get investors to assist in this chaotic climate,” Pansegrouw says.
A further hurdle that deep-sea mining faces pertains to fears about its environ-mental impact, with conservation experts having long claimed that mining the seabed will be highly destructive and have disastrous long-term implications for marine life.
Indeed, the ISA report recognises that deep-sea mining will cause “inevitable environmental damage”.
A key factor in the ISA’s report is the need for environmental safeguards. The document calls for the monitoring of the seabed during mining operations; however, critics are sceptical of activity in the ocean depths actually being policed.
Deep-sea diamond mining operations, particularly in Namibia, where De Beers is currently active, targets unconsolidated surface sediments on the seabed and many of the organisms that live there are only a few millimetres in size.
Larger organisms include shrimps and mantis shrimps, which attain sizes of about 20 cm. There are also rocky outcrop areas hosting different forms of marine life in the licence areas. These areas are not typically targeted for mining, but can be affected by secondary impacts from tailings, and the mining areas are frequently inhabited by mobile organisms, such as fish and cuttlefish.
“An environmental-impact assessment was undertaken in the early 1990s to assess the impact of offshore diamond mining on the seabed in Namibia. It was found that while mining activities alter the nature of the seabed landscape or habitat, this effect is not permanent,” says Wickens.
“The sediments are brought onto the mining vessel and then returned overboard to the seabed. The communities that live in the soft sediment areas are typically removed during the mining processes, but recolonisation has been demonstrated.”
She further notes that offshore diamond mining does not directly overlap with fishing grounds or known fish-spawning areas in Namibia.
Pansegrouw avers that marine mining, specifically diamond mining, is not only environment friendly if executed correctly but is also advantageous to the environment if done in a proper manner.
“Because of the way the seabed is agitated during mining operations, this process liberates some of the nutrients and this tends to stimulate the sea life of that area. It is a friendly way of mining because you are not drilling or breaking into any ground,” he says, adding that offshore mining is one of the friendliest ways of mining and that many offshore mining experts look forward to this way of mining in the future. “There are minerals that one can liberate without damaging the environment and it is easier to control because you are on a vessel and there are highly skilled and qualified people who can take responsibility for all their actions.”
Although some experts have provided assurance about offshore mining, others are sceptical of its true impact on the environment and the various types of mining being considered by various mining companies, which, they argue, can have a negative impact on the environment and natural life in the affected areas.
According to environmental lobby group Swakopmund Matters, the Namibian marine environment cannot accommodate a viable fishing industry and the disruptive exercise of marine phosphate mining.
“Either one or the other can thrive – not both,” says the group, which was formed in 2011 to raise awareness on the potential damage that marine phosphate mining can cause to the Namibian environment, particularly the marine ecosystem and rich fishing resources.
Currently, there are four marine phosphate mining projects at various phases of development off the Namibian coast in the Atlantic Ocean. These are being carried out by Namibian and international mining companies.
The concept is to dredge the phosphate material from the seabed and ship it ashore using conventional dredging techniques, for processing and drying.
“The Namibian fishing industry represents the sustainable use of a renewable resource, whereas seabed mining has a destructive impact on the marine ecosystem. It represents finite exploitation of a nonrenewable resource at the expense of fishing resources, which are of cardinal importance to the Namibian economy,” says Swakopmund Matters.
“This kind of marine phosphate mining has never been undertaken anywhere else in the world. It is highly controversial, as the Namibian coast and the Benguela region of the ocean are the most productive and biologically beneficial areas for the country,” says the group.
Former head of environmental group the World Wildlife Fund South Africa Dr Allan Heydorn has also expressed concern about marine phosphate mining, according to Swakopmund Matters.
He reportedly noted that the likelihood of marine phosphate mining being deleterious to Namibia’s fishing industry was substantial and that the environmental impacts would be serious, particularly in an area characterised by the powerful Benguela current system.
“The principle of seabed phosphate mining needs to be subjected to a detailed environmental-impact assessment and public participation. Infrastructure requirements, such as harbour facilities for offloading large volumes of sediments, need to be fully disclosed,” Heydorn is said to have remarked.
Meanwhile, according to Wickens, various environmental studies on offshore diamond mining conducted by De Beers concluded that the recovery rate is between 4 and 15 years, depending on the nature of the sediments and processes in the area. “This recovery rate refers to the recovery of the ecological function through the colonisation of mined areas by marine life that is potentially different from that at unmined sites, but which results in accept-able ecological function,” she explains.
She adds: “Environmental-monitoring programmes have been developed to address the monitoring of the impact of operations and the natural recovery process. It is important to note that, on land, recovery rates for rehabilitated areas also vary significantly, depending on the particular area, but can be at least this length of time, if not longer.”
The Benguela Current Commission was formed by the governments of Namibia, South Africa and Angola to oversee the overall impact of various maritime industries on the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem and how these can coexist.
In 2012, a Marine Scientific Advisory Committee, chaired by Debmarine Namibia, was established. It comprises external scientists to review the results of the seabed-monitoring programme and its effectiveness in providing scientifically defensible information with regard to the recovery of seabed and associated marine life, in line with the scale of mining.