Offshore mining is occurring in Namibia and in the Red Sea. But much more ambitious programs are on track. A new rush is taking place, mainly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In 1869, the French novelist Jules Verne predicted that deep sea mining of zinc, iron and gold would become a reality. Over 150 years after the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the European Commission is anticipating that by 2030, 10 percent of the global mining production may come from the seabed and could generate an annual turnover of about EUR 10 billion.
According to the EU Commission, the largest untapped mineral resources lie on the Oceans’ floor, at depths of – 4,000 meters or more, representing considerable amounts: over 450 million tonnes of copper or 25 times the 2015 world production and 100 m. tonnes of cobalt or thousand times as much as the world production and huge quantities of manganese. They are found under the form of polymetallic nodules which vary in size between a few millimetres and 20 cm. Other deposits consist in polymetallic sulphides which are contained in metalliferous muds namely in the Red Sea, along the East Pacific Rise System and the Galapagos rift and in up to 70 meters high chimneys containing rocks shaped by the submarine volcanic activity. Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts at shallower depths of 400 to 5,000 meters in areas of significant volcanic activity, represent a third category. They can be found in the Comoros Archipelago or around Madagascar, which also contain iron oxide, molybdenum, zirconium or rare earths.
Such Eldorado and prospects of finding new hydrocarbons deposits explain the diplomats’ frenzy of recent years. Indeed, within the framework of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2009, over 70 member states made submissions for the recognition of the limits of their continental shelf, in the area comprised between the limit of their Exclusive Economic Zone (200 miles) and a maximum limit of 350 miles. According to experts, even if exploration and extraction costs look very high, demographic growth and urbanization are likely to exert a strong pressure on the exploitation of these resources. At the moment, one of the main obstacles is technological. European dredging firms such as IHC Merwede BV consider that extraction of solid minerals is profitable at depths of about 150 meters but that more technological progress is required to guarantee the economic feasibility of exploitation at depths of more than 500 meters.
In the meantime, EU diplomats are paving the way for future exploitation. At the beginning of last May, EU Development ministers discussed with their partners of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP) issues related to the “Ocean governance”, bearing in mind the expansion of the cooperation between both blocks to that area. Talks focussed on the sustainable exploitation of the ocean seabed which the Commission is encouraging in partnership with the Blue Mining Consortium which includes 19 companies from the EU. The list includes IHC Merwede BV, the Belgian corporation Dredging International, Germany’s Aker Solutions and the British 2H Offshore Engineering which all eager to offer their skills and services.
The EU is also contributing to the Pacific states’ Deep Sea Minerals Project in order to help them to improve the governance and the management of their resources through adapted legal frameworks and technical assistance. The project launched by 15 states from the Pacific aims at preparing the sustainable exploitation of their resources. Some of these countries are in a pioneering position. This is the case of Tonga, one of the first countries in the world to approve in 2014 a law which regulates deep sea mining within its EEZ and also of Papua New Guinea which issued in 2014 the first copper and gold offshore exploration permit in the world to the Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals.
According to the EU Commission, phosphates offer promising exploitation perspectives. Morocco, the world’s third largest producer and holder of over 72 percent of the world’s reserves is interested to increase its hegemony. Meanwhile, the Namibian Marine Phosphate Company, obtained in late 2016 the Windhoek government’s approval to start the exploitation of the world’s first offshore phosphate deposit. Namibia is already a pioneer of offshore mineral exploitation, which began in 1961 with the extraction of diamonds by De Beers at the Orange River mouth, at 35 meters below the surface for a start. Today, De Beers Marine, the joint venture created by South Africa’s giant De Beers and the Namibian government is dredging diamonds at depths of 150 meters. Half of Namibia’s diamond output is being currently mined offshore but the proportion could rise 90 percent, according to corporate sources.
Another company which exploits offshore gems in Namibia, the Canadian firm Diamond Fields International, has been awarded with its Saudi Partner Manafa International the Atlantis II copper, zinc, lead and gold permit by the Saudi-Sudanese Red Sea Commission.
So far, the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued 27 exploration permits throughout the world. The largest was awarded on the last 12 May to the China Minmetals Corporation which obtained a 15 year contract for the exploration of polymetallic nodules over 72,745 sq km in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The ISA also awarded to the China Ocean Mineral Research Development Association a ferro-manganese block near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean where Germany’s Institute or Geosciences, BGR and South Korea hold also permits. Meanwhile, India is lobbying intensively in Mauritius and Seychelles after it discovered cobalt-rich nodules in the Mascarenes Basin. The ISA which is busy finalising a mining code establishing the rules and procedures of deep sea mining also held in Kampala (Uganda) last May a workshop, which could bode for future involvement of other African countries in the rush.
Before the start of large scale exploitation, the EU Commission is pushing for the adoption of “ocean governance” principles to manage fishing activities, the preservation of ecosystems and the regulation of the mining production. In 2015, the JPJ Oceans European platform, coordinated by Germany’s Centre for Ocean Research, Geomar Helmholtz, which brings together scientists from 11 European countries launched a study to assess the ecological impact of exploitation. Final results are awaited by 2018. Yet, first indications call for caution. According to Henri Robert, a biologist from Belgium’s Institut royal des sciences naturelles, 25 years after small surfaces of the deep sea near the Galapagos islands in the Pacific were raked, the seabed was still damaged. One of the preliminary conclusions is that the recolonisation process by marine organisms is very slow. Several exploitation techniques are being tested. Some have terrible consequences because they destroy the layer of the seabed and generate a cloud of mud and sediments that risks to asphyxiate areas which are not affected by exploitation. Others consist in picking up the nodules one by one and are less destructives. Meanwhile, the ISA is planning the creation of protected areas in the Pacific which will be used to recolonise the areas open for exploitation after it is finished with the original species which were present before the start of mining operations.