An Uncertain Future: The Problematic Case of Deep Sea Mining

March 19, 2018

19th March 2018 – Silva Reynell

Time and time again our lacking knowledge of the oceans is compared to that of the moon. The truth is, we are probably more equipped to go space bound and mine the moon, than to delve into the blue and mine our ocean trenches.

Nautilus Minerals(NM) however believe they are fully prepared to undergo the unprecedented deep-sea mining project Solwara 1. Some view them as incompetent, with their chaotic business plans, investors dipping in and out, shoddy trial reports, others see them as a huge threat to the delicate balance of our ocean trenches.

Target zones for Nautilus’ Deep Sea Mining


The location lies within the South Pacific, where the vibrant Papa New Guinea (PNG) and a collection of arc islands frame of the azure waters of the Bismark Sea. The commercial interest of this 40,000km2 expanse, is lent to mineral deposits rich in Copper, Gold, Silver and Zinc, all of which are in high demand. These deposits speckled with black smoker chimneys, lie 1600 meters below the water column and are home to many unique and undiscovered species


Troubled Waters 

Dancing to their own tune, NM are causing a big stir in the mining industry. Blindly optimistic and insistent without concrete plans they are desperate to start their operation where the risks are unknown.

They are one of the first companies to be granted a seafloor mining lease along with an environmental permit for the area. However, many believe that these should never have been granted.  The Papa New Guinea government not only lack the correct framework but also do not have the sufficient knowledge to make a regulatory decision.

The American company Earth Economics were contracted to complete the environmental and social benchmarking analysis for the project.  Confusingly, the decision-making tool used as part of their ‘ground-breaking analysis’ was a comparison of the deep-sea mining project with a group of terrestrial copper mines, which renders it worthless. The cost-benefit analysis did not meet requirements, signifying that net benefits do not outweigh net impacts. Copper production is thoroughly analyzed without any acknowledgement of gold production. Cumulative impacts are not discussed, despite a business plan singing out about the expansion of operations across numerous tenements. Sadly cultural, economic and social values of the ocean are undervalued and almost unaccounted for.

The Nautilus Seafloor Production Tools (SPTs) from left to right, the Collecting Machine (CM), the Bulk Cutter (BC) and the Auxiliary Cutter (AC).
Subsea Machinery 

The three main subsea production tools created for the project were designed and assembled in the UK by British company Soil Machine Dynamics.

Similar to something you’d see in a Tank Girl themed Robot Wars episode, these machines are essentially terrestrial hard rock mining equipment spliced with subsea trenching technology.

When the project goes ahead these vehicles, which weigh up to 250 tones, will be lowered to the sea bed and controlled through remote subsea technology.

Deep-sea mining operation layout.
Deep-sea mining operation layout.


As each vehicle takes it in turns to do their job, the mineralized material will be pumped up a slurry pipe and with 1600 meters of saline water pressure above them, they are likely to remain submerged for long periods of time.

Social Concerns 

These Huli tribesmen live in the rainforest away from modern life, many tribes live nearer the coast living – with a diet greatly compromised of fish their livelihoods greatly linked to the ocean.
These Huli tribesmen live in the rainforest away from modern life, many tribes live nearer the coast living – with a diet greatly compromised of fish their livelihoods greatly linked to the ocean.

Papa New Guinea is largely untouched and unique. It boasts many different tribes who live as they have done for hundreds of years. It is one of the least geographically and culturally explored countries in the world. Unable to get to hospitals, schools and work, those who live rurally have no option but to face long distances on foot or isolation, living below the poverty line. Quality education, economic growth and infrastructure are just some of the ways mining can contribute to sustainable development goals set out by the UN.

In 2014 Nautilus Minerals created a number of community initiatives, which included donations to schools, a water and sanitation project in New Ireland (PNG) and a commitment to local recruitment. They also promise to create more infrastructure and given that this is the country’s largest barrier, the building of roads and bridges would make a significant difference. Such bribery often leads to challenges, and due to the nature of target zones, PNG could be met with far more problems than enhancements. As many communities rely heavily on the sea for local commerce, tourism and nourishment their livelihoods would be at stake.

Environmental Concerns

How life works on the bottom of the ocean is still proving hard to grasp. What we know is that hydrothermal vents are key to indispensable services like oxygen production, carbon dioxide sequestration and the thermohaline circulation.  The sulfidic minerals important roles in ocean life, the release of iron for instance, controls the population of plankton and energy is upcycled through the food chain by different chemotrophs. Running like an oiled machine this network of life is driven by symbiotic relationships.

Life's building blocks: Black smoker chimney pumping out sulfidic ash.
Life’s building blocks: Black smoker chimney pumping out sulfidic ash.
The environmental impacts NM have acknowledged include, the removal of habitat and ocean floor, generation of plumes, disturbed water quality, and disruption through sound and vibration. With every deep-sea mining operation will demolish countless hydrothermal vents along with their exceptional ecosystems, with zero evidence of renewal. As scientists have not been able to pinpoint a measure of the sea floors resilience, it is crucial that enough precaution is taken to avoid damage beyond repair or the inability to provide vital functions for the planet.

The Resistance 

Papa New Guinea communities are in uproar and luckily for them, there is a lot of suggestion that the operating license holds massive legality issues. The Ministry of Mining and The Ministry of Environment and Conservation have received formal requests from communities asking for the licensing documents to be made public. The government have been given a deadline of October 2018, failing this they could be liable for legal proceedings. This proof could be paramount in halting the project, investors could walk away and the application for license renewal of their operating license could be rejected.

Political figure, Sir Arnold Amet who is the former attorney general of Papa New Guinea believes that the license is not legal and that monitoring of environmental impacts is impossible with our current technology. His concerns are for the Papa New Guinea government who have 15% in investment shares. If disaster was to occur, the Papa New Guinea government would be left financially liable for large pay-outs and huge remediation costs.

Sylvia Earle, a public figure in the world of marine ecology and oceanic stability, has been campaigning with others about the concerns involving deep sea mining. There is a large backing and many research centers have helped create fact sheets, science-based reports and articles which have now been submitted to the International Sea Bed Alliance. Geomar who is among one of the many reputable organizations who having assisted in research, concluded that ‘the ecological impact of mining nodules would be unacceptable with current technology.’

A future of Uncertainties 

If the project is to go ahead and expand there is no way of knowing what the damaging results could be. One strong suggestion given to the US congress is for the creation of stable reference areas, where studies could work on defining the safety of deep sea mining. No funding has been allocated to this as of yet and operations could start as soon as 2019.


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Silva Reynell is an earth and ocean science educator based in the UK who specialises in natural resource ethics and geopolitics. Silva hopes to encourage open dialogue at all levels of industry, academia and public regarding the environmental and political issues facing mining companies in a range of jurisdictions.

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James Hyland, MiningIR