From: Prime Sarmiento, SciDevNet, More from this Affiliate
Published January 14, 2013 08:44 AM

Should deep-sea mining go ahead in Papua New Guinea?

The fate of a currently halted deep-sea mining project in the Pacific is being watched closely by a number of parties.

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Mining companies hope that the project might become the start of an extraordinary bonanza of mineral deposits, but environmentalists are fearful that allowing it to go ahead might lead to the destruction of a still unexplored ecosystem.

Other eyes on the Solwara 1 mining scheme include governments eager for a share of profits, local communities worried about harm to the fisheries on which they depend and scientists keen to learn more about the formation of deposits at rarely plumbed depths and the pros and cons of mining.

The profit seekers won the first round when Canadian firm, Nautilus Minerals, secured a 20-year licence and the backing of Papua New Guinea to mine gold and copper at a depth of 1,600 metres in the Bismarck Sea — the first such deep sea operation in the world.

Rich pickings

Operations were scheduled to begin in 2014, with a target of producing about 80,000 tonnes of copper and more than four tonnes of gold a year.

Company officials estimate that Solwara would bring in more than US$140 million to Papua New Guinea's economy in its first two years of operation and claim that about 70 per cent of the project's staff would come from the country.

Nautilus also says it would use the latest ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicles) technology. ROVs are used by the oil and gas industry, although not at these depths. Rock collected from the seafloor would be pumped to the surface, loaded onto barges and shipped to China for processing.

The costs of using this technology look to be more than offset by a greater yield from the deep-sea ores than land-mined material, says Chris Yeats, who runs the mineral system science programme at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

"For every tonne of ore you mine from the seafloor and process, you get ten times the metal you get from a tonne of ore from the land," he says.

Article continues at ENN affiliate, Science and Development Network

Image credit: Subsea World News

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