Analysis – By Karen Abplanalp
Controversy surrounds a Papua New Guinean government decision to grant Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals a 20-year licence to start the world’s first commercial deep sea mining operation – called Solwara 1 – in the Bismark Sea.
Nautilus will mine an area 1.6km beneath the sea, 50km off the coast of New Britain island, in an experimental “El Dorado” project that also has implications for New Zealand.
The issue is highly sensitive and deep sea mineral rights may be discussed in the context of security issues at the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands this week.
Dr Steven Ratuva, a political scientist and Pacific security analyst from the University of Auckland’s Pacific Studies Centre, warns of regional conflict and internal instability as a result of disputed deep sea mining sites.
He points to a 2010 dispute between Fiji and Tonga over the contested Minerva Reef as an example.
“The sea border is very porous, it isn’t like the land boundaries where things are much more static and visible,” he told Pacific Scoop.
“The example of Tonga and Fiji is one of the factors around the conflict over Minerva Reef. Part of it has to do with the minerals around the area as well. We are going to see more of that happening.”
High-grade copper and gold will be extracted in the Nautilus mining operation.
The PNG government has a 30 percent stake in the venture, but is facing mounting public resistance over the move.
Just how much this financial stake influences crucial decisions yet to be made about environmental and cultural protection and regional stability is yet to be seen.
Nautilus chief executive Stephen Rogers has declared his company is confident the project’s closed system of mineral extraction will minimise damage in surface waters from mining the seabed.
“And what I would say to the people of Papua New Guinea is that we’ve got a very well-engineered system, we’ve used world leading practice,” he told Radio New Zealand International. “It’s going to be done safely.”
But condemnation has been growing in Papua New Guinea.
“Deep sea mining has risen to become a contentious issue in this country,” said The National, a PNG daily newspaper owned by a Malaysian logging company, in an editorial calling for a halt to the plan.
‘Clamour of protest’
“The clamour of protest from the people about the impending extraction of gold and other valuable minerals from the sea floor in the Bismarck Sea has increased in volume.
“As a mining venture taken by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals, this is a world-first.
As land-based mineral resources dwindle and with the rising prices for minerals, the rush to commercialise mineral deposits that exist in the sea’s benthic regions is on and PNG, fortunately or unfortunately, happens to be a frontier for this new-found interest.”
The National warned that despite the analysis and tests carried out by developers such as Nautilus and other agencies, “no one knows with any certainty the likely impact on the immediate undersea environment”.
Nor was much known about the wider implications of such an activity.
“We are the test subjects in this case. This project may well have a detrimental effect on our fish stocks and other marine life.
“The livelihoods of Papua New Guineans who live off the sea could be put in jeopardy. There are too many variables that could end up being sacrificed for commercial expediency.
“Unlike resource exploitation on terra firma, sea floor mineral exploration and development is an unknown. The question the PNG government and the people should be asking is whether there is a real need at this point to venture into the ‘abyss’.
“Do the rewards outweigh the risks?”
Civil society groups earlier this month criticised the European Union for funding the establishment of a draft deep sea mining regime, condemning this as a “reckless approach” that would be unacceptable to EU member countries.
Groups have criticised Sopac director Russell Howarth for revealing in a speech at Rio+20 in June that his priority was to “promote the interests of mining companies” at the expense of local communities and marine ecosystems that they relied on. (Sopac is the Pacific Islands Applied GeoScience Commission, Applied Geoscience and Technology Division of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.)
Dr Helen Rosenbaum, campaign coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining campaign in Australia and author of Out of Our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor in Papua New Guinea criticised Howarth for being “willing to sacrifice their well-being for perceived profits”.
“We call for full understanding about impacts before exploration or exploitation of deep sea mineral resources is permitted,” she said.
“If the deep sea mining test case, Solwara 1 in PNG, is anything to go by then very little benefit will accrue to the communities who will be affected by the project – $5 in every $1000 earned by the company.”
A Papua New Guinean journalist and postgraduate researcher, Henry Yamo, who is also a student at AUT University, has just returned from PNG, says there is widespread opposition to the deep sea mining in his country.
“While it is good for revenue generation, the general perception of the community is that they would not like the deep sea mining to take off because of concerns over the environmental risks,” Yamo said.
“Even though some media reports say the mining is safe, these reports have come from the government and the mining company. The public needs to actually see the reports themselves to see how safe the mining really is.”
According to the Pacific Studies Centre’s Dr Steven Ratuva, the Minerva Reef dispute is an early warning for the Pacific.
“When Tonga claimed the reef, it had officially been the ‘owners’, if you like, since the 1980s – since they had claimed it. Then after the law of the sea came into being in 1981, Fiji claimed that it was within its 200 mile economic zone,” Dr Ratuva said.
“It was not until 2010, when the Tongans went to plant a beacon on the reef, that the Fijian Navy came and blew it up. That caused a lot of diplomatic tension between the two countries. The Tongans went back and built another set of beacons.
“At the moment they are trying to sort out everything at the United Nations. The Tongan and Fijian ambassadors at the UN are trying to resolve it diplomatically.
“That kind of dispute is bound to increase in the Pacific, like the Cook Islands and Kiribati, which have just started discussing and sorting out their boundaries because apparently they have found a lot of minerals which cut across the border. So they want to avoid the Fiji-Tonga scenario.
“Digging underwater, you’re probably not aware you are in someone else’s territory, so that can be quite politically contentious because it is hard to define the boundaries.”
“With Papua New Guinea, that’s where the experiment is starting at the moment, in the Bismarck Sea, which is very close to the Solomon Islands.
“There is potential for lots of minerals around the border as well, so you are going to see the tension between the two countries, if PNG decides to explore and mine the minerals, because the border has always been porous – arms go from one side to the other.
“A lot of arms used during the Solomon Islands war actually came from Bougainville, because Bougainville used to be part of the Solomon Islands. In fact, it is very much a part of the Solomon Islands ethnically and culturally. “
“In the normal everyday relationship between the people of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, the border doesn’t exist. The boundaries are there – nice and neat on the map on the map, but how do you actually put the boundaries on the earth’s surface? In this case on the water?
“Even when you have the land boundaries, there are still a lot of disputes between countries defining the boundary.
“There has been speculation about the technology to carry out deep sea mineral mining since the 1980s, in fact earlier than that. This is the first time that deep sea mining technology will be tried out – it is an experiment.”
‘Wait and see’
Dr Ratuva said mining companies were “waiting to see if it works”.
“If it works, if it’s cheap, if it’s viable, if is sustainable, then they are going to jump into it and the Pacific is where most of the underwater minerals are.
“What you are going to see is the biggest mine in the world – which is really the Pacific Ocean – being used for mining,” Dr Ratuva said.
There are concerns that there has not been enough consideration given to the political consequences of deep sea mining.
“It is a very, very significant issue; there are a number of issues – the issue of environmental impact and the issue of political tension. That is something they haven’t really looked at. They have only been focusing on the technology and not so much on the political side of things, in terms of disputes over borders.
“The third issue is the issue of sustainability in terms of the environment.
“New Zealand has two types of drilling, the oil drilling, where there is a lot of opposition, and then you have deep sea mining. Apparently they have found a lots of nodules in the Tongan trench, towards Tonga, north of New Zealand. The deep sea trench, comes into the New Zealand waters, around Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand, you have lots of the mineral nodules,” Dr Ratuva said.
“New Zealand has billions of dollars’ worth of those minerals in its territory, so it will be watching what is happening in PNG with a lot of interest. If it works, Prime Minister John Key will probably say it’s time to pounce.”
Nautilus has also applied for two prospecting permits in New Zealand waters, covering an area of 56000 sq km in the Kermadecs.
The mining exploration applications are currently with NZ Petroleum and Minerals, (NZP&M), which is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
NZP&M manages the New Zealand government’s oil, gas, mineral and coal resources, known as the Crown Mineral Estate.
Environmental campaigner Dean Baigent-Mercer is extremely concerned about the New Zealand government’s “open for business” approach to mining. He says the nation is being misled with public relations campaigns.
“At the time of the Seabed and Foreshore legislation, politicians from the Labour and National parties had publicly created division between Māori and non-Māori by saying Māori legal action would lead to non-Māori being prevented from going to the beach.
“They claimed that if the seabed and foreshore was owned by the government it would protect the rights of access of all New Zealanders.
The truth was exposed when only weeks after the law was signed, seabed areas as large as of New Zealand had permits approved for oil and mineral prospecting.”
Baigent-Mercer said the government had nationalised the seabed for international corporate interests.
But he adds the recent “Aotearoa is Not For Sale” hikoi has brought the public together again to oppose the selling of public assets to corporate interests.
Karen Abplanalp is a Grey Lynn photographer, writer and contributor to Pacific Scoop.
Source: EMTV PNG