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Science, People & Politics, Volume I (i-iii), volume iii, issue 2, March-April 2008.

Deep sea-bed mining

by Helen Gavaghan

If Gordon Brown needs a test case to justify his desire to reorganise the United Nations and its family of related intergovernmental organisations he could do worse than to look at sea-bed mining for minerals around deep-sea vents and mounds to ask how might that venture be guided to productivity without causing a global disaster.

Currently prospecting for minerals from the seas is a private venture. It was not on my personal radar screen before 2006 when a press release from Nautilus Inc. popped into my email box. I am actually too young to recall when the issue first hit the science press in the 1970s, or to recall CIA shennanigans using, purportedly, such activity as a cover for Cold War related actions, some connected with submarines. And I missed the New Scientist story on the topic that somewhat excitedly ran under the headline "there's gold in them there oceans - or seas". I forget the precise wording. I do recall that the story was uncritical of the mining process, which one of the editorial advisors to Science, People & Politics calls akin to opencast mining.

Now that is an emotive phrase, the phrase of a campaigner against an action, though I doubt that was his intent. It is a phrase that conjures a dirty process to mind and not a suite of associated environmental safeguards. At least to me that is what the phrase says, and previous deep-sea mining exercises have been accompanied by machinery accidents. Could future accidents redistribute ecosystems unwisely, take microflora and fauna from their habitats and launch them on currents to inhospitable parts? Think about the invasion of these islands by the American grey squirrel. What do krill eat? Recall that recent work shows they live at deeper depths than previously thought. Would the odd redistributed ecosystem bother them, staples as they are at the bottom of the world's food chains. Ought we to be worried?

After all, the oceans and seas are layered. So there are some natural barriers to the redistribution of even churned up microorganisms.

And the minerals being mined are copper, gold, silver and zinc - at least in this case. Newly emerging economies need resources and a basis for their wealth. We still use money, and money still makes the world go round. So the wealth of nations versus the odd redistributed ecosystem hangs in the balance.

Tugging at my mind, though, is the question of what is really in it for the countries granting licences for corporations to mine in their territorial waters. Take Papua New Guinea which has granted licences to Nautilus Inc. Well there is money for them in the short term. Will there be long-term jobs and associated corporate investment in the local economy? Are the countries' needs in the immediate present likely to take resources that could be realised more fully over a longer time-span and so bring greater benefit to Papua New Guinea, or did the country structure its deal so that it had two bites at Nautilus and would benefit once the development work planned by the company from 2009 to 2010 was complete? Don't know. Don't know either whether if PNG was a member of the Organisation for Economic Development it might have had a stronger hand when dealing with Nautilus.

What issue might have been uppermost for the Papua New Guineans? How to raise revenue, educate and fund their people, provide jobs etc... That is a rough guess on my part. But maybe they would like to think of another nation as it sought to carve out a niche for itself in its world. Close to bankruptcy in many of its towns and cities and with food shortages and transport problems (not enough food to feed the horses): the United States, on emergence from its war of independence from Great Britain, strove to feed its people, wrestled with slavery and Thomas Jefferson jotted some numbers on the back of an envelope. He figured that for a rate of interest of 7.5% on a loan of $1 million he would need to raise an annual tax revenue of $100 000 if he were to repay the loan in 20 years. Not sure how that would play out at the World Bank and OECD, but if they can find someone to fill in the application forms perhaps it would be worth PNG discussing the numbers as the revenue from mining licences is paid to their government.

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This url was edited lightly by Helen Gavaghan on 25.07.2020 for inclusion in a new pdf of collected early writings in this magazine. Updates and further context will be added to items.