New Zealand leads race for deep sea mining

By Efrosini Costa

New Zealand leads race for deep sea mining
New Zealand has been thrown into the international spotlight as it decides whether to approve underwater mining of it's ocean floor.

If the country gives the green light for the project it would become the world’s first commercial metals mine at the bottom of the sea.

The momentous decision could also have a knock on affect for other companies hoping to mine the ocean’s largest natural resource of metals and minerals like copper, cobalt and magnese.

New Zealand’s location places is along the outskirts of what is known as the Pacific Rim of Fire, a large series of submarine or underwater volcanoes that encircle the Pacific Ocean. Coinciding with the edges of world’s main tectonic plate, the Pacific Plate, The Ring of Fire is home to almost 500 volcanoes – 75 per cent of the world’s most active – hence why 90 per cent of all earthquakes occur along this line.

Estimated to be as deep as 6,000 metre below sea level, a bed of volcano ‘crusts’, black smoker chimneys and beds of magnese nodules the active volcanic area is like a of ‘goldmine’ of untapped resources that hold much promise for bordering nations like economic powers China and Japan as well as poor Pacific Island states like Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.

In fact, the Cook Islands will put seabed exploration licenses up for bid later this year. According to geoscientists the 750,000 square kilometres of it’s territorial waters are home to 10 million tonnes of mineral nodules the size of potatoes and rich in cobalt and magnese

“If only 10 percent of that resource can be recovered it will be one of the largest mineral deposits ever discovered. It is a world class mineral deposit,” reads the Cook Islands National Seabed Minerals Policy.

The push to explore the ocean bed is gaining much momentum as resources on land decline and demands for metals in high tech applications grows. However, there are technological hurdles scientists fear.

“Deep sea mining is coming faster than the scientific community can monitor it,” Carlos Duarte, director of the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute, told reporters.

Trans Tasman Resources is the New Zealand company that hopes to begin iron-ore dredging off the country’s west coast.

The organisation hopes to start mining as early as 2016. Trans Tasman already has a mining licence but needs marine consent from New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – which regulates mining in the country’s territorial waters – to go ahead.

But the potential impact on the sea could be the biggest hurdle standing in the way of having such a project approved.

The Trans Tasman project would consist of using a ‘crawler’ machine, which is likened to a giant vacuum, to cut up 11 metres of New Zealand’s sea bed. Material uncovered is then pumped onto a processing plant on a ship where the iron ore is separated from the material using magnets.

While the company maintains its technology is “less destructive” than other methods, conservation groups and environmentalists want the EPA to reject the application.

“There’s not enough understanding of the marine environment, what occurs out there physiologically and ecologically, to engage in this activity. We want a moratorium until we understand things better,” Phil McCabe, spokesperson for Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, told reporters.

McCabe says mined sediment put back into the ocean by the company could be carried far and wide by currents in the ocean in an area where whales and dolphins are known to migrate and where fish spawn.

As the world looks on, many other companies hoping to cash in on the deep sea exploration are anxiously waiting in the wings to begin similar mining ventures.

What do you think? Should Trans Tasman be given the go ahead by New Zealand authorities? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.


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