Deep-sea mining is floundering. The leading company in the race to mine the ocean floor has fallen out with its host government, while other projects have been delayed until the environmental effects are better understood.
In 2011, Papua New Guinea gave Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals a licence to mine a field of hydrothermal vents in its waters, called Solwara 1, provided the country could buy a 30 per cent stake. The vents contain high-grade metal ores, including copper that is far more concentrated than most land-based deposits.
Scientists say the vents need more study first. “We don’t know enough about the ecology, the ecosystems and the resilience of these systems,” says Joanna Parr of CSIRO in Sydney, Australia.
Now Nautilus claims Papua New Guinea hasn’t paid up, so it is ending the agreement and suing for damages.
Race to the bottom
Meanwhile some governments are delaying deep-sea mining for ecological reasons, says Parr, with moratoria off the coasts of Australia and Namibia.
“Governments are realising this isn’t just a flash in the pan,” she says. “It’s something that is building towards an industry.”