A recent headline in my news reader caught my eye – “Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids.”  I thought for a moment that the article might be a joke.  It wasn’t.

The rising price of metals and rare earth minerals is driving a global mining frenzy, so it is not surprising that people are looking to exploit potential mineral resources in space.  Here on earth, ELAW is working with partners in at least 15 different countries on projects related to mining.  We review mining laws and provide recommendations for strengthening environmental and community protections, we conduct technical reviews of new mining proposals, and we provide assistance to advocates who are helping communities affected by mine pollution.  It seems that not a week goes by without a new mining-related project landing on someone’s desk.

Although asteroid mining only exists in imaginations of billionaires at this point, there is another new frontier for mining — deep seabed mining — which poses an enormous and imminent risk to our oceans.

It turns out that there are deposits of metals, such as gold and copper, near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.  One expert describes these vents as undersea hot springs where superheated, mineralized water rushes through the seabed and reacts with cold seawater to form chimney-like towers.  Only recently discovered in the last several decades, these vents are unique and relatively unknown ecosystems that flourish with life despite the lack of sunlight.  With improved technology, scientists are now able to explore and document the incredible creatures that live near these vents and they are discovering new species of fish, tube worms, crabs, and microorganisms.

There is still much to be learned about hydrothermal vents, but that is not stopping a handful of mining companies from rushing forward to mine metal deposits from the ocean floor.  ELAW partners in Papua New Guinea are opposing the world’s first commercial seabed mining operation by Canada’s Nautilus Minerals, Inc. that would strip deposits off the floor beneath the Bismarck Sea.  Other countries in the Pacific have issued seabed mining exploration licenses, or are about to.  Local communities are very concerned that seabed mining activities will cause significant harm to water quality, fisheries, and their economic livelihoods.

ELAW partner Effrey Dademo, and the non-governmental organizations Act Now! PNG and the Pacific Network on Globalisation, are hoping to mobilize public support for a petition that will be presented to Pacific leaders later this year asking them to take a precautionary approach to seabed mining.  Leaders in Australia’s Northern Territory have already heeded the call and issued a moratorium on seabed mining in coastal waters until 2015 so the impacts can be more closely studied before projects are considered.

Asteroid mining may seem unrealistic to some, but seabed mining is a real and imminent threat to our precious ocean resources.  It deserves global attention and concern before it is too late.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney