Marine Mining: The Strip Mining of the 21st Century

We saw this coming. In 2009, when I spoke on Capitol Hill, I raised the issue of the potential consequences tied to the rapidly developing sector of marine mining. Raking the largely unexplored depths of the deep ocean to extract minerals, including gold, carries with it countless environmental risks. When our knowledge of hydrothermal vents, which are home to numerous species of animals and microbes living in a part of the ocean that biologists once assumed was barren, is so limited, caution and restraint should be our guide.

But when there’s profit to be had, mining companies the world over are prepared to sacrifice our natural world in an effort to please stockholders. This week, the government of Papua New Guinea granted Nautilus Minerals a 20-year license to commence the Solwara 1 project, the world’s first commercial deep sea mining operation. Nautilus will mine an area 31 miles off the coast of the PNG island of New Britain, in waters over 5,000 feet deep. The ore extracted contains high-grade copper and gold. Nautilus contends marine mining these deep ocean nodules is “a little like the mining equivalent of cutting grass.” Most environmentalists would disagree. But mining companies the world over are watching closely as this last frontier on planet earth is finally within their grasp.

In the 19th and early 20th century, mining companies like Peabody Coal stripped away trees, rocks, hills, and mountains across the United States, in an effort to extract coal. To this day, the scars of this devastation remains across much of the coal belt, including areas here in Illinois. With the ocean, while the visual effects of mining are well beyond our normal sight, the scars may be just as severe and the impact actually far greater, as we are only beginning to learn just how much we depend on the ocean’s health and how closely tied deep ocean vents are to life on this planet.