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New study sounds cautionary note on seabed mining prospects

Much was made of a recent discovery of significant rare earth deposits on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean. Some were even heralding the beginning of the end of China’s rare earth near-total monopoly.
Lending credibility to those cautioning against this sentiment, a new Canadian-led study published in the journal Geology concludes that “accessible supplies of deep-sea resources are not nearly as plentiful as previously believed,” reports the Vancouver Sun.

The study was centered around a copper-gold extraction project proposed by Canada’s Nautilus Minerals on the bottom of the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It found that while the deep seabed may hold massive amounts of minerals, accessible deposits of copper and zinc, for example, are “insufficient to satisfy a growing global demand for these metals.”

Extrapolating from the findings, one of the researchers concluded that while he thinks that seabed mining will happen eventually, “the oceans – at least on the neo-volcanic zones where people are presently exploring – are not going to make a major impact on the total availability of metals.”

Aside from the technical challenges of deep-seabed mining, there is the political challenge of clarifying who owns the seabed “commons,” as our very own Daniel McGroarty has pointed out. With a UN agency, the International Seabed Authority, exercising jurisdiction in a addition to nation-states nearest the claims, this is a scenario tailor-made for disputes and lawsuits.

Discoveries of mineral deposits are certainly fascinating, and may hold some promise for the future, when technological progress makes them more accessible, and extraction more viable.  For now, however, the order of the day should be to develop a coherent strategy to secure access to critical resources by focusing on the vast mineral riches beneath our soil.