The National, Thursday 23rd August, 2012
DEEP sea mining has risen to become a contentious issue in this country.
The clamour of protest from the people about the impending extraction of gold and other valuable minerals from the sea floor in the Bismarck Sea has increased in volume. As a mining venture taken by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals, this is a world-first.
As land-based mineral resources dwindle and with the rising prices for minerals, the rush to commercialise mineral deposits that exist in the sea’s benthic regions is on and PNG, fortunately or unfortunately, happens to be a frontier for this new-found interest.
To our knowledge, in the mid-1990s, polymetalic sulphide deposits were discovered in the waters off the coast of New Ireland and New Britain that were determined to be of high value. The area dubbed Solwara 1 is, as the name connotes, the first of several plots identified for development.
Although seabed mining can be lucrative with samples of copper deposits, for example, exhibiting up to seven times the concentrate levels that you would find in land sources, the process is very much fraught with risk.
It is far easier to see and track the effects of mining activity on land than it is for one that is happening 1.5km underwater.
In truth, despite the analysis and tests carried out by developers like Nautilus and various other agencies, no one knows with any certainty the likely impact on the immediate undersea environment and the wider implications of such an activity. We are the test subjects in this case.
This project may well have a detrimental effect on our fish stocks and other marine life. The livelihoods of Papua New Guineans who live off the sea could be put in jeopardy. There are too many variables that could end up being sacrificed for commercial expediency.
Unlike resource exploitation on terra firma, sea floor mineral exploration and development is an unknown. The question the PNG government and the people should be asking is whether there is a real need at this point to venture into the “abyss”.
Do the rewards outweigh the risks?
This country is endowed with a vast amount of natural resources, most of which are on the land. From gold and copper to nickel, petroleum and gas, there should be ample minable commodities on land to balance the national budget for years to come.
So, why then has the government seen fit to grant the permits for seafloor mining?
It sounds as if our leaders are keen on maximising every available resource for the sake of adding to the national coffers. But the costs of wanting more could end up costing much more. Perhaps, in this instance, they should pay heed to the call by the people who will most likely be affected by the project.
If the inhabitants of New Ireland, New Britain and Manus, and those along the Mamose coastline, are apprehensive about this project going ahead, why then is the government not taking their concerns into account?
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and his government have a duty of care to the nation and, furthermore, a moral obligation not to sell our welfare in the name of increasing the gross national product. No resource is worth damaging our environment and causing irreparable changes.
The prudent action to take would be to hold off developing this resource until such a time as we can determine conclusively the risks and advantages involved, something no government has done with any resource development in this country to date to our eternal shame.
With improved technology, protective legislation, wider indepth studies by independent researchers, and acceptance by the people, deep sea mining could be a reality. That time may come in a matter of two to three years, or, it could take decades.
But we owe it to our coming generations not to short-change their future by allowing something untried and untested to proceed.