The participation of African States is crucial as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) undertakes the task of preparing the rules and regulations for the future exploitation of deepsea minerals, ISA deputy to the secretary-general Michael Lodge has said.
Speaking at the ‘Exploration and Exploitation of Deep Seabed Minerals Resources in the Area: Challenges for Africa’ seminar, which was held in Pretoria, in March, he expressed concern over the lack of participation by African States in the seabed mining space in recent years.
He noted that, of the 26 deepsea exploration contracts approved by the ISA to date, 14 were with contractors sponsored by the Asia-Pacific States, seven with contractors sponsored by Western European States, four with contractors sponsored by Eastern European States and one by the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States.
However, no application sponsored by an African State had yet been received.
He said that this was worrying as the “successful completion of the [deepsea minerals] exploitation code cannot be done without the effective participation of African countries”.
Meanwhile, Deputy Mineral Resources Minister Godfrey Oliphant said at the event that African countries had to share in the potential benefits arising from seabed mineral exploitation, as well as the relevant marine research projects and their results.
He noted that it is important to be fully aware of the opportunities for capacity building and technology transfer provided by contractors as part of their obligations for international deep seabed mineral exploration.
“The marine environment is particularly important to Africa and its people. As the world’s second-biggest continent, Africa’s total length of coastline, including its islands, is more than 26 000 nautical miles,” he said.
Oliphant noted that 38 African countries were either coastal or island States, and the development agenda of the African Union promoted human capital development and an improved standard of living.
The international deep seabed area comprises about 260-million square kilometres, compared with 85-million square kilometres of exclusive economic zones.
“The next few years are likely to be critical to the realisation of the common heritage of mankind, particularly because of the drafting of the exploitation regulations,” said Lodge.
Seabed prospecting and mining for minerals in South Africa are currently subject to the general minerals regime under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, says law firm Norton Rose Fulbright director Lizel Oberholzer.
“A company wanting to undertake seabed prospecting must apply for a prospecting right and, thereafter, if it is determined during this stage that commercially viable mining is possible, the company must also apply for a mining right and a permit,” she tells .
Oberholzer adds that, to qualify for these rights and permits, a company must, among other things, satisfy the Minister of Mineral Resources that it has the financial and technical capabilities to conduct operations and that the particular mineral can be mined optimally.
“The company must also carry out an environmental impact assessment and have an acceptable social and labour plan in place.”
She adds that seabed prospecting might be precluded by the marine-protected areas that the Department of Environmental Affairs intends to propose for 5% of South Africa’s exclusive economic zones.
Legislation further allows for established mining operations to continue under controlled circumstances within a protected area, although further exploration is precluded, says Oberholzer.
“International investors interested in seabed mining would also be apprehensive about the legislative uncertainty currently affecting the mining industry in South Africa, especially in view of the considerable costs involved in these operations.”
Challenges and Opportunities
The first pioneer prospecting licences in deep seabed mining will expire in early 2016, making the development of the proposed Mining Code particularly urgent. Expiry of these licences might signal the start of actual deep seabed mining, which can potentially cause real and irreversible damage to the marine environment.
In this regard, the ISA has a crucial role to play to ensure a precautionary approach and full adherence to all the relevant provisions under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea by all role-players.
However, international demand for minerals continues to increase and some terrestrial resources are being depleted. In addition, deep seabed resources often contain a higher concentration of valuable minerals than the terrestrial alternatives.
Mining Weekly reported last year that many of the metals contained in seabed deposits are considered “technology metals”, as they were increasingly being used in high-technology industries, including electronics and clean technologies, such as hybrid cars and wind turbines. Unlike the generally well-studied, land-based deposits, many of these resources are yet to be discovered.
During a 2014 session, the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission prepared draft regulations for the exploitation of polymetallic nodules in three areas – which were approved for deep seabed exploration.
The ISA has granted 14 of its 166 member States exploration licences in these three areas. Five other exploration plans have been approved by the ISA Legal and Technical Commission, but have not yet been concluded in the form of a contract, while a further seven exploration plans are being considered by the commission.
China, South Korea, Germany and India are among the States prospecting for polymetallic nodules and sulphides in the Central Indian basin and the Indian Ridge, to the far south-east of South Africa.
They are part of the international seabed mining exploration projects looking for polymetallic nodules along enormous undersea ridges, vast abyssal plains and geological fault lines in the Central Indian basin of the Indian Ocean, north-east of Mauritius and Réunion, and in the Equatorial North Pacific Ocean, south-east of Hawaii.
Meanwhile, exploration for polymetallic sulphides is being undertaken in the mid-Atlantic Ridge of the Atlantic Ocean and in the south-west Indian Ridge, south of Madagascar. Polymetallic nodules are deposits or accretions partially buried in deep seabed sediments that contain manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper.
Polymetallic sulphides often precipitate from deep-sea hydrothermal vents along the mid-ocean ridges and contain copper, zinc, lead, gold and silver.
Deep seabed mining licences to explore for cobalt sulphides, manganese nodules, poly- metallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts have been awarded to various international mining companies.
Further, commercial companies have been granted rights by several countries, including Ghana and Papua New Guinea, to mine the seabed in their exclusive economic zones for gold, silver, zinc and copper using dredging, mining, and oil and gas equipment and techniques.
In Southern Africa waters, diamond company De Beers, coastal mining company Panda Marine and South African State-owned Alexkor mine diamonds from the coast and seabed on the West Coast.
Off the coast of Papua New Guinea, Canadian deep seabed miner Nautilus Minerals – the first company to receive an ISA exploration licence – found that indicated mineral resources contain 7.2% copper, 5.0 g/t gold, 23 g/t silver and 0.4% zinc, with inferred mineral resources of 8.1% copper, 6.4 g/t gold, 34 g/t silver and 0.9% zinc.
EDITED BY: LEANDI KOLVER CREAMER MEDIA DEPUTY EDITOR