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World's First Deep-Sea Mining Project Gets Approval

Once we’ve mined all the land, it’s time to turn our attention to the bottom of the ocean. But the bottom of the ocean is under miles of water, so the prospects for disaster are enormous.

Try as we might, humanity just can’t stop consuming non-renewable resources. It’s a quandary that has us literally searching high and low for new resources to mine. A Google-backed asteroid mining venture is rapidly getting off the ground, and now Papua New Guinea has approved the world’s first commercial deep sea mining project, dubbed Solwara 1. But while it doesn’t really matter if an asteroid gets trashed during a resource-harvesting project, there are consequences to mining the seabed.

The venture, which is being spearheaded by Canada’s Nautilus Minerals, now has a 20 year license to operate nearly a mile underwater off the coast of New Britain, an island in Papua New Guinea. According to its website, Nautilus will be the first company to commercially explore massive sulfide deposits on the seafloor, which can harbor high grade copper, gold, zinc and silver.

Steve Rogers, the CEO of Nautilus, told the Guardian that he’s not concerned about environmental impacts: "This will be a relatively small footprint compared to a mine on land, on an area about the size of a dozen football pitches…This isn’t in a fishing area and won’t impact coral. Even if it were in a fishing area, it won’t affect that upper area where the fish are."

Not so, says the Deep Sea Mining campaign, which is protesting the Solwara 1 project. The group is concerned that deep sea mining could hurt undiscovered organisms lurking around the seabed, while toxic sediment plumes could harm all sorts of marine life—and eventually, the humans that eat them.

Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, campaign coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining campaign in Australia, explained in a statement: "Investors should be aware that contiguous nature of the ocean means that impacts will not be isolated to the 11 ha area of the Solwara 1 site…For example, stocks of tuna and other migratory species are likely to be contaminated by heavy metals and health of communities and ecosystems across the Pacific could be affected."

If the Solwara project is successful in its initial stages, there are more deep sea mining projects waiting to get started. Nautilus is applying for or has exploration rights in Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Zealand, according to the Deep Sea Mining campaign. DeepGreen Resources, another Canadian company, plans to begin mining the seabed between Mexico and Hawaii by 2020. It’s possible that there will never be a deep sea mining accident and the ocean’s ecosystem will remain unharmed—but considering how many human-bred accidents have walloped the ocean just in the past few years, that’s unlikely.