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Pacific alliance adopts moratorium on deep-sea mining, halting resurgent PNG project

A blue-ringed octopus in PNG's waters. Image by Jayne Jenkins / Ocean Image Bank.

  • The Melanesian Spearhead Group put in place a moratorium on deep-sea mining within its member countries’ territorial water in a declaration signed Aug. 24.
  • Leaders from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and an alliance of pro-independence political parties known as FLNKS from the French territory of New Caledonia said more research is needed to establish whether mining the seabed below 200 meters (660 feet) is possible without damaging ecosystems and fisheries.
  • The moratorium ostensibly thwarts the return of Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company, to Papua New Guinea and its Solwara 1 project in the Bismarck Sea, where it had hoped to mine gold and copper from sulfide deposits on the seafloor.
  • Proponents of deep-sea mining say that minerals found deep beneath the ocean are necessary for the production of batteries used in electric vehicles and thus are critical in the global transition away from fossil fuels.

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea — A moratorium on deep-sea mining established by a group of Pacific island nations has struck a blow to the Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea, once poised to be the first country in the world to mine the deep sea, and its operator, Canada-based Nautilus Minerals.

Leaders from the Melanesian Spearhead Group, comprising Fiji, PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and an alliance of pro-independence political parties known as FLNKS from the French territory of New Caledonia, issued the deep-sea mining ban in the Udaune Declaration on Climate Change. They signed the agreement Aug. 24 at the group’s meeting in the village of Port Havannah, Vanuatu.

In 2011, Nautilus was granted the first-ever deep-sea mining exploration license for the Solwara 1 project in the Bismarck Sea. For now, though, Solwara 1 can’t go ahead “[u]ntil technology and studies show that it can be done in an environmentally sensitive manner,” Prime Minister James Marape said Aug. 28, according to the online news outlet Loop Pacific.

“Papua New Guinea, as a responsible big brother in the region, we had to subscribe to majority views in the Pacific and we place a moratorium on deep-sea mining in the country,” Marape added.

The Solwara 1 project’s aim is to target gold and copper found in what are known as seafloor massive sulfide deposits that accumulate around hydrothermal vents, according to the website of Deep Sea Mining Finance Limited.

An elder speaking to the community of Kono on New Ireland’s west coast about deep-sea mining.
An elder speaking to the community of Kono on New Ireland’s west coast about deep-sea mining. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.

Proponents of the as-yet-untested practice say the minerals that could be harvested from the sea floor, at depths of 200 meters (660 feet) and greater below the ocean surface, are important components for batteries used in electric vehicles and thus the drive to abandon fossil fuel use.

But critics in PNG and around the globe say deep-sea mining could devastate fragile and still poorly understood benthic ecosystems, as well as the critical fisheries they support and on which many human communities rely.

The signatories of the Udaune Declaration said mining in one country’s waters could affect the territories of other countries. They called for more research on the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining, as well as a broader moratorium across the Pacific region.

The Alliance of Solwara Warriors, a group of NGOs, Indigenous communities and church organizations from several PNG provinces, has resisted deep-sea mining going back to the 2000s, just after Nautilus’s arrival in the country. They say they’re concerned about the impact on livelihoods, particularly along the coast of the island of New Ireland and are pushing for an outright deep-sea mining ban in PNG.

The alliance is suing the government for the release of key documents relating to Nautilus’s permission to operate in PNG. They plan to press forward with the case despite the imposition of this new moratorium, chief litigator Anthony Walep of the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), a PNG-based nonprofit organization, told Mongabay. Walep could argue the case before PNG’s Supreme Court as early as October, he said.

The project site is 25 kilometers (16 miles) off New Ireland’s coast. Community members told Mongabay in a recent visit that dead fish washed ashore when Nautilus began testing at the project site after it received its license in 2011.

Marape had announced that PNG would ban deep-sea mining for 10 years in 2019. Later that same year, Nautilus filed for bankruptcy and was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Deep Sea Mining Finance Limited “has full ownership of interests and rights to Solwara 1,” having acquired the project and related subsidiaries in 2019. Representatives of the company could not be reached for comment.

A diagram shows the processes involved in deep-sea mining for the three main types of mineral deposit
A diagram shows the processes involved in deep-sea mining for the three main types of mineral deposit (not to scale). Image by Miller et al., 2018 (CC BY 4.0).

On Aug. 1, Ano Pala, PNG’s minister for mining, confirmed to parliament that Nautilus was in the process of extending the three licenses the company holds and planned to return to PNG. Pala also said that Deep Sea Mining Finance had planned to do “concept testing” and “trial mining” later in 2023.

Pala did not respond to a request from Mongabay for comment.

“We don’t have any laws specifically on deep seabed mining,” Allan Marat, a member of parliament and former attorney general for PNG, told Mongabay. “That’s a danger.”

Prior to the MSG’s announcement, Marat had raised concerns about the potential impacts of the Solwara 1 project. He represents the township of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, which lies south of the project site.

“The coastal villages are dead against seabed mining,” owing to their worries stemming from the importance of fishing to their culture and their existence, he said.

In July, Canada joined a growing chorus of nations calling for a halt to deep-sea mining. But that move has led Marat and others to question why Nautilus, a Canadian company, would try an untested method with potentially detrimental consequences in another country’s territory.

“If this is safe, let them do it,” Marat said. “Let them test it in Canada.”

Banner image: A blue-ringed octopus in PNG’s waters. Image by Jayne Jenkins/Ocean Image Bank.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on X: @johnccannon

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Journalist Ian Morse and MiningWatch Canada’s research coordinator Catherine Coumans discuss the overarching implications of mining the deep seas, listen here:

See related coverage:

Deep-sea mining project in PNG resurfaces despite community opposition

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