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Unveiling Portugal’s Mineral Wealth: A Comprehensive Look at Deep-Water Mining Activities

In October 2023 parliament approved legislation which proposed a moratorium on deep-sea mining (DSM) in Portuguese waters until year 2050. In April a similar decision had been taken by the regional assembly in respect of the Azores. This has now been echoed by the European parliament which voted last month in favour of Resolution B9-0095/2024 which criticizes Norway´s recent decision to open vast areas of its Arctic waters for such activity.

Norway is comparable to Portugal in many ways; not least in regard to its long Atlantic coastline and possession on land of strategic mineral resources the full extent of which will not be known until geophysical mapping has been completed. However, the economy for the past fifty years has been almost entirely focused upon the product of the gigantic Ekofisk oilfield the profits from which have, by political consensus, been invested wisely for the social benefit of a population of just over five million people and its future generations.

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Now that geopolitical pressures are causing a de-escalation of the necessity for fossil fuels, the Norwegian government is pushing to attract and develop a “green” industry of energy transition which can benefit from the expertise gained in oil. This has not gone too well with, for instance, the cancellation of plans for an enormous factory for battery production. Instead, the Norwegians have returned to the ocean for their next industrial adventure and plan to exploit an area of 600,000 Km2 situated to the south of Spitzbergen where surveys have revealed estimated deposits of copper, zinc and cobalt (90 million tonnes) at depths of up to 6,000 m. in the vicinity of hydrothermal volcanic vents. Additionally, wafer thin crusts of manganese can be found on ridges and seamounts nearer to the coast of Norway at depths of less than 2,000 m.

Until quite recently, the theory has been that the deep ocean floor consists generally of lifeless mud but research now shows that there are abundant bacterial organisms, molluscs and sea sponges. Indeed, surveys of the seabed at 4,000 m. in the vicinity of the Titanic wreck, have shown the presence of Grenadier fish of a metre in length. These have fed on such organisms nurtured by the organic material, including cadavers, which was spewed forth after impact.

Mining contractors propose to recover these increasingly valuable materials by resorting to traditional dredging techniques used in shallow waters. This would require the building of large “container style” ships which would “vacuum” the ocean bed by using robot-tractors and pump the raw material to onboard machinery capable of cleaning and sorting before discharging waste back into the sea. Disturbance by this method would be catastrophic to the basic forms of life that survive in the manganese crust (which has taken millions of years to form), coral reefs, seamounts and silt. Norwegian environmentalists have been vociferous in condemnation of these intentions but a majority of the populace is in favour of granting concessions to miners if this will maintain their country´s position as one of the world´s wealthiest economies.

Oceans cover 70% of our planet´s surface. Of this, nearly 30% is under the jurisdiction of sovereign states who, theoretically, control coastal waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) which extend seaward for a maximum of 370 km. The remaining 40% is known as The Area or the High Seas and, since 1994, has been under the auspices of the U.N. appointed International Seabed Authority (ISA). To date, ISA has granted thirty exploration licences to commercial entities and research companies nearly all of whom are linked to the terrestrial mining industry and are chafing at the bit to become the novel operators of DSM.

This is especially so in the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone which occupies several million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico and is extremely rich in polymetallic nodules. These “treasures of the deep” are also present in the sovereign territories of numerous sparsely populated micro-states stretching over Polynesian archipelagos such as Tonga, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Nauru all of which are being courted by wealthy corporate contractors who want to set up off-shore companies in such jurisdictions most of which are without experience of international governance.

The world´s largest processor of metals, China, wishes to maintain and diversify its supplies and is opposing any moratorium on or suspension of DSM arguing that such actions are in breach of international law. This is supported by other major players such as India, Japan and South Korea who wish to commence extraction from The Area and, also, from EEZ. Such enthusiasm is shared with the USA but as a unique case because it is neither a member of ISA nor a supporter of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, it will maintain its considerable influence by working though North American corporations such as the conglomerate The Metals Company which is opening subsidiaries in island countries whose total GDP is probably less than the Company´s asset value.

Thus, one may surmise that the development of the DSM enterprise will mirror that of terrestrial mining with a sharp geopolitical division of a few very rich and many poor players competing for the necessities to combat Climate Change.

In the mid-Atlantic to the south of the Azores and in the vicinity of Madeira at depths of up to 6,000 m. research has revealed potentially rich fields of both polymetallic nodules and sulphide deposits. Some of these are located within the proposed extension of the continental shelf which stretches from the mainland to the islands and the already ratified EEZ thus bringing DSM within the orbit of Portuguese authority. The road to establishing such an industry is set with many obstacles which may be overcome legitimately in accordance with international law (i.e. the UN) but the risks of malfeasance in the processes is high.

For a clearer understanding of the perils, challenges and gains which the future of DSM may hold for the Portuguese economy, I would recommend a reading of the work project “A case study for deep sea mining: what is at stake for Portugal” which was released by the School of Business & Economics of the Universidade Nova in October 2022. The narrative includes an excellent analysis of recent political history and is supported by a number of clear diagrams. It may well be the key to opening the many secrets which are still contained in the locker of Davy Jones!


Source: The Portugal News

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