The Final Frontier - Brazil may mine deep ocean floor in international waters

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On 21 July 2014, Brazil was awarded a 15 year grant of mineral exploitation rights in an area known as the Rio Grande Rise deep beneath the South Atlantic Ocean. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) approved a total of seven new applications for the exploration of the international seabed at the twentieth session of its Council in Kingston, Jamaica. Brazil becomes the first South American country to receive such an approval.

The ISA approval was the result of four years of studies, at a cost of over USD 60m, by Brazil's state geological research agency, the Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais (CPRM) into the geological potential of the Rio Grande Rise, a geophysical formation with relief amplitudes of up to 3500m on the ocean floor, located about 683 miles off the coast of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. The studies also benefited from a partnership between Brazil and Japan which allowed the CPRM to use a mini-submarine equipped with mechanical arms and high resolution cameras to collect samples from depths of up to 4,200m. Minerals found include cobalt, copper, nickel, niobium and tantalum. The final proposal outlined Brazil’s political, financial and scientific capacity to carry out a seabed exploration of the cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts off the Brazilian coast and was presented to the ISA in December of last year on behalf of the Ministry for Mining and Energy.

The ISA is an intergovernmental body set up under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to encourage and manage seabed mining. UNCLOS outlines the areas of national jurisdiction as a twelve-nautical-mile territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles and a country’s continental shelf. The international seabed area is defined as ‘the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction’ and has been declared the common heritage of mankind. Its mineral resources are administered by the ISA.

To date, the ISA has issued three sets of regulations* on the prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed, which together form the ISA’s "Mining Code". All rules, regulations and procedures are issued within the general legal framework established by UNCLOS and its 1994 Implementing Agreement relating to deep seabed mining. Although the United States now recognizes UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law, it has not ratified it for political reasons. UNCLOS places emphasis on the equitable sharing of benefits derived from the minerals of the international seabed. In the case of polymetallic nodules, under the so-called ‘parallel system’, an application must be sufficiently large and of sufficient value to accommodate two mining operations of ‘equal estimated commercial value’. One part is to be allocated to the applicant and the other is to become a reserved area. The reserved areas are set aside for activities by developing states or by the ISA through the Enterprise (an organ of the ISA, which may be established to carry out activities in the international seabed directly).

Although Brazil is the first South American country to receive an ISA approval, it is not alone in its enthusiasm for undersea mining in the region. The German institute IFM-Geomar announced it will make an oceanographic expedition in the South Atlantic later this year to investigate suspected mineral deposits already identified by the British and Chinese. Russia, currently active in the Pacific and North Atlantic, also wants to mark its presence in the South Atlantic. "If we fail to invest, we run the risk of having a foreign country extracting resources from the doorstep of our sea borders," warns Roberto Ventura, director of the CPRM. His agency is planning an investment of USD 11m over the first five years of the 15 year concession. The next step is the signing of the contract between the government and the ISA to initiate research.

The ocean floor is considered the last true frontier on the planet and scientists have described the extraction of mineral wealth from the deep ocean as perhaps the greatest challenge of the 21st century. The adage that mankind knows more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean may soon need to be reconsidered. The world’s demand for minerals continues to increase and more easily accessible terrestrial resources are being exhausted, pushing mineral exploration and development to even more inhospitable environments, from the Arctic to African warzones. Although underwater mining is technologically challenging and certain to be more expensive that mining on land, deep seabed resources often contain higher mineral concentrations than terrestrial alternatives. Supporters of seabed mining claim that it has a smaller socio-environmental footprint than land mining. However, many environmentalists have raised concerns over the possible impact of such complex, untried projects on the marine ecosystem.

While the concept of underwater mining initially focussed on collecting polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor, attention has now shifted to harvesting the cobalt-rich crusts of seamounts (underwater volcanoes). Remotely operated vehicles are used to collect mineral samples from prospective mine sites to be analysed for precious materials. Two main forms of mineral extraction are being considered for full scale mining operations: (i) a continuous-line bucket system; or (ii) a hydraulic suction system. Despite several international research programmes, the ISA believes that there is still some way to go before the extraction of such resources becomes a commercial reality.

Earlier this year, Toronto-based mining company, Nautilus Minerals, finalised an agreement with Papua New Guinea to open the world's first deep ocean mine. The project aims to extract ores of copper, gold and other valuable metals from a depth of 1,500m. Although the Canadians are currently leading the race, commentators believe they are still a couple of years away from starting production due to legal, technical and environmental issues.

Brazil will hope that its pioneering development of “pre-salt” oil and gas reserves from ultra-deepwater fields in the South Atlantic will give it an edge and result in know-how and technologies that can be applied to the extraction of minerals from the Rio Grande Rise and similar parts of the international seabed.

*Regulations on Prospecting and Exploration for Polymetallic Nodules in the Area (adopted 13 July 2000) which was later updated and adopted 25 July 2013;
Regulations on Prospecting and Exploration for Polymetallic Sulphides in the Area (adopted 7 May 2010); and Regulations on Prospecting and Exploration for Cobalt-Rich Crusts (adopted 27 July 2012).