The machines that scrape the ocean bed looking for minerals.

Deep-sea mining in Azores: will it ever happen?

The civic movement focused on freeing Portugal from the threat of gas and oil prospection believes it has another fight on its hands – one that we can barely comprehend, but which a Canadian mining company has been gunning for for years.

Público explained in 2012 that Nautilus Minerals was “in negotiations” with Portugal over the rights to mine deep into the seabed around the Azores.

Nautilus was “poised” to start its first deep-sea mining project at the time, 15,000 miles away in Papua New Guinea. The Azores would be next, said Público – but what has happened since has involved a welter of bureaucracy and fears over the environmental consequences of deep-sea mining.
To this day, the Papua New Guinea project has yet to move forwards. But it is now looking highly likely that this could happen by 2018.

Conservationists and environmentalists here believe this will re-ignite the race to claim the rights to mine off the Azores.

The President of Partex Oil & Gas – one of the companies with concession rights to drill off Portugal’s coast – was interviewed earlier this year, and told Económico website that the resources off the archipelago could yield minerals that are “strategically fundamental”.

“There is a Canadian company, the largest in the world in this area of marine resources, Nautilus Minerals, that wants to develop our resources”, António Costa Silva explained.

“The problem is that it has become a prisoner of conflicts between the regional government, the government and the burden of existing bureaucracy.
“Companies come and we end up blocking their interventions”, he said.

According to other sources, there could be very good reason for this.

The National Geographic explains that although the bottom of the world’s oceans may contain “vast supplies of precious metals and other resources, including gold, diamonds and cobalt”, the nitty-gritty is how to ensure that what looks like an approaching new gold rush “doesn’t wreck the oceans”.

In the case of the Azores, there is the added concern that the area is notorious for earthquakes – the flip-side of being so potentially rich in minerals.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle warns that what is about to happen is “an invisible land grab” that will be the undoing of us all.

“The rationale for exploiting minerals in the deep sea is based on their perceived current monetary value”, she explains in an article that went out in July. “The living systems that will be destroyed are perceived to have no monetary value”.

But, she asks: “Will decisions about use of the natural world continue to be based on the financial advantage for a small number of people despite risks to systems that underpin planetary stability – systems that support human survival?”

To give an idea of the numbers involved, writing on how “people have dreamed of harvesting riches from the seafloor for decades”, National Geographic journalist Brian Clark Howard explained in an article last month that “there is enough gold on the seafloor to give every person alive nine pounds, scientists estimate. That would be worth about $150 trillion, or $21,000 a person”.

In the Algarve earlier this year to hear concerns of the anti-oil lobby, Euro MP Caroline Bearder suggested “the current interest in gas and oil by oil companies could very well be a blind for deep-sea mining. We just have to watch them very carefully”.

For now, the Algarve’s anti-oil campaigners are posting information on social media and “trying to wake people up”.

A post today by ASMAA, Algarve Surf and Marine Activities Association, elicited a comment: “There is still time to sign the petition demanding for our voices to be heard”, referring readers to a Portuguese petition on the public petitions site urging debate in the regional assembly on various trade deals signed “in secret” between the EU, Canada and the US and which were only finally made public in February.

The petition ( talks of “a notable lack of transparency by MPs elected by citizens and civil society which contrasts strongly with the enormous influence exercised during the drawing up of the agreements by lobbyists representing industries and financial institutions”.

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Photo: from Mike Smith
In National Geographic (July 21, 2016) Sylvia Earle described these machines as “the size of small buildings poised to begin a campaign of wholesale destruction”