There’s a new frontier soon to open in the endless search for resources, deep under the water at a time with little regulation or environmental protection. Papua New Guinea may soon be moving forward with untested technology, exactly the country that can least afford it, after being shafted by multinationals for decades (something I examine in a forthcoming book and film on disaster capitalism).
But the prime minister has chosen an American defence company – Lockheed Martin – to spearhead the drive to collect from the depths of the ocean the copper, nickel and rare earth minerals used in mobile phones and solar panels.
Russia and China also have licences to “mine” the ocean bed but Cameron said on Thursday: “With our technology, skills, scientific and environmental expertise at the forefront, this demonstrates that the UK is open for business as we compete in the global race.”
Speaking at a launch at the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands, he said talks were already under way with a potential supply chain of up to 100 British companies, even though the main activity will take place off the west coast of America.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has, in partnership with UK Seabed Resources – a newly-formed subsidiary of Lockheed – obtained a licence and contract to explore a 58,000 sq km area of the Pacific Ocean for mineral-rich polymetallic “nodules”.
These rocky chunks, the size of a tennis ball, will eventually be scooped up using a seabed harvester and then broken up to release the minerals, if all goes to plan. Lockheed claims to have discovered riches in that particular area off the US coast after a bizarre hunt in the 1970s for a lost Russian submarine paid for by eccentric US billionaire Howard Hughes.
The defence and aerospace group is keen to stress that its extraction measures are different from the deep-sea mining techniques that have been proposed by others and which have enraged environmentalists.
It also argues that the nodules containing rare earth minerals found on the seabed have little of the uranium content that has also been a brake on terrestrial mining in places such as Greenland.
“Environmentally responsible collection of polymetallic nodules presents a complex engineering challenge but our team has the knowledge and experience to help position the UK at the forefront of this emerging industry,” said Stephen Ball, the British-born chief executive of UK Seabed Resources and of Lockheed Martin UK (a company that is part of the managing consortium of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston as well as being a key Ministry of Defence contractor.)
The science minister, David Willetts, also present at the project launch, said the UK should benefit from already being a leader in underwater robotics and autonomous systems used in the development of North Sea oil and gas.
Ball was more cautious than the prime minister about the potential to create thousands of jobs and bring in more than £1bn a year from the industry, saying he was not too keen on “aspirational promises”.
And while he was keen that British companies should be engaged in future deepsea production, he said they would only be chosen if they were better than the competing foreign firms.
Currently the licence obtained from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) gives the UK government and Lockheed the right to explore but not extract, so a second licence would be required for that. And before any mechanical harvester is built, there will have to be a thorough environmental study, which could begin this summer.