Waters off Papua New Guinea are proving to be a testing ground for a world-first attempt to extract metallic minerals on a commercial basis from the ocean floor 1,600 meters below sea level.
Efforts are under way to exploit what is referred to as the "third major natural resource" following crude oil and natural gas.
The project is being undertaken by Canada-based venture company Nautilus Minerals.
The company aims to mine gold, copper, silver, zinc, and other precious metals.
The estimated amount of deposits in the mining area marked for exploitation is 1.54 million tons. The company expects to start production in 2014.
Construction began in April on equipment that will be used for the project, one that has drawn considerable attention among industry insiders.
Investors include major resource companies Anglo American of Britain and Teck Resources of Canada.
It has long been known that this part of the ocean floor is rich in resources, but extraction technology had been considered inadequate and expensive, rendering commercialization unfeasible.
But two things have since come into play: technological advancements and soaring prices of natural resources in recent years.
"Depending on the quality and amount, (deep sea mining) can now pay for itself," explains Koichi Nakamura of the National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology (AIST).
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Japan may rank only 62nd in the world in terms of land mass, but it is being eyed as a top class prospect in terms of the volume of rare metals deposits in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), for which it possesses resource exploitation rights.
In particular, the waters around Okinawa Prefecture and the Ogasawara island chain, where several hydrothermal vents have been discovered on the seabed, are comparatively shallow. They lie at depths of between 700 and 1,600 meters. This means it is relatively easy to start commercial mining operations there.
The mining companies believe that dissolved metals in the hot water pumped out of the vents are being cooled by the sea, and accumulating in large amounts on the ocean floor. According to some calculations, the deposits could be worth around 80 trillion yen ($1.016 trillion).
Foreign mining companies are taking a keen interest in Japan's seabed resources, and vying to be the first to secure rights to exploit its waters.
In February 2007, the Japan subsidiary of a British corporation applied to the Japanese government to establish mining zones for metallic minerals in nine marine areas and 133 locations within Japan's EEZ. The following year, it applied for a further 405 locations.
This rattled the Japanese government.
Regardless of whether the technology to exploit these zones existed, it meant that a system was in place in which the first party to make an application was given priority in mining zone acquisitions.
"If we had left things as they were, there was a risk the companies which existed only on paper for the purpose of securing mining zones would run rampant," says an official from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.
Applications were put on hold.
The Mining Act was only revised this year. Aside from adding clearance requirements based on the technological and financial ability of applicants, it was decided to give the government the power to select the party that will engage in resource exploitation.
Even so, domestic movement on the issue remains sluggish.
In 2008, the Japanese government established a project aimed at commercializing methane hydrate and seabed mineral resources by 2018.
Five years later, the volume of mineral deposits is still not known.
Japanese companies remain reluctant to engage in exploitation of seabed mineral resources because of the massive investments involved and the uncertain prospects.
"It's easier to talk about 'commercialization' than to actually accomplish it," said one executive.
It is true that resource exploitation is a hit or miss endeavor. Countries and companies that do not want to take on the risks often become involved by investing partially in more nimble venture companies. Nautilus Minerals is one example.
On the other hand, France is heavily involved in domestic exploitation.
Two years ago, the French government initiated resource surveys within its territorial waters in the South Pacific. According to an executive for a French company involved in the initiative, "The government is eagerly carrying out these surveys itself, which made the decision to become involved a lot easier."
The French model of resource exploitation being pursued by the government and the private sector in concert is the same as in Japan. However, as Japan Research Institute (JRI) director Jitsuro Terashima points out, "If the government doesn't display a strategic purpose and speediness by accomplishing commercialization, instead of viewing it as a public project, it makes it difficult for companies to be proactive about becoming involved."
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Japan attempted a public-private initiative that carried out mining surveys and extraction in international waters in the Pacific.
Drilling was done at 5,000 meters below sea level in a bid to exploit manganese and other mineral resources. However, the price of metals plummeted. The project ground to a halt after running for nearly 20 years and costing close to 40 billion yen.
Tetsuo Yamazaki, a Osaka Prefecture University professor who was involved in the project at the time as a mining technology expert, sees the current lack of enthusiasm for deep sea floor mining this way:
"There could be an awareness on the part of government that it can't afford to make another mistake like that."
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