6 Jun 2013

Sea bed minerals expert says time is right for rare earth mining

4:53 pm on 6 June 2013

An expert in sea bed minerals says 'heavy rare earth' deposits in the Pacific are some of the richest in the world.

The lucrative metals, used for magnets and other items in modern technology, are in great supply in Melanesia, as well as the muds around French Polynesia.

Dr Allen Clark, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii says despite risks of damage to the ecosystem, China's market dominance and new mining capacities means the time is right for the Pacific sea bed to yield its riches.

Dr Allen Clark spoke to Alex Perrottet earlier:

ALLEN CLARK: Papua New Guinea down to the Solomon Islands and over to Fiji, In those areas they all have these gold-bearing deposits. And these things are truly very, very high-grade. Compared to on-land deposits they're amongst the richest that we've seen, including those on land. So the economics of them pretty much dictate that you have the opportunity to go in, and they are a potential rich source of revenue and development potential for the islands.

ALEX PERROTTET: Why is this becoming a big issue now? Is it because of the discovery of them or is it because it's more likely that countries will actually start getting licenses and mining for these minerals?

AC: I think the most important one right now is there's been this very long, dramatic increase in base metals, particularly for nickel, cobalt, lead and zinc, and an unbelievably rapid increase in the price of gold and silver. And these happen to be the major commodities that are associated with both the polymetallic nodules and the gold-bearing mass of sulphides in Papua New Guinea and around the Pacific islands. The other one that has been particularly driving this system is a very large increasing demand for these metals largely fuelled by China. That's also been the driver for the price increases. And I think the other thing that's most important is that we have over the last few decades gotten tremendous experience in deep ocean exploitation from the oil and gas industry. And a lot of these capacities that have been developed by the oil and gas are largely applicable in the mining industry.

AP: There's been a lot of talk about what might be on the sea bed around France's Exclusive Economic Zone, particularly French Polynesia, and just what France might or might not do.

AC: I don't think it will turn French Polynesia into a major source of rare earths competing with China by any means, but China has basically been trying to manipulate the rare earth market. And this has driven other countries to look for other areas for rare earths. And it certainly has the potential to dramatically impact their economy and the workforce, et cetera.