In economics, nothing is more alluring than being on the right side of the law of supply and demand. Today, owning copper, along with some other metals commonly used in electronic devices, is certainly being on the right side. Thus, any prospect of acquiring copper has the industrial sector simply drooling.
And so, back in 2009, conservationists gaped in horror as Nautilus Minerals revealed the company’s new proposal to mine deep sea hydrothermal vent areas off of Papua New Guinea, where copper is abundant. So, they thought, here it is… THE APOCALYPSE. Biological communities will be ravished, the sea floor littered, and the oceans filled with pollutants. The ocean floor is one of the most impenetrable places on Earth, and conservationists were stunned at the prospect that mankind’s reach and greed would so soon extend to the deep sea.
Well, it is now 2015 and the biological world has not ended. Why? To the disbelief of the scientific community, Nautilus Minerals is, on its own accord, investigating how best to protect hydrothermal communities prior to beginning any drilling venture. In fact, Nautilus has arranged for numerous and ongoing collaborations with the leading deep sea researchers. The company is even working on how to establish “natural reserve areas” at their mining sites, as well as areas specifically made to foster the biological re-colonization of damaged vents.
That’s right! Scientists, who are ever skeptical of the intentions of big businesses, were actually impressed after reviewing the company’s environmental impact statement. But really, this must be all for show. After all, the bottom line is always profits, not the environment. Well, in this case, Nautilus actually needs to protect the environment in order to turn a profit. As the first company to embark in hydrothermal mining, they will be heavily scrutinized, and any mistake will lead to a loss of billions of dollars. At the moment, the people most invested in hydrothermal vents, and thus the ones who can give the thumbs up or thumbs down, are the scientists, and so they are the ones that Nautilus needs to convince. Further, The PNG government stands to make a fairly small profit off of this venture, and would simply shut down Nautilus as soon as profits or press turn negative. Even the native people of PNG can apply to shut down Nautilus’ plans if their natural livelihoods are impacted. So, Nautilus is actually walking on thumb tacks, and has to be extra careful to do everything right under the constant scrutiny of the scientific community.
OK, so why should conservationists be happy? The situation still looks like there will either be no impacts or really bad ones…so shouldn’t we try to shut it down rather than take the risk? Many people would agree with this statement, but one needs to consider why this proposal is so controversial in the first place: we know very little about the deep sea, and even less on how to protect it. The ocean floor is massive and researching deep sea systems requires insanely expensive equipment and expenditures, and so in 2009 we actually had no idea how deep sea mining may or may not impact the environment.
To even begin analyzing this issue, scientists need a continuous source of tons of money. And guess who has it? Yup, the private sector. With funding from Nautilus, scientists have been able to drastically increase our knowledge of deep sea systems at a previously impossible rate, and now are beginning to have a handle on how to conserve it. Therefore, so long as deep sea mining remains under the careful eye and judgment of the scientific community, conservationists should be excited by the prospect of researchers and the private sector teaming up, because it represents a break from the usual conservation nightmare of “if there’s money, screw the environment”. Perhaps, even, this partnership can be seen as a first attempt at a new business model of balancing profits, science and environmental safety.