CIA Cover Story Gives Birth to Deep Ocean Mining

K-129, surfaced-Azorian (top); Polymetallic Nodules (bottom, USGS)

Resting deep on the seabed of the Pacific are two symbols of oceanic politics, one decaying as time ticks by; the other slowly growing at a pace measured in millions of years.

The first symbol is the salvage site of Soviet submarine K-129. Once it prowled the seas with three nuclear missiles, but suddenly she and her crew were lost to the depths. After sinking mysteriously in 1968, the diesel-powered submarine became the object of an expensive and elaborate operation of the Cold War. The Central Intelligence Agency and Howard Hughes devised a cover story about deep-sea mining to recover it secretly. The operation, run by former CIA Director William Colby, was trying to determine the state of Soviet nuclear weapons prowess. After a string of near mishaps, the mission recovered only part of the sub.

The other symbol is a widespread deposit of potato-sized rocks rich in manganese and other minerals. Called polymetallic nodules, these rocks were the original fictitious prey of the CIA’s cover story.

But today those nodules are the prizes of a very real, but hardly less complicated, search of the ocean floors. The stories of the sunken Soviet sub and the polymetallic nodules are intertwined in history, technology and politics. Deep-sea mining is on track to become a reality soon despite serious questions about its environmental consequences.

Azorian Rescue, drawing

The linkage began soon after the United States found the lost Soviet submarine. A CIA plan codenamed “Project Azorian” oversaw the design and construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship of unprecedented design and cost. The ship’s goal was to lift a 1,750-ton submarine, armed with nuclear missiles and torpedoes, off the seabed and into the belly of a huge ocean-going vessel.

The CIA buried the operation in code names like AZORIAN, DESKTOP and JENNIFER. Only a few years later, the very same ship that had pretended to look for deep sea minerals was in fact employed by Lockheed Martin to developed modern technology for pulling nodules off the seabed.

Now, after four decades of international treaty negotiations, scientific studies, technological progress and roller coaster-like business cycles of metal prices, the polymetallic nodules still sit silently on the seafloor. Interested parties around the globe are debating both economic and environmental concerns. But the interest in deep sea mining of these mineral resources is intensifying, and by 2016 remote controlled vehicles could be crawling the ocean floor environment, cutting into or scooping from the seabed, and pulling up ore that is richer in bounty than many mining resources that remain on dry land.

The polymetallic nodules are not the only treasure deep sea miners will be pursuing. Seamounts formed by underwater volcanoes and cobalt-rich crusts are also being studied intensively for commercial exploitation.

But many of these seamounts and crusts can be extremely abundant in marine life and are recognized as vital habitat for sea creatures at all rungs of the food chain.

The search for a balance between the economic opportunities of deep-sea mining and protection from the environmental wreckage that mining could create lies at the heart of a struggle that is playing out for new dominion of the ocean floors.

Deep Sea Riches, Deep Sea Challenges

Deep-sea mining research has had to solve many of the same problems faced by the CIA’s secret submarine recovery effort. Both have involved advanced technology that must perform remotely under extreme conditions. The Hughes Glomar Explorer project faced major environmental risks including exposure to damaged radioactive warheads. Further, the environmental risks of deep-sea mining to rare aquatic life are of serious concern to scientists, investors, regulators and environmentalists.

The differences between the operations inform how deep sea mining is evolving. First, salvaging Soviet submarine K-129 was, in the minds of the CIA, in essence a high-stakes game of finders-keepers, losers-weepers, especially if the finders did not get caught.

Today, laying claim to mineral resources on the bottom of the open seas has become a far more legalistic matter. Competent mining ventures must find state sponsors, who in turn must receive permission from a United Nation’s agency to explore or mine a zone in the seabed.

And while the secret CIA operation was as opaque as the inky depths of the deep ocean, modern deep-sea mining is supposed to be subject to a worldwide spotlight at every stage. The application process, the review and the issuance of permission are publicly announced, and results of many studies are published or discussed in scientific papers and advocacy statements.

Round after round of business shows and summits are sponsored and attended by some of the richest multi-national corporations in the world. Local, national and international citizen and environmental groups are keeping a close eye on potential damage to the ocean’s ecological well-being.

Yet, few minerals have been pulled from the ocean floor despite the heavy interest and investment. Those wary of the potential ecological damage of deep-sea mining say this slow pace is warranted.

The story of how it all got started sheds light on the challenges it still faces today.

Secret Agent Salvage Job – The Search for Lost Submarine K-129

USS Pueblo incident (www.lanl.gov)

The year 1968 was volatile in the Pacific. On Jan. 28 North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, an electronic surveillance ship. All major naval powers heightened their alert in the region.

Around the beginning of March, Soviet submarine K-129 left its naval base on the Pacific coast carrying a relatively new class of nuclear missiles. Called R-21’s by the Soviets or SS-N-5’s by the United States, these missiles gave the Soviets the ability to fire a nuclear missile from a submerged submarine.

After a week, K-129’s radio went silent, and the Soviets dispatched search missions in a futile attempt to find the submarine.

Meanwhile the U.S. Navy initiated its own search with sonar and underwater listening systems. After studying its archive of acoustical signatures, the Navy detected a suspicious implosion on March 8, 1968.

The Navy cross-checked this clue with other signals and pinpointed the sound near the 40th degree latitude and the International Date Line, 1,560 miles northeast of Hawaii.

The USS Halibut steamed to the area and, upon locating the sunken submarine, took 20,000 photos. The Soviets knew nothing about the discovery. The United States began planning a mission to recover K-129 and its missiles.

The ambitious strategy demonstrated the complications of gathering desired materials from deep ocean floors. It required a ship designed to lift and carry the 1,750-ton, 132-foot submarine in secret. Trap doors were to be constructed below the waterline, capable of opening in the middle of the ocean and allowing the ship to receive into its hold an entire military submarine. A huge claw at the end of a three-mile pipe system would grab the sunken sub and lift it to the waiting ship.

To build and launch the ship the role of Howard Hughes became vital. Hughes, scion of an oil equipment manufacturer, had a long history of backing bold and expensive government projects. His holding company, Summa Corporation, at the request of the CIA announced it would build a large ship to conduct deep-sea mining exploration.

In 1972, four years after the sub sank, construction on the recovery vessel began. It was called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, “Glomar” referring to the Global Marine Company that built the vessel. By mid-1973, the HGE was ready to sail to Long Beach, Calif., for its final provisioning.

The mission was so elaborate that secrets were engineered within secrets. In 1974 the Hughes Glomar Explorer sailed near Catalina Island and opened its underwater secret doors. A special-built submerged barge was waiting with the claw, which was lifted into the hold. Though the HGE could be seen from shore, the underwater operation could not.

Howard Hughes

A security breach arose in June 1974 when a thief broke into the Summa Corporation’s headquarters. Among the items stolen was a document linking Howard Hughes to the CIA operation.

Despite this risk of exposure, HGE set sail towards K-129’s wreckage site. Along the way several ships, including a Soviet tanker, expressed interest in its voyage. The cover story of deep-sea mining was persuasive.

When the HGE reached the wreckage spot and began its work, a Soviet tugboat arrived and started circling the HGE. After 13 days, the tugboat sailed away just as the claw was being readied to fetch the submarine.

Then, after six years of preparation and investment, a major disappointment occurred. As K-129 was being lifted on Aug. 8, 1974, it snapped in two. The section with the three ballistic missiles fell back to the sea floor. The forward section with nuclear torpedoes was pulled into the Hughes Glomar Explorer along with several bodies of Russian crew members. Also recovered was a treasure trove of technological manuals and papers detailing the operation of the missiles and torpedoes.

Disappointed, but nonetheless holding onto part of a Soviet sub, the HGE sailed home. As it turned out, the Soviet undersea submarine and her missiles were poor competition for the Navy’s far more devastating Polaris nuclear submarines that had been at sea since 1959.

After the Navy buried the bodies of the Soviet sailors at sea, the United States government found little remaining value in the complicated Hughes Glomar Explorer. No other agency would assume the expense of maintaining it.

The government offered it for lease as surplus property. In 1975 Lockheed Martin formed Ocean Minerals Company and leased it for $2 million in order to actually perform true deep-sea mining experiments. Lockheed’s partners included Royal Dutch Shell and Amoco.

Ocean Minerals Company’s work with the Hughes Glomar Explorer showed that a basic design of a remote-control underwater vehicle (in many ways a large vacuum cleaner that sucks up rocks from the ocean) would work.

And it all came as a follow on from the investment by unsuspecting U.S. taxpayers in the CIA’s secret mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine.

Treasures, both Natural and Economic, Beneath the Waves

The CIA’s deep-sea mining cover story was credible to the public because the ocean floors are in fact covered with great mineral wealth. People might have thought it characteristically eccentric of Howard Hughes to build an unusual ship to seek out these submerged treasures, but no one would have doubted the immense wealth in play.

It is estimated that polymetallic nodules hold 6 billion tonnes of manganese, many times more than all the deposits on land.

Polymetallic Nodule Distribution Globally (SOPAC)

Estimates of other mineral reserves are similarly gigantic. A recent study released in Japan estimated 80 billion tonnes of rare earth minerals lie in a nearby area of the Pacific. Even at small concentrations of 0.2 percent, one square kilometer of ocean seabed might yield one fifth of the world’s annual consumption of rare earth minerals, the Japanese researchers say.

Black Smokers (NOAA)

Further, a global web of small, black smoker volcanoes spew up a cornucopia of economically valuable resources every hour, spreading them widely on the ocean floor in what are called massive sulfide deposits.

And cobalt-rich crusts blanket wide areas of the ocean, holding a key ingredient for the information technology industry.

Nonetheless, these resources are extremely costly to remove, both in financial and environmental terms. Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars would be required to scour various terrains of the deep to get minerals. Given that metal prices are regularly subjected to high spikes and deep drops in price due to economic and other factors, the risk to investors is considerable.

Minerals Lie Throughout the Oceans

Manganese, in its commercially purest form, fetches around $1.30 per pound at the moment; and to purify it a company would have to bear the cost of retrieving it from three miles below the waves, handle it safely aboard a ship, transport it to land and process it.

Polymetallic nodules carpet the deep ocean floors. They have formed over millions of years as subtle chemical processes draw molecules from the seawater and sediment into the rocky structure.

The nodules contain about 27 percent manganese, a mineral used to harden steel. But they also contain about 1.5 percent of nickel and a similar amount of copper. Cobalt, critical to many modern electronic devices, is also present, but in concentrations of less than one percent. At today’s metal prices a metric tonne of these nodules could be processed into over $1,000 worth of marketable metal.

Just as the nodules contributed to the game of subterfuge in international politics in the 1970’s, they are playing a different high-stakes game of diplomacy now.

In the decades that intervened since the secret submarine hunt, the international community has negotiated a major UN-backed treaty that regulates transit on the high seas and mining in the international seabed. The UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNLOSC) went into effect in 1995 and has been signed by every major power except the United States.

The Law of the Sea treaty established an International Seabed Authority and gave it the power to delineate zones on the seafloor for mining and then to grant clear and legal title to mining operations that wish to extract the resources. The seabed minerals they regulate are regarded as “the common heritage of mankind,” as the treaty puts it.

The first major test for this common heritage will be in a major region for polymetallic nodules called the Clarion-Clipperton zone. Located to the southeast of Hawaii, the zone lies between two major fracture zones on the ocean floor. Between the ridges of the fractures lie millions of square miles of nodules.

The International Seabed Authority has issued 12 contracts for exploration of the Clarion-Clipperton zone for polymetallic minerals. Each contractor gets exclusive right to explore 58,000 square kilometers of seabed for the mineral. If follow-on licenses to extract the minerals are granted, the authority eventually would start collecting a royalty that would gradually rise to seven percent of the gross value of the minerals extracted.

Some environmental protection zones have been set aside in the Clarion-Clipperton area, and the ISA along with other institutes are building a library of scientific studies about potential environmental effects.

The interest in deep-sea mining circles the globe. Most exploration contracts right now are in the Pacific Ocean, but by no means are they limited to that vast water body.

Today some sea miners have been active off Namibia, looking for phosphate and diamonds at shallower depths. But the government of Namibia has placed a moratorium on phosphate mining in submerged areas pending more examination of the environmental effects.

But much larger deposits of many different types of valuable minerals are luring mining companies deeper and further out to sea around the world.

International Interest Is Growing

In the spring of 2016 some exploration contracts in the Clarion-Clipperton will expire, opening the possibility that the mining of polymetallic nodules could begin. Russia, China, Japan and France have all sponsored these explorations, but other countries such as Tonga, Nauru, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom have exploration contracts that last several years longer.

In 2017 India could be eligible to start nodule mining in the international seabed of the Indian Ocean.

The International Seabed Authority has also granted exploration contracts in the Southwest Indian Ridge of the India Ocean and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. And just in January it signed an exploration contract with Japan in the western Pacific Ocean. It says it expects to sign a similar one with China.

But some exploration licenses are granted by sovereign nations for sites under their control.   Nautilus Minerals Inc. is working towards mining in Papua New Guinea’s economic zone in the Bismarck Sea. It also holds exploration licenses with Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The Environmental Unknowns of Mining in the Deep

But despite all this exploration for the minerals, the overall environmental impacts of extracting nodules from the deep abyssal plain are still not fully understood.

UK Seabed Resources Ltd. is a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin UK, part of the company that once leased the Hughes Glomar Explorer to develop deep-sea mining technology. UK Seabed is one of the companies that holds an exploratory license in the Clarion Clipperton zone from the International Seabed Authority.

When presented with a list of questions about its activities and about seabed mining in general, UK Seabed declined to answer them for this article, saying their work was in the early stages and that it was not possible at this time to provide the level of detail implied by the questions.

“Current UK Seabed Resources efforts include the identification of environmentally responsible approaches and the economic feasibility of such efforts,” the company said through a spokesman. “Our first environmental baseline study, led by a world-class team of deep-sea ecologists and biologists, was completed last autumn.

“We are still developing our approach, which involves a number of British companies, research institutions and academia,” he said.

Matthew Huelsenbeck

Matthew Huelsenbeck, marine scientist with the non-profit Oceana, said that the unknowns of deep-sea mining are troubling. “It is challenging to permit exploratory actions when you don’t know what is there and you don’t know if there is economic benefit at all,” he said. “This is not a settled science.”

One example is the effect of stirring up sediment and debris that will float away and up from the seabed mining site towards the surface. A range of research has examined what happens when sediment dislodged by seabed mining floats towards or to the surface in the water columns of the ocean. First, there is evidence of toxic and heavy metal contamination in the seabed, Huelsenbeck said. “In deep sea mining you’re just stirring it all back up again. You are basically rehashing old problems.”

A close up view of tubeworms. These animals only live at hydrothermal vents. (NOAA)

Further nutrients from the ocean bottom get redistributed up the water column often increasing undesirable algal blooms. “You are not going to create a long-term ecological habitat,” Huelsenbeck said of this imbalance of aquatic nutrients. “It is boom and bust. It is likely to be harmful.”

There are other effects of releasing fugitive sediment and debris from sea bed mining. The cloudy sediment of the operation will rise into the water from the floor. Some of it will redeposit on the ocean floor, burying life under a sheet of silt. Other silt from the plume will rise in the water column. Potential effects would be to crowd out scarce oxygen at great depths and block sunlight when the turbid water reaches the surfaces.

Thermal Vents: Rich in Minerals and Rare Aquatic Life

Hydrothermal Vents (AJ Cann/flickr)

Thermal vents push out the mineral-laden sulfide deposits that contain as much as 25 percent zinc, in the best cases, but frequently holding 15 percent copper. Precious metals such as gold and silver also are present, sometimes in higher concentrations than land-based deposits.

These thermal vents have huge ecological value as well and are home to exotic creatures that have added greatly to scientific knowledge.

The ISA notes that more than 500 new species have been discovered around the vents that create the sulfide deposits. The ISA also said the black smoker vents are very important sources of marine life that adapt resiliently to “rapid environmental changes of a volcanically active area.”

“If this base population is destroyed by mining, however, the result could be the extinction of rare species,” the ISA said.

Richard Page

Richard Page, ocean campaigner for Greenpeace and co-author of a 2013 report on deep sea mining expressed concern about this vulnerability. “Many of these species are extremophiles and the genetic attributes that enable them to survive extreme conditions are of great interest to science and potentially medicine and so this is another reason for protection,” said Page. “Deep sea mining operations might even destroy species before they’ve been discovered and scientifically described.”

“We are only just learning about the communities around deep sea vents and both they and seamounts are known to host isolated communities and display a high degree of endemism – species unique to that location.”

Huelsenbeck of Oceana agreed. “We keep finding more and more species that we didn’t know about,” he said. “We could damage them irreparably.

“We have a long history of doing that,” he continued. “We’ve overfished a lot of species that we didn’t understand well.”

Page and Huelsenbeck are far from being alone in their concerns. For instance, when the government of the Northern Territory of Australia placed a moratorium on seabed explorations until 2015 it said, “Seabed mining is a new and evolving worldwide industry with a minimum number of generally accepted practice standards.

“The current paucity of information decreases the ability of the Minister to accurately assess the appropriate methodology for management of the industry, its development, and sustainability.”

Environmental Risk Documented by Scientists

The potential for damage of deep-sea mining has been documented from the days of the Hughes Glomar Explorer’s first voyages.

As early as 1977 the journal Marine Policy noted that mining would disturb marine life and that it would take a long time to reestablish. It also said the increased sedimentation would change the chemical composition of the water, and thus alter the prevalence of various forms of phytoplankton, the building block of the ocean’s food chain.

The nodules themselves are dependent on a variety of aquatic species. A study published in 1983 counted 51 species that are part of the process of drawing miniscule amounts of minerals from the sea and then, over vastly long periods of time, building up the deposits of resources that the world’s economy is hungry to extract.

But these small species attached to the rock are only part of the picture. There are also anemone, starfish and sponges. These creatures are displaced when mining occurs.

It is an open question how well can life be restored to the areas that have had deposits removed.

One study found that the bottom-dwelling creatures returned in a few years to a site where a mining trial was conducted, but a study of a different mining site said the reduction of life there was persistent.

The nodule surfaces are home to the many species that build up the mineral deposits and which feed upon them. Irrespective of any wider consequences, removing the nodules eliminates the habitat of rare and exotic life forms at the bottom of the ocean and the first rung of the food chain.

Also, deposits around deep hydrothermal vents and cobalt-rich crusts of seamounts contain minerals highly prized in the metal markets on land. But in the underwater depths they are vital to the aquatic fauna and flora that thrive on their nutrient-rich surfaces.

The environmental concerns of deep-sea mining stem not only from how the operations will disrupt habitats when minerals are removed. The most serious concern is the lack of knowledge about the ocean floor, with environmentalists warning that the disruptions of mining could open a Pandora’s box of unforeseen consequences.

Deep-sea coral, some of which has taken more than 4,000 years to develop, is home to aquatic life of all sorts and at multiple stages of the food chain.

Scientists have pointed out some mineral crusts that are not hospitable to life. But studies of other locations show very rich ecologies of coral, shrimp, fish and plankton.

For instance, a study of a cobalt-rich crust of the Hawaiian Islands found more than 600 species in areas that could be impacted by mining. That study, published by the journal Diversity and Distribution and which is included in a repository maintained by the International Seabed Authority, said little is known about the fragile environment of these marine habitats. It studied areas near the southern Hawaiian Islands, including some portions of a marine national monument.

“The paucity of biological information for cobalt-rich crusts, and the possibility that the chemical composition of the crusts influences the composition and abundance of faunal communities on seamounts, has been recognized as a major impediment in developing and examining options for seabed mining operations on cobalt-rich crusts,” the study said.

It described aquatic life as having “very low tolerances to physical disturbance” and that recovery of animal life “may be exceedingly prolonged.” Prior experience with fishing over cobalt-rich crusts has had “large environmental impacts.”

The authors urged that mining of seamounts be contained to small areas spaced widely apart to give underwater species sufficient room to escape and survive.

Also the unique chemical composition of the sea floor and the water just above it hosts hundreds of species that are found nowhere else on the planet. Scientists have been studying these species for knowledge about the beginning of life on earth, and some species have shown promise as renewable sources of commercial products and pharmaceuticals.

One Mining Company’s Approach to the Environmental Question

Nautilus Minerals, a company trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange with operational offices in Australia, is attempting to become the first company to mine the massive sulfide deposits. Company officials say that Nautilus has integrated environmental protection strategies into its work plans from the very beginning.

Smoker Volcano Spreading Sulfide Deposits (NOAA)

Nautilus has secured a lease on a massive sulfide deposit formed by underwater volcanoes in the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea in a zone called Solwara 1. It plans to mine the deposits for their very rich concentrations of copper, zinc, cobalt and gold. The effort has been stalled over a financing difficulty that the company is working to clear away, but it plans to complete work on its seabed cutting-and-suction harvesting machine within weeks and also plans to place an order later this year for its specialized mining vessel.

Dr. Samantha Smith

Some areas will be reserved as “baseline” zones; the company will not mine these zones so that they can study what happens naturally in the area and compare it to the impacts of the mining, said Samantha Smith, the Nautilus vice president for environment. She made her comments at a recent symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science where she shared the stage with some of the top ocean scientists in the United States.

Further, Nautilus will maintain natural buffer zones in the mining area, Smith said. These buffers will lie between the tracts of seamount that have been cut and harvested, allowing some marine life a place to escape to and providing a breeding ground for the animals and plants that would remain in the area.

Another Nautilus spokesman, in an email to Natural Resources News Service, elaborated on the environmental conditions. “Nautilus’ Solwara 1 operation is some 30 km away from coral reefs,” said John Elias, the spokesman. He said Nautilus collaborated with institutions and universities for numerous studies. In addition to the environmental impact assessment for the Solwara 1 project, he said the scientists published studies in peer reviewed papers and made their findings known at conferences.

Elias said, “Included among the biological studies were DNA studies which indicated the DNA found in the macrofauna at Solwara 1 were not significantly different from macrofauna found elsewhere in the Bismarck Sea.”

In order to minimize the effects of sedimentation floating through the ocean currents and water columns, Nautilus is engineering a series of hoods and shields around the cutting and suction sections of its seabed-crawling harvester, Smith said.

“All subsea equipment was carefully designed to reduce plume generation, noise and light,” Elias said. “Computer models allowed us to predict the outcomes of various operating scenarios including plume sediment dispersion. These indicate sediments will not rise above the lowest layer of the ocean 200-300 meters above the ocean floor.”

Further, Nautilus plans to return water from its initial processing procedure back to the area from which it first came. In its harvesting procedure, Nautilus will cut the deposits on the seabed and lift them through a pipe to the surface about 1,500 yards above. When on board, the ore must be drained of water, which will contain sediment and other residue from the harvesting. Rather than dump the water overboard, and unnaturally introduce sediment from the sea bottom to the sunlit surface, it will return it to the area from which it came.

Smith also said that Nautilus is working to keep the impacts of its mining operations close to the sea bottom and at a significant distance from the habitats of tuna and other fish harvested by the people of Papua New Guinea.

While these practices are in line with many recommendations of the environmental community, they have not been observed on an industrial scale.

There is also the question of when Nautilus might put them into place. The company had hoped to start mining the Solwara 1 seamount at the end of 2013, but financing difficulties have delayed it.

Papua New Guinea Government Withdraws Its Investment

Nautilus has secured a mining lease and an environmental permit from the government of Papua New Guinea to operate in PNG’s territorial waters.

But Nautilus had also negotiated a separate deal with Papua New Guinea that would have given the government a 30 percent stake in the venture in exchange for a $118 million investment. Nautilus proceeded with its development and business plans based on receiving these funds.

In 2012 the government of Papua New Guinea said it would not be investing in the project, saying Nautilus had not met all conditions of an option agreement. Nautilus invoked an arbitration clause in its contract, and in Oct. 2013 an international arbitrator sided with Nautilus. But Papua New Guinea still declined to invest.

In mid-February 2014 Nautilus said it was revoking the investment agreement and would seek funding elsewhere. It said it plans to file a lawsuit against PNG for damages, but held out the prospect of an “amicable” solution.

Shontel Norgate

In a conference call days after after the dissolution of the investment agreement Nautilus president Michael Johnston and chief financial officer Shontel Norgate said that the dispute with PNG had created uncertainties with shipbuilders, but now that a new plan has been put forward, they anticipate moving forward with their shipbuilding plans.

They said that they expect to have selected a shipbuilder by the fourth quarter of 2014 and at that time they would seek financing in the capital markets. Once an order is placed with a shipyard, construction of the vessel could take between 18 and 30 months, they said.

If Nautilus makes this schedule it could be the first company to go deep into the ocean for these valuable minerals.

From a Cover Story to Reality

What began as a ruse and a cover for spies four decades ago may in the next two or three years actually become an industrial sector in its own right.

Just as the CIA operation required years of policy decisions and engineering innovations, participants in deep-sea mining also have faced delays, uncertainties and increasing costs.

The financial risks of the ventures are very real. The stock of Nautilus traded between $2 and $3 on the Toronto exchange in 2011, but in the middle of 2012 it fell after the government of Papua New Guinea said it would not invest in the Solwara 1 project. Nautilus has been trading between 22 cents and 45 cents a share since the beginning of 2013.

Nonetheless, when top U.S. intelligence officials sat down in 1968 to plot the recovery of missing K-129, they did not expect the high cost of the venture or length of time to complete it. And there was the disappointment of the Hughes Glomar Explorer bringing home only part of the sub and none of the missiles.

Deep-sea mining is not a one-shot attempt as was the Hughes Glomar Explorer, and the industry admits it is learning and developing as it proceeds towards actual mining.

But as the experience of offshore oil drilling has shown, serious accidents can and do happen in the high-pressure and hard-to-access areas of the seabed.

And very little is known about the environmental consequences of mining, which, despite best practices and careful planning, necessarily cuts into or evacuates minerals from natural habitat and destroys or disperses any aquatic life that is in its path.

Page of Greenpeace noted there is a long-held adage that scientists know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean.

“Future seabed mining will happen in a number of different marine environments depending on what is being mined,” he said. “Given we know so little about these environments, we need to take a precautionary approach.”

Robert Thomason

Robert Thomason

Robert Thomason is a journalist specializing in the environment, commodities and conflict. He was the foreign news researcher for the Washington Post and wrote for many sections of the newspaper. As an independent he has worked for the National Geographic magazine and the Center for International Media Assistance. He publishes the Web news site GlobalResourcesNews.com.

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