Threat of mining seabed for phosphate ebbs — for now
Local and international companies are testing SA’s marine laws in a bid to increase marine mineral and petroleum extraction.
SA has jurisdiction over an extensive marine environment, with an exclusive economic zone of about 1.5-million square kilometres — bigger than SA’s terrestrial area of about 1.2-million square kilometres.
In 2014 the Department of Mineral Resources granted rights to three private companies to prospect for marine phosphate. It allows the companies to prospect over about 10% of SA’s exclusive economic zone, extending from the northern reaches of the West Coast, down to Cape Town, around the peninsula and up to Mossel Bay.
The three companies were each granted a prospecting area of about 50,000km². Green Flash Trading 251 and Green Flash Trading 257 are virtually identical and have no experience in marine mining. Diamond Fields International is a Canadian mining firm with marine exploration and mining rights in other jurisdictions.
Alarmingly, the type of mining that would be undertaken to extract phosphate — if it proceeds in SA — has not been done anywhere in the world.
The technology used is extremely destructive. Giant dredge vessels will scoop up a 3m layer from the seabed, destroying habitats and releasing hazardous substances that are normally locked into the seabed, including radioactive materials, methane, heavy metals and hydrogen sulphide. The phosphate would predominantly be used for fertilisers. But the dredging will put an "out of sight out of mind" environment at risk.
A three-year project from 2014-17 called Safeguard our Seabed was funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and led by Saul Roux, a legal campaigner with the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).
"These prospecting areas overlap with SA’s major fishing grounds, critically endangered seabed and benthic ecosystems, and up to eight proposed marine protected areas. One of the objectives of the project was to pursue a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining in SA. The government has not established a moratorium, but we think it is highly unlikely that firms will apply for a mining right for bulk marine sediment mining in future," says Roux. A milestone of the campaign was that at the end of 2017 the director of Green Flash Trading 251 and Green Flash Trading 257 announced that marine phosphate mining would not be financially feasible and the companies discontinued the prospecting. The prospecting rights are valid for five years, so Green Flash Trading’s rights have expired and Diamond Fields’s expires in 2018.
The Safeguard our Seabed Coalition reiterates that because the cost of operations for seabed mining is considerable, it only becomes feasible by dredging vast quantities of sediment. This requires large-scale ecological destruction.
Mining for phosphate in South African waters is difficult as it is embedded in hard, consolidated rock.
Roux says the advocacy, research, information sharing and strong pushback from civil society played a role in halting bulk marine sediment mining.
"We now have a broad coalition that opposes bulk marine sediment mining, and civil society is in a strong position to oppose any future applications," he says.
"Throughout the project we engaged with stakeholders in Namibia and other countries that face similar threats from seabed mining. We are seeing increased interest and rights granted over vast areas of the high seas and in the territorial waters of several Pacific island nations and countries such as Namibia, New Zealand, Australia and Mexico.
"There are several firms that are trying to develop a seabed mining industry and they are testing the regulatory and governance structures of various national jurisdictions.
"If seabed mining goes ahead in any of these jurisdictions, it will set a dangerous precedent, opening the door for highly destructive forms of marine mining in other places," says Roux.
The project also focused on supporting marine spatial planning in SA. The Marine Spatial Planning Bill, first tabled in Parliament in 2016, is due for adoption in 2018.
"There is already immense pressure on our oceans, with 98% of our exclusive economic zone leased for offshore oil and gas exploration or production," says Roux.
"Marine spatial planning is essentially about mitigating conflicts between users of marine resources while at the same time ensuring that the integrity of the marine ecosystems that underpin our ocean economy are maintained, restored and protected.
"Operation Phakisa seeks to rapidly develop our oceans through prioritising marine mineral and petroleum extraction," he says.
"But SA currently doesn’t have an appropriate regulatory and environmental management framework or sufficient information to ensure sustainable development of our oceans. At the moment it is a free-for-all. For the duration of the project, we worked with a number of key stakeholders, including WWF-SA, the International Ocean Institute’s African Region and Nelson Mandela University, to advocate for and support an effective marine spatial planning process in SA," he says.
"There are a number of prerequisites for effective marine spatial planning, including following an ecosystem-based approach, the development of decision support tools and the establishment of a proper institutional structure for ongoing public participation and engagement between the government, civil society and a range of marine users."
Roux says it is important that some parts of the oceans are designated no-go areas for mineral and petroleum extraction. This can be done through a range of mechanisms such as including no-go areas in marine area plans and declaring fisheries management areas that ensure protection of key spawning, nursery, breeding and aggregation areas.
"With all eyes on the oceans as a rich resource, and with our government focusing on the ocean’s economy through Operation Phakisa, there is an urgency to establish and enforce a comprehensive legal and governance framework for SA’s marine environment. This is particularly important given our limited knowledge and understanding of marine environments," he says.
"Our major concern is that environmental management seems to have fallen by the wayside. This creates a serious risk of marine spatial planning becoming ocean zoning and of permissions being granted without any environmental management or regulatory oversight. CER and our partners are concerned about the proliferation of seismic surveys for offshore oil and gas.
"Currently, firms are able to undertake seismic surveys with a reconnaissance permit, which does not require an environmental impact assessment or a proper environmental management plan. There are considerable cumulative impacts with seismic activities of this scale, particularly on marine mammals and our fishery resources," says Roux.
There is also a proliferation of marine and coastal mining practices, such as coastal heavy sand mineral mining, new destructive forms of coastal diamond mining, coastal mining for construction sand, offshore fracking and offshore oil and gas activities.