Solwara 1 Deep Sea Mining Project

Last updated: April 2018

The Solwara 1 project, being developed by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals, is intended to extract high-grade Seafloor Massive Sulphide (SMS) deposits of copper, gold, zinc and silver from the Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea. The project is set at 1,600 metres water depth and if developed would be the world’s first deep sea mining project. Solwara 1 is located approximately thirty kilometres from the nearest coast (New Ireland Province) and fifty kilometres north of the international Port of Rabaul (East New Britain Province).

The project is expected to start its operations in 2018. It has been granted an operating license by the Papua New Guinea Government without having been given free, prior and informed consent of nearby coastal communities.

Nautilus has no source of revenue and will need to raise additional equity, debt or joint venture partner funding to advance the development of the Solwara 1 project. Nautilus requires at least USD 125 million to USD 175 million and will need to approach the market to secure the funds it needs. Nautilus has not conducted standard economic assessments of the project and any financial supporter of Solwara 1 will find itself exposed to a high level of risk.

Brief history

In July 2007, Nautilus announced it would take over the offshore development aspects of the Solwara 1 project following the lapse of an agreement with Belgium-based Dredging Company. The Solwara 1 project development includes the recovery of high-grade seabed sulphide (SMS) deposits from the floor of the Bismarck Sea, a major resource of base metal sulphides, gold and silver.

The project has been explored by ROV, bathymetric surveys, surface sampling and core drilling. The hydrothermal field of the Solwara 1 project area was first discovered by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation during 1996.

The company conducted a six-month field campaign during 2007 in which further chimney sampling and a comprehensive diamond drilling programme was completed with the use of submersible drill rigs scaled up on ROVs. The core recovery averaged above 70% from massive sulphide zone and showed the continuity of sulphide mineralogy across the Solwara 1 deposit. Considerable gold and silver mineralisation also occurred within the massive sulphides.

Three holes – SD 148, 149 and 162 – were drilled around 250 metres north of the central zone, while a new zone was discovered in the north. The holes have been drilled around the existing inferred resource at Solwara 1 to check the robustness of the existing resource model.

Between January and April 2009, a commercial review of Solwara 1 was carried out to identify potential capital and operating cost savings in regards to the global financial downturn. Shipping market enquires were also investigated to identify various mining support vessel options. In May 2009, Nautilus discovered a new high grade base and precious metal zone 250m north of the project area.

What must happen

The Solwara 1 project will have a devastating impact on the marine environment and the health, livelihoods and cultures of nearby coastal communities. Financial institutions should steer clear of Nautilus and not provide funds for this high risk, experimental project.


Social issues

The lives of nearby coastal communities depends almost entirely on the sea. People have spiritual and cultural connections to the sea, and rely on the sea for their livelihoods. People fear that the Solwara 1 project will result in a loss of identity and livelihood.

The fishing grounds of coastal communities on New Ireland and East New Britain includes the site of the Solwara 1 project. Deep water fish such as tuna are caught at the Solwara 1 site and reef fish are caught at nearby reefs. These fisheries are an important source of both income and are the main source of protein consumed by local people. There is concern that metals and other toxicants from the Solwara 1 project will enter the food chain and have a devastating imapct on human health. Local communities strongly oppose the Solwara 1 project – they do not want to be guinea pigs in a dangerous experiment.

Environmental issues

New research reveals experimental seabed mining could have a devastating impact on life forms that are ‘literally saving the planet’ and preventing a ‘doomsday climatic event’. The research lists experimental seabed mining as a major threat to ocean life residing around hydrothermal vents which has been found to consume enormous quantities of methane that would otherwise enter the atmosphere. (Source: Papua New Guinea Mine Watch)

A study carried out between 2002 and 2007 estimated that there could be more than 1,000 species at a single site in the key region proposed for mining. According to the Global Ocean Commission, “mining at the seafloor will cause localized damage, including crushing living organisms, removal of substrate habitat and disturbance of sediment”, with further environmental impacts during processing. They list rising demand for resources, technological advances and weak high seas governance as “drivers of decline” for the oceans (source The Huffington Post).

Human rights

The Solwara 1 project has the potential to undermine people’s right a livelihood, health and culture. Nautilus is proceeding with the Solwara 1 project without the free, prior and informed consent of coastal communities. The right to free, prior and informed consent is an important right itself and acts as a safeguard to protects other rights – such as to a livelihood.

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