Jim Letourneau's Blog

Investing, Technology, Travel, Geology, Music, Golf. I think that covers it.

Seafloor Rare Earths Discovered

There is lots of buzz about the recent Nature Geoscience article by Japanese scientists - Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements. According to the article abstract,  We estimate that an area of just one square kilometre, surrounding one of the sampling sites, could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these elements. Clearly, the resource potential is huge.

While there is naturally some skepticism as to whether this resource will ever be commercially exploited, there are numerous advantages to seafloor mining and ultimately it should prove cheaper than terrestrial mining. However, these muds shouldn't be moved into the reserve category just yet (see WSJ article faux pas).

Nautilus Minerals (NUS.TO, NUSMF) have been working on  seafloor mining (click to watch seafloor mining video) for over 5 years. Some of the key advantages of seafloor mining include:

  • No disruption to settlements

  • Minimal overburden, stripping, and waste

  • Ability to move mining to new deposits in a matter of days

There will be legal and environmental considerations but if rare earth prices remain high, these deposits will be pursued. Nautilus is currently working within the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and New Zealand. Clearly, Nautilus saw fit to stay clear of the murky workings of the International Seabed Authority which control mining in international waters. In June, there were 43 member countries with dues outstanding for at least 2 years. Interestingly, the United States is not a member because it has not ratified the Law of the Sea treaty.

Currently Nauru, Tonga, China and Russia have Applications for Exploration Contracts (not for rare earths) that will be reviewed at the Seventeenth session of the International Seabed Authority held in Kingston, Jamaica from July 11-22, 2011. I'm sure the International Seabed Authority is being swamped with applications for mining rare earth rich muds and that they are woefully understaffed.