The company will, of course, leave behind a damaged seafloor—but the environmental costs, too, will be less, Nautilus insists, than those of a comparable mine on land. “If we accept that the world’s demand for metal is going to continue to rise, we need to get metals from somewhere in an environmentally responsible way,” says Samantha Smith, a biologist who managed the company’s environmental impact assessment. In strip-mining a bit less than 30 acres of seafloor, Nautilus will consume hydrothermal chimneys and wipe out the clusters of snails and barnacles, crab and shrimp that are nourished by their sulfide emanations. But some of the chimneys will regrow, Smith says—mining cannot snuff out the underlying volcano—and the animals are expected to return within a few years. Black smokers are by nature ephemeral, so the animals there are adapted to colonizing new springs as old ones wink out. To encourage that process, Nautilus intends to leave the hot springs on South Su, a little over a mile away, untouched, as a seed stock.
With the help of Cindy Van Dover, a Duke University biologist and expert in hydrothermal vents, Nautilus is even studying the possibility of picking up snails and barnacles in the path of the mining tool and transplanting them to a temporary haven, to be brought home when the coast is clear. “Their environmental sensitivity is pretty darn good,” Van Dover says. “They came to us and asked, ‘How do we do this right?’” She chaired a committee convened by the International Seabed Authority to draw up recommendations for the mining of black smokers in international waters. Although Solwara 1, the first case in point, lies in Papua New Guinea’s waters, Nautilus seems to have followed the authority’s recommendations anyway, she says.
Yet like many marine scientists and environmentalists, Van Dover would prefer that the seafloor not be mined at all. So little of it has been explored, she says, and it is so much harder than on land to see what is going on that there is no way to be sure that mining is not extinguishing species; we haven’t had time to discover the snail darters and spotted owls.
“It would be as if Lewis and Clark went out and found Yellowstone, and a couple of years later the mining companies said, ‘We are going to strip-mine it,’” she says. But not, it seems, for at least a few years.
Last June, speaking from London on the very day he signed a deal to have his mining ship constructed in Turkey (and right after he had taken over the reins from Heydon), Rogers saw no clouds on Nautilus’s horizon. Then again, not many people saw the economic storm coming. Copper prices, which had quintupled during the period in which Heydon was raising money for the company, collapsed during the second half of last year. By December Nautilus’s stock on the Toronto exchange had fallen below a Canadian dollar per share after peaking in 2007 at more than six dollars. Gold prices remained high—as they typically do in economically troubled times—and in principle, says Scott Trebilcock, the company’s vice president for business development, the Solwara 1 project remained economically viable. With the credit crash, however, Nautilus had no prospect of getting the extra funds it needed to bring the ore to market.
A week before Christmas the company announced that it was postponing the construction of all its equipment, including the mining ship, and laying off 30 percent of its staff. It planned to continue engineering and public relations work and also exploring for new sulfide deposits. But it could no longer predict when it would begin mining. That would largely depend on when the economic storm blew over.
As the company he built hunkered down, David Heydon was back in Brisbane, having left Nautilus in June when the company was riding high. He has since started two new companies. With one he is hoping to get in on the ground floor of the old ocean-bottom manganese-nodule business, version 2.0, which he thinks is poised to take off in a decade or so. With another company Heydon is hoping to harvest underwater wood; he believes that there is a lot of valuable hardwood trapped in patches of tropical rain forest that were inundated by hydroelectric dams. “The bit that I like is the start-up phase,” Heydon says.
And the true believers are not giving up on the incredible mineral potential of the black smokers. Steve Scott, one of the men who discovered the Solwara 1 deposit, remains convinced that one day soon—though apparently not in 2010—it will become the site of the first deep-sea mining project. “It’s as sure a thing as you’re ever going to find in the mining industry,” he says.
On the other hand, as Scott himself points out, it was a quarter century ago, in 1984, that he first predicted seafloor sulfide deposits would be mined one day. “I’m still waiting,” he says.