New Zealand decides this week whether to approve an underwater iron-ore operation that would likely become the world's first commercial metals mine at the bottom of the sea.
A green light to allow New Zealand's Trans Tasman Resources to start iron-ore dredging off the country's west coast will encourage others looking to mine copper, cobalt, manganese and other metals deeper on the ocean floor but worried about regulatory hurdles.
Along the Pacific Rim of Fire, as deep as 6,000 meters underwater, volcano crusts, "black smoker" chimneys and vast beds of manganese nodules hold promise for economic powers like China and Japan as well as many poor island states busy pegging stakes on the ocean floor.
"A lot of people are watching the Trans Tasman Resources outcome," said Michael Johnston, chief executive of Nautilus Minerals, which is working on a deep-sea project off Papua New Guinea and is also in talks with New Zealand.
Other countries in the Pacific looking at underwater mining include Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu, which have all issued exploration licenses. Cook Islands in the South Pacific plans to put seabed exploration licenses up for bids later this year.
In the 750,000 sq km (290,000 square miles) of territorial waters around the Cook Islands are mineral nodules the size of potatoes to lettuce heads and rich in manganese and cobalt, a resource Imperial College marine geoscientist David Cronan estimates at 10 billion tons.
"If only 10 percent of that resource can be recovered it will be one of the largest mineral deposits ever discovered. It is a world class mineral deposit," says the Cook Islands National Seabed Minerals Policy, approved on June 10.
The push to explore the ocean is gaining momentum as ore grades on land decline and demand grows for metals in high-tech applications, and is more feasible now with the help of technology developed for the deepwater oil and gas industry.
Still, there are technological hurdles and fears among scientists and environmentalists that mining could destroy fragile fisheries and exotic creatures at the bottom of the ocean.
"Deep sea mining is coming faster than the scientific community can monitor it," said Carlos Duarte, director of the University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute.
Waiting in the wings
Trans Tasman Resources, which hopes to start mining in 2016, already has a mining licence but needs a marine consent from New Zealand's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The is the EPA's first test of regulating mining in the country's territorial waters. Its next is an application from Chatham Rock Phosphate, seeking to mine phosphate several hundred kilometers off the east coast of the South Island.
Others waiting in the wings include Neptune Minerals, with deep sea tenements covering 175,000 sq km off several South Pacific countries, including New Zealand.
While the world's biggest miners have no deep sea mining tenements, Anglo American PLC is keeping an eye on underwater prospects with a 5.95 percent stake in Nautilus.
The biggest backers for Nautilus are Omani oilfield services billionaire Mohammed Al Barwani and Russia's richest tycoon Alisher Usmanov's Metalloinvest Holding, who together own 40 percent.
The Canadian company aims to dig up a seafloor massive sulfide deposit, Solwara 1, about 1,600 meters underwater off Papua New Guinea, starting from 2017.
Massive sulfide deposits form around deep sea vents that spurt super hot, acidic water with metals dissolved from the earth's crust. The metals drop out when the "black smokers" hit the cooler sea water and form rocky chimneys.