Canada’s DeepGreen Metals, a start-up planning to extract cobalt and other battery metals from small rocks covering the seafloor, has secured the bulk of the $150 million it needs to carry out its first feasibility studies.
The financing, provided by Switzerland-based offshore pipeline company Allseas Group, is a welcome sign of progress for the deep sea mining sector, which has been stalled due regulatory uncertainty and environmental concerns.
Unlike other seafloor mining companies, including pioneer Nautilus Minerals, the Vancouver-based explorer doesn’t want to drill, blast or dig the bottom of the ocean. DeepGreen’s main goal is to scoop up small metallic rocks located thousands of metres below the surface in the North Pacific Ocean.
Unlike other seafloor mining companies, the Canadian start-up doesn’t want to drill, blast or dig the bottom of the ocean, but to scoop up small rocks containing cobalt, nickel and other battery metals.
Its exploration focus is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a mineral-rich, 4,000-kilometre swath of the Pacific that stretches from Hawaii to Mexico, where billions of potato-sized metals-rich rocks lie in a shallow layer of mud on the seafloor.
The deep sea, more than half the world’s surface, contains more cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earth metals than all land reserves combined, according to the US Geological Survey.
Companies exploring or already developing projects to mine the seafloor argue the extraction of those deep-buried riches could help diversify the sources currently supplying metals needed for electronics and evolving green technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs) and solar panels.
Academics and scientist, however, are concerned by the lack of research on the possible impacts of high seas mining. They fear the activity could devastate fragile ecosystems that are slow to recover in the highly pressurized darkness of the deep sea, as well as having knock-on effects on the wider ocean environment.
Not enough studies
Last year, the European Parliament called for a ban on seabed mining until the environmental impacts and risks of disturbing unique deep-sea ecosystems are understood. In the resolution, it also urged the European Commission to persuade member states to stop sponsoring and subsidizing licenses to explore and exploit the seabed in international waters as well as within their own territories.
Shortly after, an international team of researchers published a set of criteria to help the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body made up of 168 countries, protect biodiversity from deep-sea mining activities.
So far, it has granted 29 licences to governments and companies, authorizing them to explore in international waters.
Nautilus, however, is the only company that has gone beyond the exploration stage and has gotten close to open the first polymetallic seabed mine off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Its Solwara 1 project, however, has been slowed by funding issues and local opposition.
Anglo American (LON:AAL) sold its 4% stake in Nautilus a year ago, as part of efforts to retain only its most profitable assets. And, in March, it had to delist from the Toronto Stock Exchange.
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A paper published in the journal Resources Policy states that bonus schemes for middle management employees in mining companies play a role in tailings dams failures.
According to the research article, such compensation packages actively encourage managers to cut costs and increase production, as the material decisions that put into motion such measures lay in their hands and positive results would increase their annual bonuses.
Although most mining companies don’t make public the compensation packages they give their middle management personnel, such incentives are known to be a common practice in the industry. Thus, using the information provided by the two companies that do report them, Newmont Goldcorp (NYSE: NEM, TSX: NGT) and AngloGold Ashanti (JSE:ANG, NYSE:AU), the authors of the study found that some schemes are equivalent, in financial terms, to an equity payment plus a put option.
The number of tailings dam failures has doubled in recent years from 8 in the period 1999–2003 to 16 in 2014–2018
“So the bonus is highly leveraged. Like investment bankers, the person stands to gain a lot if his/her performance is above target, but loses little, if it falls below target,” the study reads. “Year after year, managers keep taking risks with a low probability of occurrence but with potentially catastrophic consequences. These risks are compounded by shortages of experienced staff due to the cyclic nature of the industry and the retirement of the baby-boomer generation.”
Authors Margaret Armstrong, Renato Petterd and Carlos Petterd connected their observations to those in earlier research papers that analyzed certain cases of tailings dams failures and found that either production was increased or costs were significantly reduced in the years leading to the accidents.
The academics report that, for example, prior to the collapse of the tailings facility at the gold and copper Mount Polley mine in British Columbia in August 2014, which resulted in 24 million cubic meters of contaminated sludge and mine waste going into nearby lakes and rivers, Canada’s Imperial Metals (TSX: III) had grown its production by 23% in Q2-2014 from the previous quarter.
Boliden Apirsa, on the other hand, had flat revenues from 1995 to 1997, just before the tailings dam crashed at the Los Frailes lead and zinc mine in Aznalcóllar, Spain, in April 1998. But capital expenditures doubled during this period from $55.4 million to $112.3 million and operating income increased spectacularly from $2.3 million to $84.9 million. “So production costs must have dropped significantly over the period.”
In Brazil, production at Vale’s (NYSE:VALE) Samarco iron ore mine had increased by almost 40% in the five quarters just before the accident there in 2015, which killed 19 people and became the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster. Similarly, at the Paraopeba subsection of the Southern System where the Corrego do Feijão dam was located, production was risen by 12% in the five quarters before the Brumardinho catastrophe where almost 300 people died.
“The next question we asked ourselves was: Had an extra tailings dam been constructed to handle this additional quantity of rejects, or was it being pumped into existing tailings facilities? Alternatively, had filter presses or high capacity thickening been introduced to reduce the quantity of water?”, the authors of the paper ask.
After reviewing Vale’s quarterly reports for investors, which list all the major projects in progress, they found that there is no mention of building a new tailings dam or of filter presses. “This means that the existing ones had to cope with the waste from the extra production.”
Off the hook
Except for $42.5 million for the initial clean-up, the paper in Resources Policy highlights the fact that Boliden Apirsa succeeded in avoiding paying for the pollution caused by the tailings dam breach.
“Boliden's legal team and expert witnesses convinced a Spanish court of law that the tailings dam failure was due to geotechnical problems, thereby transferring the responsibility to the companies that had designed and built the dam. An epic legal battle ensued in which the Spanish Ministry of the Environment and the local government of Andalusia attempted to get Boliden to pay for the damage, but failed due to loopholes in the Spanish legal system,” the document reads.
In the case of the Mount Polley mine, Armstrong and her colleagues bring to the forefront the fact that the Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel established after the accident found that the failure was caused by the design, which did not take into account the complexity of the sub-glacial and pre-glacial geological environment associated with the Perimeter Embankment foundation.
This has meant that no one has been held responsible for the disaster and, on top of this, the 3-year deadline to lay charges under British Columbia laws passed in 2017, while there is only one year left to lay charges under federal environmental and fisheries law.
The authors of the study refrained from commenting on the legal proceedings involving Vale’s tailings dam failures as they are still in progress.
In their recommendations of what would be needed to stop tailings dam failures, the researchers suggest, besides changes in the processing technology and wider adoption of the Mining Association of Canada’s guidelines issued in 2017, heavier fines and penalties.
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Goldspot Discoveries (TSXV: SPOT) announced Friday a signed service agreement with Pacton Gold (CVE: PAC) to Goldspot's A.I. and machine learning tools to evaluate and identify possible mineral and drill targets on Pacton’s Red Lake, Ontario property.
"We believe Red Lake's ground is ripe for a technological revolution" — Goldspot CEO
Goldspot has been granted a 0.5% smelter royalty on the property and the option to purchase an additional 0.5% net smelter return royalty on all metals produced from the Red Lake property for C$1 million, as well as 0.5% net smelter return royalty on all metals produced from all the current claims comprising Pacton's Australia assets in the Pilbara Craton for C$1 million.
"The Pacton Gold property in the historic Red Lake gold camp in North western Ontario excites us. It is the ideal district to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to find new discoveries," said Denis Laviolette, GoldSpot’s president and CEO in a media statement. "After initial screening and utilizing artificial intelligence to analyze various layers of data related to Pacton Gold's property, we have made our largest speculative bet to date."
"We believe Red Lake's ground is ripe for a technological revolution, and this deal gives us royalty exposure to 16,630 hectares of prospective land," said Laviolette.
Market reaction to the partnership was positive: Goldspot’s stock was up 4%, and Pacton’s stock was up on the CVE Friday afternoon.
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Noront Resources (TSX-V: NOT) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Aroland First Nation to advance the planning process for the development of the Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper-platinum-palladium deposit in the Ring of Fire, northern Ontario.
In a media statement, both parties explained that the MoU contemplates Aroland becoming a shareholder of Noront. The company will issue 150,000 shares to the First Nation.
The deal also entails the establishment of an ongoing working and communication protocol and the initiation of a dialogue regarding economic development opportunities.
Noront previously signed an Exploration and Project Advancement Agreement with the Marten Falls First Nation
"Aroland First Nation is advancing responsible mineral development in collaboration with other area First Nations in what we call the ‘Mining Hub’ that is growing quickly between the Geraldton-Beardmore Greenstone belt and the Ring of Fire," Chief Dorothy Towedo said in the press brief. “Our First Nation is encouraged by Noront’s inclusive approach to advancing mutually beneficial opportunities.”
The Eagle’s Nest mine is expected to produce 3,000 tonnes of ore per day, which will be mined by underground methods and processed to deliver 150,000 to 250,000 tonnes of nickel-bearing concentrate per year.
The mine should reach commercial production three years after permits are received. The anticipated mine life is of 11 years with the potential for nine additional years.
At present, Eagle’s Nest has over 20 million tonnes of measured, indicated and inferred resources containing high-grade nickel mineralization with significant copper, palladium and platinum content.
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