Nautilus Minerals Inc.

Last updated: September 2019

Nautilus is a Canadian company that is endeavouring to become the world’s first successful DSM multinational corporation. The company was founded in 1987, yet no information can be found of Nautilus’ interests or operations prior to the beginnings of Solwara 1 in the early 2000s. Nautilus has two major shareholders, MB Holding Company LLC and Metalloinvest Holding (Cyprus) Limited, who respectively hold 30.4% and 19.2% shares (Nautilus Minerals Inc, 2018). It is unclear exactly what groups constitute the remaining minor shares of the company, however Anglo American, one of the world’s largest multinational mining corporations, were former shareholders. They withdrew their share in May 2018, citing that their investment in the project “was inconsistent with its commitments to sustainability, human rights and environmental stewardship” (Radio New Zealand, 2018b). This is an absolutely crucial point to consider, and begs the question as to why a mining corporation is more concerned with the environmental risks of Solwara 1 than either Nautilus or the national government.

The two main shareholders of Nautilus have formed Deep Sea Mining Finance (DSMF), which is tasked with securing the funding for Solwara 1 (BankTrack & Deep Sea Mining Campaign, 2017). As of June 2018, Nautilus had borrowed a total of US$11,250,000 with a further US$22,750,000 available under the loan agreement with DSMF (Nautilus Minerals Inc., 2018).

Due to the nature of Solwara 1 as being a ‘world first’ venture, it is sensible to examine the history of Nautilus Minerals and whether the corporation’s past can help predict the outcome of this particular mining project. In particular, it is important to observe that many members of management have previously been involved in mining projects that caused environmental and social harm in PNG such as Lihir, Porgera and Panguna (Nautilus Minerals Inc., 2015, p. 66-67).

Nautilus in the Pacific

In addition to PNG, Nautilus is also interested in other areas of the Pacific. The company holds exploration licenses in Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the eastern Pacific off the coast of Mexico. In all of these locations (including PNG), Nautilus is concerned with extracting the same type of mineral, seafloor massive sulphides (SMS).

Nautilus’ Areas of Interest in the Pacific

It is unclear exactly how Nautilus is currently involved in these Pacific nations, as for the majority of these projects, the most recent information accessible is from 2012. As of 2012, Nautilus had applied for a total of 17 prospecting licences (PL), for the purposes of locating, evaluating and sampling mineral material in Fiji and were granted 14. The company also held 41 PL in Vanuatu, and 92 PL in Solomon Islands. In Tonga, Nautilus held 16 PL and has applied for a further 30. In this case, however, it is known that Nautilus began its exploration during 2008 (Matangi Tonga Online, 2008) and employs a country manager (Nautilus Minerals Inc., 2015, p. 67). In relation to prospective mining in Tonga, a report prepared for Nautilus explicitly states that the “tenements do not include any habitable land or coastal waters; there is no requirement to negotiate access rights with local landowners” (Jankowski, 2012, p. 31). This mirrors Nautilus’ stance regarding Solwara 1, and will be discussed further below. From the information available, it would seem that Nautilus has a solid grip on DSM operations in the Pacific, and will be a big player in the industry going forwards.

There is greater detail available surrounding Nautilus’ involvement in the CCZ, which is likely due to the level of importance and mineral potential the area holds for the company. The CCZ venture is not being operated through Nautilus itself, but its subsidiary, Tonga Offshore Mining Limited (TOML). TOML is ‘sponsored’ by the Tongan government (note there is no information that details their involvement any further than this) (Nautilus Minerals, n.d.-b), and perhaps foreshadows the direction the Tongan government will take in DSM within their own country. This move also demonstrates the willingness of the Tongan government to participate in transnational capitalism, which values economic gain over environmental or social damage (Schultz, 2014).

Nautilus has projected that the CCZ has a mineral resource base of 685 million wet tonnes (natural state of extracted material before processing) (Jamasmie, 2016). Due to its significant mineral wealth, the CCZ has attracted a lot of world interest. Other companies who hold various licences in the CCZ are from Germany, Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom amongst others (Nautilus Minerals, n.d.-b). Unlike Solwara 1 and other potential DSM project sites, the CCZ is unique in the sense that it falls outside of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and is thus bound by different regulatory bodies and frameworks. The International Seabed Authority is the body that has the authority to govern and issue licences in this area (Vella, 2015).

Nautilus has also applied for an exploration licence along the Kermadec Arc within New Zealand’s EEZ, an area totalling 50,000 square kilometres (Clark, 2015). No comment can be found on the state of the application. In past years, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has declined applications for DSM due to the significant environmental threats posed (Jamasmie, 2015). The EPA have, however, granted an application for the mining of iron sand off the Taranaki coast, which will still be permissible irrespective of a recent decision to ban offshore oil and gas exploration in NZ (Young, 2018). The ban does not include DSM for minerals. The area that Nautilus is interested in is also the proposed site of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, which would render 620,000 square kilometres of sea as one of the world’s largest marine reserves (McCormack, 2018), and prohibit mining activity.

Nautilus in Papua New Guinea

Solwara 1 is the primary focus of Nautilus (Nautilus Minerals Inc., 2015, p. 5), but the company has a wider interest in PNG. Solwara 1 is effectively only a small part of a greater area within which Nautilus holds, or have applied for, a large number of exploration licences (Lipton, 2012, pp. 1-2). The map below demonstrates that Nautilus’ sights are not only focused near the coast of New Ireland, but almost the entire expanse of the Bismarck Sea. Within this area are a further 18 sites of interest, which the company has labelled Solwara 2 through to 19 (Lipton, 2012, p. 2). Exploration and testing has occurred in all of these sites, with Nautilus directing particular attention towards Solwara 12 due to promising levels of mineral deposits (Lipton, 2012, p. 7).

Extent of Nautilus’ Exploration Licences within the Bismarck Sea, as of 2012

One of the main reasons Nautilus cite for their interest in PNG is the high grade of minerals found during exploration. The average grade of Solwara 1 gold deposits is four times higher than terrestrial deposits, and the copper grade is ten times higher (Clark, 2015). High grades of minerals result in less effort required in extraction as the mineral percentage in each tonne of ore is greater (Lioudis, 2018). The high grade of minerals found at the bottom of the Bismarck Sea, as well as the numerous licences held by Nautilus to explore this area, suggests that Nautilus will likely maintain its presence in PNG long after the mining of Solwara 1, should it go ahead successfully.

Reference

  • Phillips, Hayley. A Sea of Voices: Deep sea mining and the Solwara 1 Project in Papua New Guinea. Diss. The University of Waikato, 2019.

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