The company hopes to be the first in the world, to mine copper and gold from the deep ocean, at its site in the Bismark Sea in Papua New Guinea.
Nautilus's CEO, Mike Johnson, has been keeping a low profile in the media since last year when its dispute with the PNG government was referred to international arbitration.
Now the dispute has been resolved, the company is pushing ahead with its plans in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific, and willing to answer questions from its critics.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Mike Johnson, CEO of Nautilus Minerals
JOHNSON: We basically like the whole belt, coming through from Papua New Guinea, through the Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji and into Tonga. That whole belt has a lot of potential for seafloor mass of sulphites.
GARRETT: How far off might commercial mining be in Nautilus's projects outside Papua New Guinea?
JOHNSON: Oh well, that depends on your discovery rate and evaluation and then your environmental and other permitting requirements. And they vary from project to project, but the sort of time frame you look at is anywhere from sort of four to eight years sort of things, four if you're really lucky and you're able to tick the boxes very quickly. It can take eight if you've to a few hiccups along the way.
GARRETT: Do you see other companies starting deep sea mining in the Pacific in that same time frame?
JOHNSON: Well, I know there are other companies looking. There's a lot of groups looking, there's private companies looking, there's private equity money that's looking and there's also a lot of interest from governments, particularly the Asian governments who hold licenses and then out in the Central Pacific, you've got something like 15 or 16 licences now and some of these players, you've got Lockheed Martin being sponsored by the British government, you've got Chinese, Korean, Russian, Japanese, Indian governments. So basically there's a lot of interest in seafloor mining.
GARRETT: NGOs are arguing that it's dangerous for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific to be the guinea pig for an untried and untested method of mining. Is there any advantage in being at the forefront of this new technology?
JOHNSON: I think there is and I think Papua New Guinea sees that too and there's the intellectual property, the benefits of intellectual property, and there's also the benefits that come to Papua New Guinea, when it develops in partnership with us the world's first deep ocean seafloor mine, that there's elements of the technology which have application throughout other aspects of industry, there's monitoring - a lot of the project is done robotically, the production of ore is completely robotic and that's always the holy grail for mining on land and also the actual environmental footprint is very, very small. You're looking at less than point-one of a square kilometre that will generate taxes and employment for Papua New Guinea, but also hopefully spin off some additional industries in terms of the technology and know-how which will built up in Papua New Guinea.
GARRETT: The footprint might be quite small, but these environments are little studied by environmental scientists. Is it to soon to be mining areas that haven't been fully explored?
JOHNSON: Well, the mining lease is just under 60 square kilometres and it's probably the most studied patch of the deep ocean anywhere in the world, so it's all relative. And some of the NGO groups say that we know very little about the deep ocean. Well, that maybe true in a holistic sense of the entire planet, but there's parts of the deep ocean that we know very, very well.
GARRETT: Nevertheless, mining does completely disrupt the environment there?
JOHNSON: So it will have an impact on the environment. I mean you have to realise that there's a volcano in our situation, two kilometres away, which has been erupting, that I'm aware of since 1994 and it spews ash out all day, everyday that I've been there. So the environment of the Solwara One Mine site is very, very, very well studied and it's generally accepted by all of the environmental experts who have been used on the project that it will recover very quickly, relative to land, and that the impacts are localised and with a progressive rehabilitation program which is what we'll be doing, the recovery rate should be very rapid.
GARRETT: What are you doing about the lack of environmental baseline work at your other sites in the Pacific?
JOHNSON: Well, as we do work on each site, we actually collect environmental data as part of the exploration program, so we do water column testing at all stages of the exploration. But a lot of the tools we use to find these deposits are actually based on understanding the physical environment. So we look for small changes in the EHPH conditions, we look for small changes in temperature and we look for other small indications in the environment that there's something different in an area, and that's what attracts us to those areas. And so throughout the whole process of exploration and environmental, collecting of environmental data is an important part of that process right through, and so it's not just a single crews that does environmental work at the end of it all or something. It's part of an integrated process where we collect data the whole data the whole way. And the whole time we use ROVs searching on the seafloor. They have cameras on and everything is recorded, every single minute, every single second is recorded. So there's a photographic record of everything that we've done once we've got ROVs in the water.
GARRETT: What's your message to those in Papua New Guinea concerned about the environmental impact of the project, especially those who are concerned about the impact on fish, like tuna or their food resources?
JOHNSON: Yeah, my message to them is to listen to the facts. There's a lot of misinformation that gets put out there and deliberately so a lot of it.
The project has been reviewed by the government. The government's had it reviewed externally by environmental consultants here in Australia, Cardno was the company. They did a very good job, very thorough job. They had all of the information that the company collected, securing the exploration and data collection stage of the permitting process and the exploration work. The company collected a large body of environmental data and that data's all been put into various simulations that produce expected plume characteristics and impacts. All of that has been reviewed by an external source for the government. They actually reran the programs and reran their own models and effectively came up with about the same outputs. So that gave the government a lot of confidence that the data provided by the company was sound.
The other thing with the data is that all of the researchers and scientists that we've used - we always tend to go and get wherever we can try and get the best expert of the world authority on an individual area of expertise, get that person to do the work, and then we don't restrict them in their ability to publish research papers on that data, based on that data. To us, this is part of the process of transparency in getting the information out into the scientific domain.
So as I say, there's a lot of misinformation that's put out there. The impacts of the project. There are no impacts above 1,200 metres water depth, so there is no impact on the upper layers of the water column, which is where the tuna in the Bismark Sea occur.