Tapping the sea’s mineral bounty

In Photo: This undated photo shows a fisherman in Sabang, Southern Leyte, preparing to alight from his makeshift boat.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is eyeing to spend an initial P100 million for an ambitious offshore mineral exploration project in the Philippine Rise and Celebes Sea in the next three years.

Initially, a P30-million budget has already been approved in principle, setting the proposed project in motion for next year’s offshore exploration activities.

The proposal to explore the Philippine Rise was made three years ago, but it was only now that a proposed budget has finally been approved.

Environment Undersecretary for Mining Mario Luis J. Jacinto, also concurrent director of the Mines and Geosciences Board (MGB), said the proposed budget for 2019 is P33 million, and for 2020, P37 million.

Given the task at hand, the government will be spending at least P500 million in the next three years, including the acquisition of equipment for the deep-water mineral exploration and repair of the DENR’s research vessel, although only the requested budget of P30 million for 2018 has been approved by Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, so far.

The P30-million budget for next year’s exploration will be equally divided, with exploration activities for Philippine Rise and Celebes Sea each getting a P15 million allocation.

Not so fast 

Environmental groups, this early, are stiffly opposing the plan and chided the DENR-MGB for coming up with the proposal.

Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines, an ocean-conservation-advocacy group, described the proposal as “alarming”.

“I hope the fund goes to biodiversity protection instead to help make our oceans healthy to boost food security. Coming from the DENR, which is also tasked by our laws to mainstream environmental protection, that is really alarming,” Ramos said.

“You know, I am not sure if they even consulted the Biodiversity Management Bureau [BMB]. We know that the Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle so we are host to the most diverse marine and coral ecosystem. If you do exploration, the most likely victims are the marine ecosystem,” she said.

“The MGB should start with its own backyard. Consult the BMB. They have already mapped out what are the marine key biodiversity areas [MKBAs],” she said.

Oceana joined the 2015 expedition in the Benham Bank where the beauty and abundance of corals were captured on film by divers.

The area has a 100-percent coral cover, perhaps the only remaining perfectly intact coral reefs in the Philippines, and “now they want to destroy it?” Ramos said. “This compels all stakeholders to push for the protection of the Philippine Rise,” she added.

In December last year Ramos said 196 countries adopted the Philippine Rise as an Ecologically, Biologically Significant Area because it is a known spawning ground of the Pacific bluefin tuna.

“If you are going to do offshore mining, it will surely somehow destroy the ecosystems. Please, lay off Benham Rise,” she said.

An environmental lawyer, Ramos said environmental groups won’t not hesitate to take legal action to stop the project.

Ramos, along with another lawyer, Liza Eisma-Osorio, filed and won a petition before the Supreme Court to stop further offshore oil- and -gas explorations by the Japan Exploration Philippines Inc. in the Tañon Strait.

“The people will not hesitate to take this battle to court. This early, news about Beham Rise’s natural beauty and bounty has [gone viral] and there is a growing sense of ownership of Benham Rise. They want to protect it,” she said.

Mineral exploration

The Geologic Mapping–Coastal and Offshore Geological Studies and Mineral Exploration project (Philippine Seas, especially the Benham Rise and Celebes Sea) is a five-year project that will conduct research and exploration to determine the economic potential of the marine areas in the Philippines.

It aims to delineate areas with placer mineral deposits particularly gold, platinum, titanium, iron, scandium and other rare earth minerals and ferromanganese nodules and determine the occurrence, concentration, genesis and ore reserves of polymetallic sulphides and other deep-sea mineral deposits.

This will be the first time that the DENR-MGB will conduct an offshore mineral exploration in the Philippine Rise and Celebes Sea. In the past, the DENR-MGB explored minerals, particularly magnetite sand deposits in the Ilocos region and placer gold deposits in Leyte and Hinatuan Passage.

Jacinto said Cimatu is “very interested to know what minerals and rocks are present in the Philippine Rise”. The Philippine Rise could be a source of huge revenue for the country, he said.

Also, Cimatu wants to dig deep into the Philippine Deep for deuterium and hydrogen and is keen on having new sources of fuel in case the country’s current sources are depleted.

The conduct of the geological investigation and exploration for minerals, particularly polymetallic sulfide, at the Philippine Rise and Celebes Sea was approved by Cimatu himself.

Yolanda M. Aguilar, MGB Central Office Marine Geological Survey Division officer in charge-chief, said they are now in the process of planning the exploration surveys at the Philippine Rise.

“It will likely happen between April and May,” Aguilar said.

Needed budget  

She added that a reconnaissance geological and geophysical survey is currently being planned and more studies and long-term program proposals are being prepared, and may depend on the availability and approval of the proposed budget.

According to Aguilar, the MGB’s research vessel, the RPS Explorer, will be used. However, she said the vessel would have to undergo repair to make sure that it is sea worthy.

“The repair of the RPS Explorer alone will cost around P300 million. We are also planning to buy deep-water equipment, which we will use,” she said.

“We are requesting a huge budget for this. Initially, they are giving P30 million for 2018. We will do the exploration in April and May at the Philippine Rise. After May, we could visit the Celebes Sea,” Aguilar said.

She added that the DENR-MGB, with the help of expert divers, will conduct geophysical surveys, applying seismic survey, ecosounder and sidescan sonar, to trace the topography of the seamounts in the Philippine Rise.

“From there, we will also get samples. We will be doing grab sampling. Rocks, sediments, if possible, near hydrothermal vents, for laboratory tests,” Aguilar said.

She said since the DENR-MGB will only have a two-month window every year, the first 20 days will be spent do the geophysical surveys. The next 20 days will be spent collecting samples.

“We will start at the walls of the Benham Bank. We will be doing grab sampling where there are no corals,” she said.

Aguilar said the team will get help from expert divers considering the depth of the ocean to be explored. The DENR-MGB, she said, also plans to buy a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to take photographs and videos underwater. The target is to reach trenches that are 3 kilometers deep.

According to Aguilar, the MGB has the expertise to do the exploration. “We have geologists who can do geophysics,” she said. At least 30 people will be needed, working a three-shift 24 hours a day during the exploration.

Not just about mining

Aguilar said she is unfazed by the strong opposition expressed by environmental groups.

“Our mandate is to explore minerals. What we want to do is know the minerals within our territories. Even outside the Philippine territory, there are ongoing offshore mining explorations,” she said.

According to Aguilar, even outside the Philippine territory, the government can conduct an exploration and can benefit even from royalty in case of any significant find.

She said she is also exploring the possibility of collaborating with other countries, like Japan or China.

“Imagine spending P10 million to P12 million per expedition. We will be doing this for two months. If we can do reconnaissance, we can start this year, but it is dangerous. We can also ask the help of the Philippine Navy to use its research vessel to go to the Philippine Rise if we are unable to make the necessary repair in our research vessel,” Aguilar said.

Going to the Philippine Rise alone is a difficult and dangerous task, she said. “It takes around five days to go to the Philippine Rise from Manila with a boat running at 9 knots,” she said.

According to Aguilar, the mineral exploration project is not just about mining, defending the wisdom of spending such money for an ambitious project.

“We are geologists. We are studying the Earth. We are not all about mining. Our study will identify geological hazards, too,” she said.

“We can also help determine its effect to the environment,” Aguilar added, saying that part of the activities will study the integrity of the plateau, particularly the thin wall that supports the Benham Rise, the shallowest portion of the Philippine Rise.

“Based on the geophysical survey, we will not only now the shape, but also the integrity of plateau,” she said.

Given the financial and technical limitations, Cimatu directed the MGB to create teams to conduct further research on the extraction of deuterium and to coordinate with the departments of Energy and Science and Technology, which both have already started separate explorations in the areas in the past.

Image Credits: Nonie Reyes