Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Seabed mining

What is seabed mining?

Seabed mining is a form of mining for minerals on or under the seabed. Seabed mining is a new and evolving industry. In the Pacific Ocean, the focus of seabed mining has been on mining for copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum through extraction of minerals on the sea floor. In Australian waters, Geoscience Australia has identified other sea floor mineral deposits such as salt, shell limestone and phosphorite deposits as well as bedrock deposits of bauxite, iron, black and brown coal and tungsten.

How is sea-bed mining regulated in the Northern Territory?

Exploring and mining for minerals on the sea-bed within Northern Territory coastal waters is currently regulated by the same laws that apply to these activities on land. These laws are the Northern Territory Mineral Titles Act and the Northern Territory Mining Management Act.  Northern Territory coastal waters means areas within 3 nautical miles of the Northern Territory coast.

What is the moratorium?

On 6 March 2012, the Northern Territory Government announced a moratorium on seabed mining in Northern Territory waters until 2015. The purpose of the Moratorium is to halt seabed exploration and mining while the Northern Territory Government conducts a review of the risks of seabed mining. The Moratorium recognises that limited information is available on the actual or potential impacts of seabed mining on the environment.

The Minister for Mines and Energy has also made a referral to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to investigate seabed mining. The investigation will consider potential environmental impacts of seabed mining.

During the investigation, the EPA must:

  • consult with the community
  • consider the principles of ecologically sustainable development (read our Fact Sheet on Guiding principles of environmental law)
  • consider the need to adopt sound and scientifically-based objectives, targets and standards for environmental management that are consistent with best practice
  • consider the principle that decision making processes and frameworks should effectively integrate both long-term and short-term economic, environmental and social equity considerations
  • consider the need to facilitate community involvement (reflecting the diversity of the community) relating to issues affecting the community

It is likely that there will be a public consultation about how the Northern Territory should control seabed mining.  For more information, check the EPA’s website.

What does the moratorium cover?

During the moratorium, the Minister for Mines and Energy will not grant:

  • any new approvals to explore or mine for minerals under the Mineral Titles Act
  • any authorisations under the Mining Management Act

Existing mineral titles and authorisations that have already been granted continue in force and will remain on the Register of Titles and Register of Authorisations. However, the Minister for Mines and Energy will not exercise any functions under either the Mineral Titles Act or the Mining Management Act.  This means that if a mineral title was granted prior to the moratorium, the Minister for Mines and Energy will not assess or approve the renewal, or transfer of that titles and will not review or assess an original or amended version of a Mining Management Plan.  As mining can only take place lawfully in accordance with an approved Mining Management Plan, the moratorium has the effect of “freezing” any previously granted rights to mine and preventing any mining operations during the moratorium.  The only situation in which mining can lawfully take place is if the holder of a mineral title also already held an authorisation and an approved Mining Management Plan prior to the introduction of the moratorium.

The moratorium does not apply to exploration or mining for extractive minerals such as sand, soil, gravel and rocks.  These resources are typically mined by dredging.  For more information on dredging read our Fact Sheet on Dredging.

Seabed mining and the environment

Seabed mining has the potential to harm the environment. Some of the potential risks identified include:

  • destruction and disturbance to plants and animals that live on the seabed or depend on the seabed for their survival (for example, due to the food chain)
  • release of sediments into the water column
  • pollution into the marine environment caused by waste water discharge, sludge disposal and risk of pollution from increased vessels servicing the offshore industry
  • for deep water seabed mining, the release of colder water into the upper water column with potential impacts on fisheries and migratory species
  • noise pollution from mining and associated infrastructure, which could adversely affect marine creatures, such as dolphins and other cetaceans