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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sitting on a gold mine
CNMI may have gold, silver, oil deposits waiting to be explored

If international seafloor mining companies’ interests in previous years are a gauge, then the CNMI may be sitting on or surrounded by multimillion worth of high-grade hydrothermal deposits rich in copper, zinc and lead with a high gold and silver content as well as large oil and natural gas reserves—without its local government even knowing about it—based on information that House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) recently gathered.

Meanwhile, the Inos administration said it would like to obtain more information about the reported minerals.

The speaker, on his way to Washington, D.C. later this month to meet with federal officials, said he would be posing questions—and hopes to obtain answers—about reported valuable minerals within or near the CNMI.

He cited, for example, online publications stating that two seafloor mining companies—Canada-based Nautilus Minerals and Australia-based Neptune Minerals—have applied for mining exploration licenses in the CNMI.

In their respective websites, the companies said they plan to mine the world’s seafloor copper-gold sites, also called seafloor massive sulphide, or SMS, deposits.

SMS are high-grade hydrothermal deposits rich in copper, zinc, and lead with a high gold and silver content found on the ocean floor.

Quoting online resources, the speaker cited that in January 2006, Neptune Minerals applied for exploration licenses covering approximately 147,000 square kilometers along the Marianas Arc and the associated back-arc basin offshore from the CNMI.

That was three years before then-President Bush signed in January 2009 a proclamation establishing the CNMI’s three northernmost islands a part of a Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

“The articles didn’t say whether they [Nautilus and Neptune] were granted a license [when they applied for it],” Deleon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

His first question is: “What is out there?”

“We want to know and confirm what is out there. If the federal government has information about what’s out there, I think we should be informed,” Deleon Guerrero said.

The second question, he said, would be whether the federal government has granted anyone a license to mine these minerals.

“The third question is, in the context of the submerged lands conveyance to the CNMI, if these deposits are within the 3 miles territorial waters, are we entitled to any royalties or revenues? If the licenses were issued prior to the conveyance, and now that it has been conveyed, are those rights also transferred?” Our reading of the Submerged Lands Act is that we are not,” the speaker said.

But he said he would like the U.S. government to confirm such.

Another question is whether the U.S. Department of the Interior would still issue licenses to seafloor mining companies now that the CNMI controls its 3-mile submerged lands, except those in the Marianas Trench Marine Monument and around military leases on Tinian and Farallon de Medinilla.

“We don’t have any type of authority regulating underwater or seabed mining. There’s a lot of questions that need to be asked and clarified,” the House speaker added.

Another online publication tackling the Marianas Trench Marine Monument stated that in the seabed around the Marianas Trench and Rose Atoll National Monuments, geologists have identified “hard minerals like phosphate, abyssal manganese, ferromanganese, cobalt, sulfide, olivine, feldspar, clinopyroxene, opaline, silica and pyrite as well as hydrothermal deposits of gold and silver—and the world’s richest deposits of baryite (barite).”

The publications says under those seabed is “the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves.”

“Preliminary estimates suggest the oil and natural gas reserves will dwarf the combined reserves found under the North Slope of Alaska and in the Arabian Peninsula—combined,” the publication adds.

The House speaker also cited another online article stating that the establishment of the Marianas Trench as a National Marine Monument prohibiting mining “could have effectively neutralized some of these mining activities in the Marianas.”

Still, the speaker said this is a question that needs to be asked and hopefully answered.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), meanwhile, earlier asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to take action on the transfer of oil, gas, and other mineral rights to the CNMI, now that the U.S. transfer of control over submerged lands to the CNMI has started.

At the time, Sablan said he’s not aware of any such leases or grants that the federal government may have issued in areas that the CNMI now owns.

Press secretary Angel Demapan, when sought for comment yesterday, said he’s not aware if the information the speaker has gathered has been directly communicated to the administration.

“However, it is definitely something that the administration would like to obtain more information about. At this point, the government’s view is that the submerged lands conveyed to the Commonwealth are the property of the Commonwealth. As such, any and all matters that affect these areas should be addressed to and by the Commonwealth,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.

Deleon Guerrero, at Sablan’s invitation, would be meeting with officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense. Also among his key concerns are the U.S. military’s plans for Pagan and Tinian and the entire CNMI.

When asked whether he’s perplexed that the U.S. government has not brought the issue of minerals to the CNMI’s attention, the speaker said “maybe because we never asked” or “maybe because all rights and authority over the waters surrounding the Marianas were under federal control.”

Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, the CNMI House of Representatives adopted a joint resolution urging Congress to recognize the rights of people of Northern Marianas descent to control its exclusive economic zone—the submerged lands and water extending 200 miles around the islands.

By a vote of 19-1, the House adopted Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro’s (R-Saipan) House Joint Resolution 18-1 introduced a year ago. The resolution is on its way to the CNMI Senate.

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