Reuters Paris

Israel’s Leviev Group aims to start mining fertiliser material phosphate off Namibia’s coast by 2018 after addressing concerns that led the country last year to announce an 18-month freeze on new permits for marine mines.

Deep-sea mining has attracted growing interest as technology has opened up new resources that could replace depleted land mines. But projects have stirred debate about environmental risks.

Leviev hoped a demonstration processing plant it planned to launch this year at Luderitz would address such concerns and allow full-scale construction work to proceed so production could start in 2017 or 2018, Erez Mishal, the vice-president of business development and operations, said on Tuesday.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the CRU Phosphates 2014 conference.

Leviev, which has gold and diamond mines and previously extracted diamonds from the seabed off Namibia, estimates it can mine about 2 million tons of phosphate rock a year from as deep as 300m below sea level in a deposit it has estimated at 2 billion tons.

After a self-financed $20 million (R214.3m) investment in the demonstration plant, it would like to find an industry partner for the full development that would require a $800m investment, Mishal said.

Phosphate is one of three major crop nutrients, along with potash and nitrogen.

Leviev is touting the project, which is being developed by its subsidiary LL Namibia Phosphates, as offering the lowest phosphate rock production costs in the world at a projected $16.61 a ton, supported by an acid-based processing technique that reduces the need to remove rock impurities first.

This would be about half the $33 a ton reported by Mosaic, the world’s biggest maker of finished phosphate products, as its average phosphate rock mining cost last year.

There has been debate in recent years about the approach of so-called peak phosphate supply, after which output will decline, but Leviev and technical partner EcoPhos said their process allowed the use of low-grade rock that was not feasible before.