Acting prime minister Mark Brown yesterday announced there was already strong interest from international companies in exploration rights.
It is the second time the government will have called for applications. The first, in 2015, attracted interest, but no applications.
But Brown said that in the three years since, “a lot has happened that has generated more serious interest”.
“One of them is the increasing price – particularly of cobalt.”
Cobalt has tripled in price in the past year, according to Seabed Minerals Commissioner Paul Lynch, driven by increasing demand for electric batteries for vehicles.
Lynch said cobalt was currently only available from the Democratic Republic of Congo “and it is called ‘conflict cobalt’ because of tribal warfare, corruption and social impacts.
“These big operators are looking for a clean source of cobalt and Cook Islands is standing out. As long as environmental issues are dealt with, you won’t have the black marks against it the current cobalt does.”
Lynch and Brown estimated the value of Cook Islands cobalt at hundreds of billions of dollars.
Cobalt is one of the minerals used in the battery industry and the push towards electric vehicles is boosting demand and raising prices. In addition, batteries are the main form of storage for solar power.
“The polymetallic nodules on our seabed have been identified as having a very high amount of cobalt in them,” Brown said.
“It is actually a green mineral that is helping the world reduce carbon emissions.”
“Our country is one of few regions of the world where an abundance of these minerals is sitting on the ocean floor. It is an opportunity to undertake exploration to gather more information.
“It is also an opportunity for companies to test their technology and gain information on the environmental impacts on the seafloor of any activities that may be undertaken.
“It will enable us then to make more informed decisions if we move forward to the next stage, which will be the harvesting of these nodules that sit on our seafloor.
“The demand for the minerals on the world market really gives the Cook Islands an opportunity to earn significantly more income than we do now.
“It is an opportunity to transform much of the country with the wealth that sits on the bottom of the ocean for us.” Brown said his recent visit to Norway was an opportunity to look at how a country like Norway used its ocean oil and gas resources to transform itself.
“Over a period of 50 years since they discovered oil and gas they (have) provided us with a roadmap on how they got to where they are today.
“For first half of the 50 years they were able to build up their country – the infrastructure, up to a standard they wanted as a modern country. Then after 25 years they started to invest into their Sovereign Wealth Fund and today that stands at more than a trillion dollars.
“That is just from the earnings of their oil and gas. They are now moving into the minerals sector on their ocean floor, but they have been able to do it in a way that protects their fishery. Norway’s fishery is one of the most lucrative in the world. It earns them $6 billion a year, but that pales in comparison to their oil and gas revenues which are about $65 billion.
“So they provide a roadmap that is one we should look at closely for us to emulate if, indeed, we do choose to move down the road of harvesting those nodules that sit on the ocean floor.”
“Prior to the tender process the government will be holding a series of consultations and meetings with our communities and stakeholder groups to create awareness on our programme, so that people know what we intend to be doing.
“Starting next week we will be having our first public consultation in Avarua and then we will be in Puaikura and then Takitumu and to outer islands in the Southern Group and the Northern Group.
“This is a programme owned by all of our people and so it is right and proper we take this information out to everybody and let them know what we are proposing and what the benefits are that will be coming back to the country if we move to harvesting these minerals that our country has been blessed with.”