The Government is to licence undersea mining operators this coming financial year, to prospect the country’s 2 million sq km exclusive economic zone.
The object will be to determine whether they can extract up to 12 billion tonnes of manganese and cobalt nodules without jeopardising the environment, says the Deputy Prime Minister.
Mark Brown was responding to a new scientific report, commissioned by international environmental lobby groups, that warns of severe impacts on the ocean environment, causing irreversible species loss. The report says Cook Islands’ drive for mining raises concerns for the Marae Moana Marine Park, for tuna fisheries, and for tourism.
“A cost-benefit analysis of nodule mining in the Cook Islands indicates there is a great deal of uncertainty around potential yields as the technology is still experimental,” it finds.
Lead researcher Dr Andrew Chin, from James Cook University in Australia, said: “Deep sea ecosystems form an interconnected realm with mid and surface waters through the movement of species, energy flows, and currents.
“Not only will the nodule mining result in the loss of these species and damage deep sea beds for thousands of years, it will potentially result in negative consequences for the rest of the ocean and the people who depend on its health.”
The two groups that commissioned the report, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and Miningwatch Canada, are supporting calls for a moratorium on undersea mining in the Pacific.
Their views were echoed locally by Te Ipukarea Society. “Almost nothing is known about the deep sea biodiversity in the region, apart from the little they have extracted from the Clarion Clipperton Zone,” said technical director Kelvin Passfield.
“There is a need to conduct extensive research on what life there is on our deep seabed before we start mining, and this work should be undertaken by independent biologists, not those that sell their soul to the mining companies.”
He said a 10-year moratorium was “the responsible thing to do”, while more independent research was completed.
“Technology is changing rapidly and it may not be very long before we have found better ways to build our batteries for our phones and electric cars, reducing the perceived need to mine cobalt from the deep sea.”
But Mark Brown said the government wanted the same thing as they did: more information about the impact of seabed harvesting. “This is where focused research is critical, which will happen in the exploration phase of seabed mineral activities,” he said.
“Before government will allow harvesting to happen it must be satisfied that there are answers to the unknowns. We need to make decisions based on science, not fear of the unknown.”
He said the government was “taking the lead” on the development of its seabed resources. “We can't just sit back and expect good things to happen for the country. We need to be proactive in making the most of our natural resources.”
Seabed Minerals Commissioner Alex Herman said there was no seabed harvesting underway yet, and it was unlikely to happen for several years. “This presents us with a unique opportunity as it will be the first time an industry sector develops its framework before extraction happens.”
She refuted the report’s claim that Cook Islands had already issued an exploration licence. “This is incorrect,” she said. “No exploration licenses have been issued yet. Although the government will be running a robust licensing process for exploration in the next financial year.”
Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust director Gerald McCormack, the author of a book on the impact of seabed minerals extraction, said the Cook Islands nodule field was in a low catch area for tuna. “Their attempt to lump very different Pacific countries into one basket leads to a lot of confusion,” he said.
“The Cook Islands is moving slowly ahead with Exploratory Licenses and these will start generating the local scientific information needed to decide if is environmentally reasonable to mine the nodules. It is not a foregone conclusion.”