One step closer to mining sea floor

Wednesday 28 March 2018 | Published in Environment


One step closer to mining sea floor
Representatives from Ocean Minerals Ltd (OML) inspected the Layar Mas 291 last Friday. OML are expected to purchase the boat and repurpose it for deep-sea exploration. 18032629

The Cook Islands is the only country in the world with a widely recognised, commercially viable ‘polymetallic nodule field’ – including valuable deposits of cobalt and titanium – within its exclusive economic zone.

Last week, the country took a step towards becoming the first in the world to mine those nodules, with six representatives from the American-based Ocean Minerals Ltd (OML) company visiting the islands of Aitutaki and Rarotonga to explore the viability of harvesting nodules.

Last year, OML gained exclusive rights to apply for licensing to undertake prospecting and exploration activities in an area of around 23,000sqm. This area lies within the South Penrhyn Basin, one of only four locations in the world with densities high enough for potential commercial extraction of nodules.

The agreement with the Cook Islands government was reportedly worth $100,000 and is valid for 18 months. OML director David Huber says the company is now in the process of applying for a licence to prospect and explore the area.

Cobalt metal fetches more than $130,000 a tonne and its value is expected to keep soaring. According to a report published by the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust, the South Penrhyn Basin could meet 24 per cent of global demand for cobalt and 26 per cent of the demand for titanium.

It is assumed that a commercially viable mine would need to harvest at least 2.5 million tonnes a year for at least 20 years. At current value, that much cobalt would be worth $3.25 billion a year.

Cobalt has many uses, including the production of batteries, alloys for aircraft engine parts, electroplating, and imparting blue and green colours in glass and ceramics. Radioactive cobalt is even used in the treatment of cancer.

OML’s interest in the nodules is well-known – particularly with regard to cobalt’s “green” uses. It possesses many unusual properties, one of which is that it increases power efficiency when used in batteries. This is particularly important to renewable energy industry and electric car manufacturers, as it allows the use of smaller batteries. These batteries are identical to the ones being considered for the power storage project now underway in the Cook Islands.

Agencies in New Zealand, such as the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, have been working in collaboration with the Seabed Minerals Authority in the Cook Islands to ensure environmental issues are well understood.

In 2013, the Seabed Minerals Act came into effect in the Cook Islands. It was the world’s first dedicated seabed minerals-related national legislation.

Paul Lynch, who has led the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority since 2012, says the Cook Islands has developed a regime of controls on seabed minerals activity, which includes community input and strong environmental safeguards. “We see the technical and environmental issues as the most challenging to be addressed and overcome.”

The Cook Islands has also passed the 2017 Marae Moana Act, forming a nationally managed ocean space over the whole exclusive economic zone, which is almost two million square kilometres. The Act is based on conservation and zoned areas of resource utilisation, founded on a “whole of ocean” and precautionary approach.

OML had a number of engagements whilst here, including meetings with Lynch and Business Trade Investment Board chief executive Teariki Vakalalabure.

Director Huber said the purpose of the visit was to “seek the environmental, business, and government permissions to allow us to commence with the environmental data collecting and research phases of our project”.

OML says they are taking a “precautionary approach” towards the exploitation of the Cook Islands seabed and are focussed on the environment.

Sharing part of OML’s plan exclusively with CINews, engineer and chief operating officer for OML Hans Smit says their programme to collect environmental data, not only in nodule-rich areas but also across the broader Cook Islands region, spans at least three years.

“Our objective is to use Cook Islands vessels and Cook Islanders to collect this data and we have been in discussion with local companies and the authorities to establish what is required to commence these operations” says Smit.

“OML will gather data about sea life, birds, and many other things – statistics that Huber claims “have never been collected in the Cook Islands before”. Last Friday, the group inspected the Layar Mas 291, a vessel owned by local businessman Malcolm Sword. Huber said the boat was far from ideal, but added, “if there’s any way we can make this boat work, then we will”.

Huber has been in discussions with Sword about advanced requirements for the boat and says he admires Sword’s zeal. Huber says that even if the boat is not used to extract the nodules, it is likely to be used by OML for other purposes, including “baseline studies” of the environment.

OML have plans to soon establish a base in Rarotonga. Huber says that his company is dedicated to ensuring that the people of the Cook Islands see some benefit from their activities. He says legislation that ensures profits from OML’s activities remain within the country is currently before the Cook Islands parliament.

According to Huber, it is likely some money will go into a fund dedicated to upgrading infrastructure and other resources within the Cook Islands. However, he also confirmed that once extracted, the nodules will be taken to offshore smelting plants, probably in Australia or Indonesia.

OML will be advertising a vacancy within the next six months for an environmental and outreach coordinator to take charge of interaction and consultation with the people of the Cook Islands.

Huber says the company will be focused solely on the Cook Islands. “A lot will be happening within the next six months”.

However, he estimates mining operations are at least eight years away from beginning.