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OPINION: The greenwashing of deep sea mining

Saturday 30 July 2022 | Written by Te Ipukarea Society | Published in Editorials, Opinion


OPINION: The greenwashing of deep sea mining
A robotic arm lifts minerals from the sea bed. Photo: SUPPLIED/18021114

The opinion piece in last Saturday’s paper by Mike Tavioni raises a number of important issues for the 2022 election, writes Te Ipukarea Society.

We agree that all his listed topics are very important issues for would-be parliamentarians to consider. However, we believe his understanding of polymetallic nodules should be treated with caution as it is perhaps influenced by the greenwashing tactics around that proponents of deep sea mining which has have been going on doing here for a number of years.

It is very misleading not to name this prospective industry for what it is: “Deep Sea Mining”. In the article the word “collecting” is specifically used instead of mining. This is exactly the sort of propaganda the mining companies use when referring to their intended activities. These companies do not even include the word “mining” in their company names. They know very well the connotations associated with that word brings images of environmental devastation to mind. This is exactly what polymetallic nodule “collecting” is going to do to our seabed.

These mining companies attempt to improve their public image and pass themselves off as “research organisations” rather than what they actually are. “Research” for these companies via exploration is just a means to make money from the minerals on the seabed, with minimal regard for the environmental impacts.

We need to put comments in the article into context and consider whether it is possible that mining companies may have influenced the thinking on this issue. According to the information provided in their application for a seabed mining exploration licence, mining company CIC Limited has set up and funded The Cook Islands Traditional Arts Trust (Te Rito O Taku Peu Tupuna). That document also tells us that the first project of the Trust is to construct The Tavioni Arts School Taura Vananga Trust.
There are some other flaws in the article’s logic as well. For example, the dredging of Bluff oysters and the lack of pollution from that long term fishery. You cannot compare shallow water oyster dredging to deep sea mining. Shallow water environments are much more dynamic than deep waters. Therefore, deep-sea organisms are not as less accustomed and resilient to disturbances.

There is also no mention of the environmental destruction caused to the reefs that are dredged for oysters. This is a quote regarding the Bluff oyster fishery from a New Zealand Geographic Magazine article, issue 84 in 2007, by oyster scientist Dr. John Cranfield. He spent 32 years as a researcher at the New Zealand Institute for Water and Atmosphere (NIWA) – “Today the oyster population has been reduced below 10 per cent of its size in the 1960s (when the population was first estimated) and the area of oyster beds actually dredged has probably been reduced by an order of magnitude more. The seafloor of the oyster fishery, formerly covered by bands of complex biogenic reef, is now a barren desert of rapidly shifting sand or gravel. Elsewhere in the world such signs are called a fishery collapse.”

This month another mining company with a seabed mining exploration licence in the Cook Islands launched a naming competition for their new boat. They have asked school children to come up with an appropriate name for their new mining exploration ship, with a significant cash prize for the school, and an iPadPro for the student. Using words like ecologically sustainable development, preserve and protect, and the mana of the ocean, for an industry that could lead to the loss of a way of life for Pacific Islanders, is intended greenwashing. Hopefully the schools and students will see this for the public relations exercise that it is. No-one will blame them for going after the prizes, but hopefully they will not be duped into believing there is anything ecologically sustainable about deep sea mining.

Once those huge heavy machines crawl over the seabed sucking up nodules, the damage is irreversible. The nodules, currently golf-ball size, have taken millions of years to form. The animals that live on and around these nodules will be crushed by the machines or smothered in the plume and will never recover. Their home will be gone.
Interestingly enough, a number of comments on Facebook have already come up with what could be considered more appropriate names for a vessel at the forefront of the destruction of our ocean’s health. These include Seabed Destroyer, Pacific Plunderer, and Deep Greed. We would be happy to hear any other ideas for boat names readers may have (sorry, no iPad or $2000 available from us!).

(Greenwashing: “To provide misleading information about how a company is environmentally sound.”)


Terry Smith on 07/08/2022

Your opinion piece is misleading on a number of fronts. 1) There's a good reason that nodule collecting is not called mining - it isn't mining. Mining implies digging into the earth. Nodules aren't dug up, they are collected from the surface. 2) You say that collecting will "devastate" the environment but you provide no context. Minerals to support society and the green energy transition must come from somewhere. Better that they are "collected" from the abyssal plains than they are mined from rainforests in Indonesia, Africa, and South America. If you want to see real environmental destruction, look at what actual mining operations are doing to those rainforests. 3) You point out that dredging for oysters and other dredging has brought great harm to shallow waters. You also correctly mention that these shallow waters are more dynamic than the deep waters of the abyssal plains. You then make an illogical leap to conclude that "deep-sea organisms are not as less accustomed and resilient to disturbances" vs. shallow water operations which makes no sense at all. The shallow waters are far more biodiverse and biologically dense than the abyssal plains yet we "mine" them all the time for various purposes. The idea of collecting nodules from a small portion of the sparsely populated abyssal plains to help decarbonize the planet and keep the CI above water is one that should be pursued vigorously.