May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 2021

Companies interested in conducting seabed minerals exploration work in Cook Islands have until December to put in their Expressions of Interest.

This was announced by Prime Minister Mark Brown in an elaborate ceremony last week which officially launched the exploration licensing phase of seabed minerals exploration in the Cook Islands.

“I, the Minister for Seabed Minerals, officially declare blocks of Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone available for exploration,” Brown said. “I now invite applications from interested parties to apply for exploration licenses in our waters.  The licensing process will be administered by the Seabed Minerals Authority.  The closing date for application is the 11 of December 2020.”

“My word of advice to interested applicants: put your best foot forward.  This is a long term partnership so we the government want to ensure that whoever we allow to operate in our waters will put forward the best exploration work programme and would leave the best outcomes for our country and our people,” Brown added. 

If mining does eventuate, Cook Islands would be the second country in the Pacific to venture into seabed mining, following Papua New Guinea. PNG was the first nation globally to allow seabed mining in its waters when it granted Canadian company Nautilus Minerals a mining license in 1997.

Nautilus has since become bankrupt, abandoning a project that had cost the PNG Government over US$100million in failed investment in the company.

Although the sources of minerals in the two countries are very different – PNG involved the extraction of Seafloor Massive Sulphides(SMS) from hydrothermal vents while in the Cook Islands, any mining activity will focus on extraction from manganese nodules – seabed mining in general is being vigorously opposed in the Pacific by environmentalists, individuals, NGOs and church groups. Other countries such as Fiji have put in place a moratorium on seabed mining until more scientific information becomes available.

But Cook Islands is known to be sitting on a potentially lucrative minerals lode in its manganese nodules, which its Government now wants to tap into as it tries to lessen its economy's heavy reliance on tourism, currently in cold storage due to COVID-19.

The nodules were first discovered there by Russian scientists 50 years ago and since then, a number of scientific expeditions have been carried out in Cook Island waters, firming up a scientific data base on the nature, size and value of its undersea fortunes. 

One early study in 2001 by Japanese scientists in collaboration with SOPAC had estimated the value of minerals in the nodules to be in the trillions of dollars and enough to supply global demand “for the next 500 years”.    

Another study a decade later by Imperial College marine geochemist David Cronan, estimated that the Cook Islands’ roughly two million square kilometres of EEZ contained 10 billion tonnes of manganese nodules, rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals and worth tens of billions of dollars as these metals are used in the manufacture of communication technologies (batteries) and in smart and green technologies. 

Commercial mining however was dependent upon the availability of suitable technology, which hadn’t been possible until very recently.    

For Cook Islands, the decision to finally allow exploration to formally begin came after years of groundwork in the creation of relevant laws and governance mechanisms that try to balance environmental concerns with the necessity to convert the potentials of the nodules into economic opportunities.

“To be clear, this is not a process that happened overnight.  It has taken many years and the efforts and hard work of many people, together with exhaustive consultation with all stakeholders, including our traditional leaders, village communities and most importantly our Pa Enua (outer islands) to conclude the preparatory work so that we can be ready to move into this next phase,” said Prime Minister Brown. 

“The sector has the potential for setting up a transformational future for the Cook Islands, one that will secure the prosperity of current and future generations of Cook Islanders.  When extracted in an environmentally responsible manner, the metals found in the nodules, such as nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt have the potential to help meet our SDGs.  To achieve that, we are building a seabed minerals sector based on best principles and practices, supported by a robust legal framework to benefit the Cook Islands and our people in harmony with our high environmental, social and cultural values.”

“With the resurgence of global demand for strategic metals such as cobalt, the Cook Islands has received interests from potential explorers wishing to undertake exploration activities in our waters.   We as a government wanted to make sure that we have our legal framework and our operational systems and processes in place before we open up our waters for exploration,” Brown said.

Much is also riding on the wealth from the nodules to help the country mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“There is a major shift globally towards a society based on renewable energy and technology.  In order to achieve a low carbon economy, the World Bank estimates that more than three billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed by the year 2050.  The demand for cobalt alone is going to increase by nearly 500 percent to meet the growing demand for clean energy.  Many of these critical minerals are found in the deep seabed.  Our Cook Islands nodules contain a high concentration of these minerals and are vital to the transition to a low carbon economy.  Again our ocean holds the key to meeting some of the world’s greatest challenges such as combating climate change and ensuring affordable and clean energy for all,” said Brown. 

In 2012, the Cook Islands Government set up its Seabed Minerals Authority to administer all relevant work and in anticipation that seabed mining will transition to become a full-fledged industry in the future.  

The Authority’s Commissioner Alex Herman described the exploration licensing process as “a major step towards achieving the vision for our seabed minerals sector.” 

“Much has been achieved. Much remains to be done. However I am confident in the processes that we have set up and that we have a sound foundation on which to build the Authority’s core role, which is to administer, manage and regulate the conduct of seabed minerals activities in our waters,” Herman said. 

“Our licensing framework contains a number of independent checks and balances such as our independent licensing panel and a separate permit body for environmental approvals.  It also requires that key environmental principles are upheld and met.  Equally important, it serves the interest of our communities, for example through our advisory committee who will share and make recommendations to the Authority on community perspectives,” she added. 

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has again called for a 10-year moratorium on sea-bed mining, at a time that many Pacific island nations are preparing for new frontiers of resource exploitation in the marine environment.

Speaking in Tuvalu this week before the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, Prime Minister Bainimarama called on fellow Forum island states to “support a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining from 2020 to 2030, which would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zones and territorial waters.”

There is growing pressure from French, Canadian and US corporations to advance the deep-sea mining (DSM) agenda, as well as interest from the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association. Just as energy corporations are looking towards deep-sea oil and gas reserves, companies are developing technology to exploit mineral ore deposits found on the ocean floor, including cobalt crusts, seafloor massive sulphides and ferromanganese nodules.

Fiji’s call for a moratorium comes as community groups across the region are campaigning against potential environmental hazards of deep-sea mining, especially to ecologically sensitive hydrothermal vents. A report from the Guam-based Blue Ocean Law argues: “There is a general failure to incorporate sufficient environmental protections, as well as the norm of free, prior, and informed consent for indigenous peoples, who are most likely to be impacted by DSM. In the 21st century, and under well-established norms of international law, these omissions represent serious violations of international legal obligations.”

Bainimarama’s call comes the same week as major restructuring of the Nautilus Minerals corporation, which has been planning to commence mining off the coast of Papua New Guinea, under a world-first licence issued by the PNG government.

Fiji and oceans policy

In recent years, Fiji has taken a leading role in ocean policy at the United Nations, working with other Forum island countries through the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group.

In June 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the high-level UN Conference on the Oceans and Seas in New York. This conference issued a call for action, highlighting action on ocean acidification, plastics, and overfishing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed former Fiji UN Ambassador Peter Thomson as the UN Special Envoy on the Ocean.

This global campaigning is also translating into domestic legislation. Speaking in Tuvalu this week, Prime Minister Bainimarama said: “In addition to playing a leadership role in the global Ocean Pathway, we are also developing a National Oceans Policy, under which Fiji plans to move to a 100 per cent sustainable managed  Exclusive Economic Zone, with 30 per cent of this being earmarked as a marine protected area by no later than 2030.”

Under the Forum’s “Blue Pacific” agenda, island nations are seeking to draw the links between oceans and climate policy. Bainimarama noted that Fiji was working with the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership to develop “a blended and innovative finance structure to support the decarbonisation of domestic marine transportation fleets and facilities in Fiji and across the region. This means replacing inter-island ships with more efficient hybrid ships, thereby reducing fuel costs and emissions.”

Pacific DSM initiatives

Under the provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), many Forum island countries with large EEZs have been in discussions with transnational corporations to partner in deep sea exploration for maritime resources. Under UNCLOS and the authority of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), developing countries can also partner with overseas corporations to licence exploration in “The Area”, international waters that include vast arrays of minerals in Pacific Ocean areas such as the Clarion-Clipperton zone.

Nauru has long been a champion of DSM – at last year’s Forum leaders’ meeting, Nauru President Baron Waqa hosted a side even with ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge and Samantha Smith, the former Head of Environment and Social Responsibility with the deep-sea mining corporation DeepGreen.

This new frontier has drawn in regional organisations, to address legal, technical and regulatory issues around DSM. Boundary limitation is a vital concern as Pacific nations seek to increase potential revenues from fisheries and seabed mining in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). From 2010-16, the European Union funded the Pacific Community (SPC) to develop model DSM legislation for Forum member states, with many civil society groups concerned this work was promoting rather than regulating DSM.

The SPC Maritime Boundaries Division has also been engaged in technical work to clarify borders between independent island states as well as with colonial powers like France and the United States (for example, Vanuatu and France have been involved in a decades-long dispute over Matthew and Hunter islands).

There are tensions between the administering powers and territorial governments over the control of seabed minerals in the remaining colonies in the region. With an EEZ of nearly 5 million square kilometres, ocean-floor resources could be vitally important for the newest Forum member, French Polynesia. However, as the French government moved to amend French Polynesia’s autonomy statue earlier this year, France’s constitutional court ruled that rare earths can be classified as “strategic metals”, which come under the control of the French State rather than the Government of French Polynesia.   

Independence leaders have long argued against the French State’s control of strategic metals, with former Senator for French Polynesia Richard Ariihau Tuheiava telling the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 2017: “We have continually emphasised the critical nature of the resource question as a core issue for our future development. Whether or not these resources are considered in Paris to be ‘strategic’ is irrelevant to the applicability of international legal decisions which place the ownership of natural resources with the people of the non-self-governing territories.”

Collapse of PNG initiative

Early initiatives to begin sea-bed mining in the Pacific have not come to fruition. This week’s set-back to a major project in Papua New Guinea provides a salutary warning about the complexity and potential costs of DSM.

Under a licence issued by the PNG government, Nautilus Minerals has long planned to mine seabed minerals beneath PNG’s Bismarck Sea. However, with widespread community resistance, falling share prices and the loss of a specialised support vessel, Nautilus constantly pushed out the date for commencement of mining.

In February this year, Nautilus filed for court protection from its creditors under the Canadian Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), and the Canadian-based company was later delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange. This week, major shareholders MB Holding and Metalloinvest have moved to take control of company assets at the expense of major creditors and smaller shareholders (The PNG Government holds 15 per cent equity in Nautilus’ PNG subsidiary and the Solwara 1 project through the company Eda Kopa).

The looming collapse of the Solwara seabed mining initiative has been welcomed by civil society groups in Papua New Guinea, which have been campaigning against potential adverse impacts on ocean ecology.

Jonathan Mesulam of PNG’s Alliance of Solwara Warriors stated: “We rejoiced when the company filed for protection from creditors in Canada. Our opposition and our court action have helped push it to that point. Communities across Papua New Guinea want to see the nightmare of deep-sea mining removed from PNG waters. We will re-double our efforts to ensure that the new Nautilus will never operate at Solwara 1.”

Fiji’s call for a moratorium on DSM will be debated in the corridors at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum, but there’s a way to go before all Forum member countries are willing to delay action on the supposed ocean El Dorado.

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