Cook Islands opens seabed minerals exploration

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.