Deep-sea mining tussle highlights divide among Pacific island nations

Some nations are pushing for more research into environmental consequences and a moratorium.
By Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2023.07.20
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Deep-sea mining tussle highlights divide among Pacific island nations A Greenpeace activist confronts the deep-sea mining vessel Hidden Gem, commissioned by Canadian miner The Metals Company, as it returns to port from eight weeks exploration in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Mexico and Hawaii, off the coast of Mexico on November 16, 2022.
Reuters

Pacific island countries are at the forefront of the global fight over whether mining companies should harvest metals from the seabed.

But unlike the region’s unified calls for action to limit climate change, the island nations’ governments are divided. Some are concerned about environmental damage and others see exploitation of the resources as the route to prosperity.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations body that administers vast mining-license areas in international waters, will meet this month in Jamaica as the tussle over mining the deep intensifies – a possibly critical moment for the seabed mining industry and the nations that oppose it.

Proponents of deep-sea mining say it will help provide the metals needed for batteries that power electric vehicles and other green technologies as countries try to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

The so-called polymetallic nodules that are in abundance in parts of the ocean contain cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. They form over millions of years and average 5-10 centimeters in diameter, the size of a small potato.

Environmental groups and some scientists say the industry could cause long-term or irreparable damage to seafloor life, on which there is far less research than land environments.  

“We have witnessed the horrific impact of terrestrial mining. Now we’re talking about mining in the deep without knowing anything about it,” said Pelenatita Petelo Kara, a Tongan activist who campaigns against deep-sea mining.

“This industry is extractive like any other. There is no way the footprint is going to be minimal.” 

Economic opportunities

The Metals Company, listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, is working with the Pacific island nations of Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga to exploit their license areas in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. The 4.5 million square kilometer (1.7 square million mile) area in the central Pacific is regulated by the ISA and contains trillions of polymetallic nodules at depths of up to 5.5 kilometers.

The Cook Islands, meanwhile, is allowing exploration by other companies in its own waters and doesn’t need ISA approval to mine in them.

Its prime minister, Mark Brown, said the Cook Islands has been “blessed” with seabed minerals and its exclusive economic zone can accommodate both marine protection and deep-sea mining.

“We would like to be the center of excellence on the understanding of the deep ocean. There is no country in the world at the moment that can claim that,” he told Radio Free Asia. “We see the minerals that we have as being able to assist the world and the transition towards green energy.”

The four countries all have very small populations and limited economic opportunities which means they see seabed mining as a possible windfall, said Patrick Kaiku, a political science lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea.

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Pacific Islands Forum chair and Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Stephen Brown, speaks during the Korea-Pacific Islands Summit in Seoul, South Korea on Monday, May 29, 2023. Credit: AP

Nauru, for example, is home to little more than 10,000 people and more than half of its government’s revenue comes from hosting a contentious Australian detention center for unauthorized migrants.

However, their push to mine the deep could undermine the moral authority that Pacific island nations have when they call for action to limit sea-level rise and advocate on other environmental concerns, Kaiku said.

“Seabed mining is just the latest thing that could split the priorities of Pacific islands in terms of their collective focus,” he said.

The Metals Company has already been testing its equipment for scooping the metallic nodules from the ocean floor. A truck-sized remotely operated vehicle hoovers up the nodules, which are pumped to a ship on the surface. Seabed sediment and organisms sucked up by the harvesting are later discharged back into the sea. Crushing and refining to extract the metals would take place on land.

Research in Japan, published this month in the journal Cell Biology, showed that a deep-sea mining test that lasted only two hours might have significantly decreased fish and shrimp populations in the vicinity even after a year.

Calls for a moratorium

The July 24-28 meeting of the seabed authority in Kingston, Jamaica will attempt to address whether seabed mining can go ahead in international waters without agreement on the regulations for the industry, according to Greenpeace.

Nauru in June 2021 notified the seabed authority of its intention to begin mining, which started the clock on a two-year period for the authority’s member nations to finalize regulations.

Now that the deadline is expiring, the ISA may be obliged to consider a mining application from Nauru, a 21 square kilometer (8.1 square mile) island known for its journey from wealth to penury last century after its phosphate was mined to exhaustion.

The process for doing that without regulations, Greenpeace said, is subject to political and legal debate.

Some countries have sought a middle ground by calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining so more research can be carried out on the possible environmental consequences.

AP23177485013819.jpg
Coral at Moore Reef is visible off the coast of Queensland in eastern Australia on Nov. 13, 2022. The U.N. body that regulates the world’s ocean floor is preparing to resume negotiations in July 2023 that could open the international seabed for mining, including for materials vital for the green energy transition. Credit: AP

Among them is the Pacific atoll nation of Tuvalu, home to only 12,000 people and emblematic of the plight faced by low-lying islands from projected sea-level rise over the coming century.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe said more time is needed for impartial research.

“It’s important that the data we do collect comes from a reliable source, one that does not have an interest in the commercialization of the seabed,” he told BenarNews.

The Pacific island nations of Vanuatu and Palau have joined France, Chile and Costa Rica in submitting an agenda item to the meeting that attempts to negate Nauru’s effort to kickstart seabed mining. 

It cites marine protection responsibilities outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – the international law under which the seabed authority was established in 1994.

A statement for the ISA meeting provided by Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change Adaptation, Ralph Regenvanu, said there is some evidence that deep-sea mining would cause “significant and irreversible harm” to unique deep-sea environments.

“We are convinced that deep-sea mining is not a sustainable solution to the challenges we are facing today – we cannot call this a clean transition or a green transition if it is coming at the cost of nature and biodiversity,” said the statement.

Subel Rai Bhandari contributed to this report.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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