A Pacific Island-European policy
group has said there needs to be greater dialogue between
miners and island governments before active development of deep
sea mineral deposits are given the go ahead.
During December, the Secretariat of
the Pacific Community-European Union (SPC-EU) Pacific Deep Sea
Minerals Project hosted workshops on a handful of Pacific
Islands, involving representatives from civil groups, deep sea
mining companies and government officials from 14 Pacific
Island countries, aimed at formulating a coherent policy
response to seabed mining plans.
The Pacific Deep Sea Minerals
Project is a four year (2011-2014) 4.4m ($6m*)
scheme funded by the EU and managed by the SPC on behalf of 15
Pacific Island Countries: the Cook Islands, Federated States of
Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue,
Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste,
Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The Pacific Oceans mineral
deposits, thought to be among the largest and richest assets in
the world, are as yet untouched because they have previously
been deemed too difficult or expensive to extract.
Now, as deep sea mining technology
advances towards a point where engineers believe it will be
possible to recover these minerals efficiently and
economically, mineral companies are lining up to secure
exploration rights to the seabed.
However, owing to the lack of
evidence on what impacts such activity will have on marine
environments, national governments and environmentalists are
calling for a cautious and strictly regulated approach to
SPC-EU workshops scrutinise
During a workshop held in Vanuatu
in early December, the countrys Minister for Land and
Natural Resources, Ralph Regenvanu, said there needed to be
wide consultation before any further seabed mineral exploration
can occur in the islands ocean territory.
The SPC-EU Pacific Deep Sea
Minerals Project is trying to assist the Pacific Island
countries to learn from the mistakes that have been made in
other industries like fisheries and on-land mining, said
Akuila Tawake, manager of the SPC-EU project.
In a separate workshop in Nadi,
Fiji, the SPC and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional
Environment Programme (SPREP) said that there was a critical
need to develop a process for Environmental Impact Assessments
before any marine mineral extraction takes place.
SPREPs director general,
David Sheppard, said that mining companies would have to
shoulder some of the costs of ensuring the marine environment
SPREP, as the environmental
agency, is committed to partnering with SPC (...) to try to
bring more environmental information to the table. But the
companies themselves need to allocate money for independent
scientific studies of the biodiversity and the environment in
the deep sea, he said.
We need to proceed cautiously
(...) especially since this is an activity that has not been
carried out anywhere in the world, he added.
The director of SPCs Applied
Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC), professor Mike
Petterson, also stressed caution, and said that regulations
governing deep sea mining need to be established before any
exploration activity is permitted.
As a region, we need to use
[the] best current knowledge to put in place regulatory
measures before any seabed mining starts. By proactively
agreeing common standards and tools across the Pacific, we can
empower member countries to protect their marine environments
(...) whilst exploring the economic opportunity presented by
their seabed minerals, he said.
Although the SPC-EU project
provides a collective means for Pacific Island countries to
manage any environmental impacts from future deep sea mining,
Petterson pointed out that regulating the industry will
ultimately be a matter of sovereign responsibility.
While SOPAC will continue to
play an important role in helping countries to agree common
standards, the ultimate responsibility for protecting the
marine environment inevitably lies with Pacific Island
countries themselves, not regional agencies like SPC, he
One company looking to be among the
front runners in this pioneering mining initiative is New
Zealand-based Chatham Rock Phosphate (CRP - see
The company is planning to extract
the fertiliser mineral, phosphate, from depths of around 400
metres in an area of the south Pacific seabed known as Chatham
In early December 2013, CRP
received a permit from the New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals
Ministry to mine phosphate from the ocean floor. This is
our most important milestone to date. It means were half
way to being permitted, said Chris Castle, CRPs
According to CRP, its plans to mine
rock phosphate from the Pacific seabed are environmentally
supported by the fact that sourcing the fertiliser mineral in
this way will involve a smaller carbon footprint than the
present arrangement of importing phosphate into New Zealand
It also argues that meticulous
vetting of the impacts of mining the seabed have ensured that
the negative effects of CRPs activity will be
Our proposed mining
operations are subject to a rigorous environmental evaluation
and monitoring process. These cost millions of dollars, require
years of research, consultation and official process, and
involve full public scrutiny. We have confidence this process
will result in a mining plan that will minimise the
environmental impact of our operations, CRP said in
CRP is yet to receive a Marine
Consent for the Chatham Rise project in accordance with New
Zealands Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf
(Environmental Effects) Act 2012, which it intends to apply for
early this year.
Permitting aside, CRP may also face
headwinds in the form of organised opposition to deep sea
Global environmental action group,
Greenpeace, has been vocal about its concerns regarding the
Chatham Rise project.
It is almost certain that
both the removal and processing of the seabed material, and the
subsequent discharge of the unwanted material, will impact upon
the mining site and surrounding/downstream marine habitats and
species, the group told IM.
This means that the phosphate
nodules come with quite a big carbon footprint of their
own, it added.
*Conversions made December