Policy body calls for greater consultation on deep sea mining

By Laura Syrett
Published: Friday, 20 December 2013

As technological developments bring the prospect of deep sea mining closer to reality, Pacific Island nations are urging a cautious approach to regulating this pioneering industry, Laura Syrett, Prices Editor, reports.

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 Ocean’s 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 Pacific mining.

SPC-EU workshops scrutinise plans

During a workshop held in Vanuatu in early December, the country’s 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 island’s 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.

SPREP’s director general, David Sheppard, said that mining companies would have to shoulder some of the costs of ensuring the marine environment is protected.

“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 SPC’s 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 said.

Chatham Rock Phosphate

One company looking to be among the front runners in this pioneering mining initiative is New Zealand-based Chatham Rock Phosphate (CRP - see p25).

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 Rise.

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 we’re half way to being permitted,” said Chris Castle, CRP’s managing director.

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 from Morocco.

It also argues that meticulous vetting of the impacts of mining the seabed have ensured that the negative effects of CRP’s activity will be minimal.

“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 November.

CRP is yet to receive a Marine Consent for the Chatham Rise project in accordance with New Zealand’s 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 mining.

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 2013