Home News The small country that pioneered seabed mining

The small country that pioneered seabed mining

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In March last year, two ships arrived in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. One was a familiar sight: a huge cruise ship carrying hundreds of tourists to the pristine shores of this country of 15,000 people. The other, a neon orange ship carrying complex scientific equipment, was more unusual.

On a nearby pier, Prime Minister Mark Brown and many other prominent figures gathered to celebrate the boat’s arrival. For Mr Brown, the cruise ship represents his country’s disturbing dependence on tourism. He described another vessel, owned by an international mining company, as a harbinger of incredible wealth.

The Cook Islands are pioneers in mining the seafloor for minerals used in electric car batteries. Proponents argue that these deposits have never been mined on a large scale, but they are so vast that mining them could move the world away from fossil fuels.

It would also be a transformation for the Cook Islands: seabed mining could generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue for the small nation, according to one company. Learning in 2019. Its per capita income is approximately US$11,000.

But seabed mining faces strong opposition from environmentalists, who worry it will harm deep-sea ecology. More than 800 scientists have called for a moratorium on the practice, as have France, Britain and Japan. big company Such as Google and BMW.

Mining companies have been investigating the feasibility of seabed mining in Cook Islands waters for two years. The government is preparing to decide in 2027 whether to allow it, but it faces growing pressure at home and abroad, with critics saying it is rushing to embrace untested practices.

“Governments are actively promoting deep-sea mining,” said Duncan Currie, an adviser to the High Seas Alliance and other international conservation groups. “They appear to be continuing seabed mining regardless of the adverse impacts.”

Mr Brown insists the Cook Islands are not committed to mining.

He said in an interview that the criticism “can be annoying at times.” He said exploring the possibilities of seabed mining “is part of our journey to sovereign independence.”

In the past, he has pushed back more forcefully against his critics.

He told a conference in 2022: “It is the countries that have destroyed our planet through decades of profit-driven development and are still continuing their profit-driven actions and neglecting their climate change responsibilities to this day that are making demands. “It’s a condescending attitude that means we’re too stupid or too greedy to know what we’re doing.”

The Cook Islands are an archipelago of 15 islands that was a former colony of New Zealand and has been self-governing since 1965.Shortly after attaining this status, i.e. lack of complete independenceInternational scientific research vessels have since begun exploring the country’s territorial waters, which cover an area of ​​approximately 756,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the land area of ​​Mexico.

Researchers found that the seafloor is covered in avocado-sized rocks, or nodules, rich in cobalt and manganese. Each nodule grows to the thickness of a credit card approximately every million years. Before recent technological advances, these rocks were out of reach.

The Cook Islands have been searching for these nodules on and off for the past decade. In 2012, it set up a body to solicit proposals for mining in its own waters. In 2022, it issued licenses to three companies to explore the waters and test mining technology.

Other countries that have taken steps to survey the seafloor include Japan and Norway. Most private companies are focused on mining in international waters, but regulations to allow this are still being developed.

Proponents argue that scouring the seafloor is the best way to get more minerals for electric car batteries and reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. They added that mining nodules from the seafloor with appropriate controls would cause less environmental harm than open-pit mines, which also tend to disrupt surrounding communities.

Seabed mining – which involves crawling machines scouring the seafloor, sucking up rocks and discharging plumes of silt – scares marine biologist Teina Rongo, who works in Ava on the Cook Islands’ capital of Rarotonga. Rua runs an environmental NGO.

“Our creation story is that the ocean floor is where life began,” he said. “If we sucked up all the sand, how many organisms would we wipe out there?”

Mr. Longo had just finished teaching a lesson about climate change to primary school students at a community center where tortoises decorated the walls and water dripped from diving gear onto the floor. Speaking to reporters about what he called the dangers of mining, he mentioned Nauru, another small Pacific nation.

Rich deposits of phosphate minerals, an ingredient in fertilizers, once brought Nauru great wealth, but mismanagement and alleged corruption have plunged the country into poverty. Its people now live in a desolate, strip-mined lunar landscape.

Alex Herman, director of the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, stressed that the agency was taking a cautious, science-based approach to seabed mining. “The Cook Islands is such a special place, our own paradise,” she said, “and we want to be very mindful of any unintended consequences or impacts that arise from the growth of this industry.”

Still, some critics say the Brown administration has been too friendly to the companies that allow it to conduct seafloor surveys. “They all have the same agenda,” said Kelvin Passfield, director of local environmental group Te Ipukarea Society.

Brown has denied the allegation, but critics say there is evidence of a revolving door between the two sides.

Exploration company Cook Islands Cobalt has hired his wife, Shauna Lynch, as the country’s top executive following the resignation of former mining agency chief Paul Lynch.

Ms Lynch defended her appointment. “I have my own credentials,” she said. “I’m not a sit-at-home wife.”

Then, last year, Mr Lynch told a local newspaper that another prospector, Moana Minerals, took him on holiday as its survey ship sailed through the Panama Canal (which he likened to “the chance of going to the moon”) “) ). Lynch said he paid for the flight but declined to comment.

Mr Brown said he was careful not to get too close to mining industry leaders. But, he added, when you “settled here, you tend to become part of the family. The relationship you have with the company is very personal.”

The government said it has placed independent observers on board survey ships to ensure the reliability of company data, which officials say will inform decisions about whether to proceed with seabed mining.

Rashneel Kumar, editor of Science magazine, said the public seemed divided on the issue. Cook Islands Newsthe country’s largest newspaper.

But many people think they know what decision will be made. Teresa Manarangi-Trott, a cautious supporter of seabed mining, leads a government committee to gather residents’ views on the practice.

“The government has decided that this is going to happen, no matter what anyone says,” she said.

Reporting for this story was funded by a grant from the Peter M. Ackland Foundation, a New Zealand media charity.

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