Alex Herman: Seabed minerals: This is a long game – we have do to it right

Saturday February 01, 2020 Written by Published in Opinion
Alex Herman. Alex Herman.

OPINION: Deep-sea minerals aren’t all the same, and the tools used to harvest them are very different from one corner of the ocean to another. In Cook Islands, the focus is on environmental and economic sustainability – and that sets it apart from more harmful seabed mining practices, contends new Seabed Minerals Commissioner Alex Herman.

As Seabed Minerals Commissioner, I embrace the refined vision of the Seabed Minerals Authority: ‘transforming the Cook Islands through the sustainable harvesting of seabed minerals, for the benefit of the Cook Islands people’.

Sustainability is a key priority for me. The seabed minerals sector needs to demonstrate its commitment to the preservation of fragile and unique ecosystems, through the application of best environmental principles and creating career pathways for Cook Islanders as a global leader in a ground breaking yet sensitive sector.

The Authority was established in 2013 following the passing of seabed laws in 2009. The Cook Islands is one of the few countries that have a world-class deposit of nodules within its 2 million square kilometre ocean space.

In essence, the role of the Authority is to develop and mature the Seabed Minerals sector of Cook Islands for the benefit of its people.

A new and improved seabed law was passed last year, streamlining the licensing process. More importantly, it was aligned to the Environment Act 2003 and Marae Moana Act 2017, to emphasise the need for environmental sustainability.

As part of the 2019 Act revision, extensive public consultations were conducted from October 2018 to April 2019 in Rarotonga and the Pa Enua. Specific stakeholder consultations included the Aronga Mana, Religious Advisory Council, Opposition leaders, non-governmental organisations, Marae Moana technical advisory group and council, international academics and the industry.

The Authority is responsible for regulating the seabed minerals sector, and will oversee the licensing process for exploring the seabeds. We are vested in seeing this sector develop in the best way possible for the future benefit of our people. As such, we have high expectations on setting and maintaining strict standards for any potential contractors who may operate in our waters, with environmental sustainability at the forefront.

Cook Islands has always been committed to environmental sustainability, and this is showcased through the Marae Moana, and its 50 nautical mile exclusion zones that have been set up.

That means, no seabed minerals exploration or harvesting can take place within those zones.  Furthermore, the Authority will be setting aside additional zones for the preservation of the environment as more research is done.

A Seabed Minerals Working Group has been established to oversee development, and includes the Authority, National Environment Service, Marae Moana secretariat, and other agencies. They are working on the regulatory, environmental and financial frameworks underpinning the management of seabed minerals.

The Authority also has international partners and experts on board to strengthen sector development, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Commonwealth Secretariat and New Zealand Environment Protection Agency.

 

The development of seabed minerals begs the question, why should we do this?

It is important to understand the potential positive impact of this sector on a small country like Cook Islands. The graduation from a developing to a high-income status country means we will no longer be eligible for bilateral official development assistance from OECD countries.

The protection of the environment is crucial for Cook Islands’ survival and in this respect, seabed minerals is no different to any other economic sector.

Tourism, fisheries and agriculture are facing multiple environmental issues in lagoon degradation, soil erosion, plastic pollution, and the like. The environmental management of any sector should be integrated from the start.

In addition, the Authority’s investment in its people highlights the sustainability of its workforce by developing and creating career pathways for Cook Islanders. The Seabed Minerals Authority staff are all Cook Islanders who have chosen this sector based on their passion for their people, their families and the future of their children.

An emerging sector that is led by Cook Islanders is a move that will empower its people, by building and most importantly retaining long term human resource capacity here in our country.

Furthermore, the seabed minerals sector provides economic diversity that is critical for Cook Islands’ future as a nation and lessens its reliance on tourism.

Cook Islands is a tourism-dependent economy that is extremely vulnerable to economic shocks, health epidemics, natural disasters, environmental degradation and other crises.

The call for more control of tourism growth in the Cook Islands is prevalent and will reach a critical point in the next 10 to 20 years’ time. The seabed minerals sector serves to alleviate that risk, and provide a more diversified economy.

Finally, the investment in the seabed minerals sector also means investment in renewable energy and potentially assist the slowing of climate change impacts.

Cook Islands will be able to provide much needed minerals crucial to the global renewable energy revolution, particularly in the area of battery and storage solutions.

Looking closer to home, the Pa Enua currently uses renewable energy products like solar panels, which will eventually require replacement. Cook Islands seabed minerals could provide the material needed for those products, in order to contribute towards the sustainability of the communities in the most remote islands of the Cook Islands.

 

I started my new role as Commissioner in January 2020 and I am currently setting out the Authority’s plans, along with the Seabed Minerals Working Group.

In the next six to 12 months, the goal is to establish a regulatory system that is ready and able to undertake exploration licensing. This includes setting up the licensing regime, environment management framework and establishing a communication strategy.

As a matter of public interest, two key strategies are highlighted. The Environment Management Framework is to ensure the key environmental principles are upheld and met. This includes developing standards for companies to conduct environment impact assessments.

Minimising impacts from the potential harvest of deep-sea minerals on biodiversity and other disturbances are a fundamental part of the Environment Management Framework.  

Secondly, we are establishing a communications strategy to create awareness and better inform the public and other stakeholders.

The Authority recognises there have been several news articles published overseas about the renewed interest in seabed minerals. However they are mostly focused on different kinds of minerals found in different regions of the world.

This is important to understand, because not all seabed minerals are the same. For example, the deep sea hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea, which have been the subject of some of these articles, represent a completely different environment to the nodules sitting on the abyssal plain in Cook Islands waters.

Even the nodules found in the area of international waters near Hawaii are found in very different environmental conditions.

There is a need to be careful not to lump them all together. The public has an instinctive reaction that seabed mineral harvesting is dangerous and destructive because it is instantly compared to mining on land.

However it should be noted that deep sea harvesting will be a heavily regulated industry with advanced technology, and will be administered against international guidelines.

In the medium term of three to six years, the Authority will focus on a clear strategy and management framework for transitioning from exploration to harvesting. In-depth research and analysis of the information gathered during exploration will focus on how environmental impacts and economic returns will be managed.

The long-term goal of the next six to 30 years is the transformation stage focusing on an operational seabed minerals sector.

So the road ahead is long and complex.

It requires setting the highest standards, applying best practices, and ensuring everyone is involved. But if done right, it will be worth it in the end, for Cook Islands people and our ipukarea.

This sector is bigger than me. Many others have put in hard work before me, and more will come after me.

We all have a role to play in ensuring this is done right for our present and future generations, and I hope to be able to do justice to the role for the time that I am serving in it.

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