New Zealand giving ‘green light’ to sea bed mining in ungoverned Pacific waters


The New Zealand Government is being accused of taking a weak stance at an international meeting to finalise the rules for mining the deep sea.

By participating in drafting regulations, New Zealand is helping to ‘green light’ the emerging industry, marine conservationists say.

They argue the extraction of valuable polymetallic nodules will cause “unprecedented environmental destruction” to the Pacific Ocean.

And the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, Greenpeace and others want Jacinda Ardern’s Government to call for a moratorium on mining until scientists can learn more about deep sea ecosytems.

Large swaths of the seabed are covered with the blackened lumps, which contain deposits of multiple metals, including cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel. They are found up to 6500 metres deep in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Clean-energy technologies – like electric car batteries – require these metals. Proponents say mining the metallic treasure is essential to cutting carbon emissions. But it is only recently that companies figured out how to mine the depths for the potato-sized nodules.

The industry is so nascent that the International Seabed Authority, the body that regulates all mining-related activities on the sea floor in areas beyond national jurisdiction, is yet to develop rules.

Last year, the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru forced the issue. Nauru is sponsoring a Canadian company in its bid to mine the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an expanse of 4.5 million square kilometres stretching between Hawaii and Mexico.

The state invoked an obscure clause of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which means the ISA must finalise regulations within two years.

Now 167 nations are midway through negotiations in Jamaica this week to agree the rules. They will vote next year. Among them is New Zealand diplomat Toby Fisher.

Duncan Currie, a lawyer for the DSCC, is also in Kingston. He criticised New Zealand for taking a “middle ground” approach to the talks.

“New Zealand has yet to acknowledge that the decision to adopt regulations, or not, is unfortunately a binary choice,” he said.

“The adoption of regulations would mean deep sea mining will be given the green light. Which is why it being crucial that states stand against this push to adopt regulations.”

Currie said there was a lack of representation of Pacific Island nations at the talks. That includes the Cook Islands, which last year opened up exploration in part of its Exclusive Economic Zone.

But the Federated States of Micronesia showed a “strong voice to protect the environment,” he said.

There are concerns throughout the Pacific region of impacts on livelihoods and economies dependent on fisheries.

Scientists are warning that mining could cause unprecedented environmental destruction, and the costs outweigh the benefits to climate change mitigation.

As the ocean floor is difficult to access, most of its inhabitants and their role in the functioning of the oceans may yet be undiscovered, marine experts argue.

There are also concerns monitoring the activity – occurring in darkness, thousands of feet underwater in remote spots – would be almost impossible.

The Forever Index shows New Zealand’s recorded temperatures, levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the uptake of electric vehicles.

Patricia Esquete Garrote, of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative and the University of Aveiro, Portugal, is also attending the talks. She said the impacts of deep sea mining will likely be profound and long-lasting.

“We know that the recovery of ecosystems in the deep sea, like every process in the deep sea, is extremely slow. So effectively, the damage will be irreversible. And that’s something that humanity cannot afford at this point.

“There is science going on. The scientific knowledge is being developed. It’s just too soon, right now.”

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta was approached for comment. A statement was instead provided by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

A spokesperson said New Zealand is part of a coalition of members arguing for “the highest standards of environmental protection”.

“Our current focus is engaging actively, and in good faith, in the ISA processes to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment,” she said. “To that end, we have been vocal in our calls for no deep sea mining to proceed without robust environmental protections.

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s full engagement in the ISA process provides us with the best chance to influence an effective outcome for the environment that is respected by all states., said the government statement.