Environmental Management

The Government’s objective with regard to environmental management of seabed minerals activity is to achieve a socially acceptable balance between seabed minerals activity and the physical, ecological and human environment and to ensure that internationally accepted standards of health, mining safety, and environmental protection are observed by all participants in the seabed minerals sector.

It is acknowledged that all human developmental activities have some impact on the world we live in. For example, we live in homes on land that was cleared from its natural state. We also all now benefit from the use of smart hi-tech devices, which depend on the continual global extraction and use of minerals and rare earth metals. The issue then is how to minimise and take precautions to limit the impacts of our development activities on our precious environment, while also benefiting from our mineral resources.

The Act has been harmonised with the provisions of existing environmental legislation, particularly the provisions of the Environment Act and the Marine Pollution Act. The Authority is actively working with the National Environment Service to ensure that established international standards, principles and practices of environmental protection and management are applied to the seabed minerals sector. Seabed Mineral Environmental Regulations are currently being developed, with the DSM Project assisting in this process.

The environmental management of seabed minerals activity will follow best international practices, for guidance has been given through UNCLOS. Three particularly important obligations to adhere to are:

- Precautionary Approach
- Best Environmental Practices
- Environment Impact Assessment

Precautionary Approach
Since there is still much to learn about the vast ocean environments and how they may be affected by seabed mineral exploration and exploitation activities, the ‘precautionary approach’ must be applied when considering whether or not to pursue seabed mineral activities. The precautionary principle was first expressed in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principle 15:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary principle shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities, where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

The precautionary approach provides States with guidance on the process for avoiding serious or irreversible harm when the risks of a proposed activity are uncertain. The precautionary approach is triggered when, for a given action, there is a) potential for harm and b) uncertainty about causality and magnitude of impacts.

For a useful summary of the Precautionary Approach, see the DSM Project Information Brochure: Application of the Precautionary Principle for Deep Sea Minerals.

Best Environmental Practices
Best environmental practices (BEP) appears to be a much broader concept than best available technology. Whereas the latter appears to be limited by what is technologically achievable, a survey of the former in a variety of international instruments shows that it requires the application of the most appropriate combination of environmental control measures and strategies. This applies regardless of whether a State is developed or developing. BEP has recently been adopted into the International Seabed Authority's (ISA) regulations, which signals a raise in the standards from "best technology available" when it relates deep sea mining.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
The ISA has begun guidelines with regards to EIAs, and will be useful to enable the Cook Islands to align its current EIA process for the purposes of seabed mineral activity. Firstly, it suggests that EIAs should be applied at all stages of seabed mining. Secondly, environmental baselines must be established. The objective is to establish the initial state of the marine environment before potential harmful activities take place, and use that as the baseline in order to measure impacts. Environmental baselines will help remove the uncertainty element of the environmental effects of seabed mining. The more information that is gathered and known, the more informed people are to make better decisions.
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