Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority
Runanga Takere Moana
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FAQ

Frequently asked Questions


 
 

1.

 
 
 

What are seabed minerals?

These are minerals found on the ocean seabed. The three major deep sea mineral deposits that have generated commercial interests include Seafloor Massive Sulphides (SMS), Polymetallic Nodules/Manganese Nodules and Cobalt-rich Crusts (CRC). In the Cook Islands the minerals found within its national jurisdiction are polymetallic or manganese nodules. They are spherical to potato-shaped rocks, and are generally found on the surface partially buried in the sediments and cover vast plains in areas of the deep seabed at depths of 3,000-6,000 meters. The Cook Islands nodules contain a number of elements, including the target metal cobalt (an important component in rechargeable batteries and other industrial, high-tech, medical and military applications), as well as by-product metals also sought by extractive industries such as: nickel, copper, manganese, niobium, zirconium and rare earth elements.


2.

How much of these resources are at the bottom of the sea?

A recent estimate for nodules within the Cook Islands' EEZ is that there are 10 billion tonnes (Cronan, 2013). This is generally considered the second largest deposits of metal-rich nodules. The area of the seabed where the greatest concentrations of metal-rich nodules are found underneath international waters (not belonging to any one country), to the West of Hawaii and the East of Mexico. This area of seabed is called the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) and has an estimated resource of 27 billion tonnes of nodules. These nodules are different in composition to the Cook Islands‟ nodules – with lower cobalt but higher nickel and copper content.


3.

What is the seabed of the cook islands?

The seabed of the Cook Islands means the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil of the internal waters, territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the continental shelf of the Cook Islands. These areas fall within the Cook Islands’ national jurisdiction as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and gives the Cook Islands the right to explore and exploit such seabed resources. UNCLOS outlines the areas of national jurisdiction as a twelve-nautical-mile territorial sea; an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles (which for the Cook Islands means a total ~ 2, 000, 000 square km marine area) and a continental shelf which starts at 200 nautical miles and may extend beyond that depending on the outer limit of the continental shelf.

In addition the Cook Islands have a claim before the Commission on the Limits of the Contented Shelf concerning the outer limit of the extended continental shelf in the region of the Manihiki Plateau in accordance with Article 786 of the Convention for an area approximately 413,000 km beyond the 200 M from the Cook Islands’ territorial sea baseline


Why mine the DEEP-SEA?

The world’s demand for minerals continues to increase and the terrestrial resources are being stretched in terms of decreasing grade. The social and environmental impacts of on-land mining are increasingly controversial, increasing interest in offshore projects, where homes and communities will not be disrupted. There are also economic drivers: deep seabed resources are believed to contain a higher concentration, and a higher number of different types, of valuable minerals in one deposit than their terrestrial alternatives.

Seabed mining has a smaller footprint, than land mining. It does not impact waterways, has reduced carbon emission as a result of limited heavy machinery with less overburden, meaning a smaller volume of non-valuable rock is removed and disposed of before the resource is exposed. Additionally, seabed mining does not require additional roads, surface ore-transport systems, buildings or other permanent infrastructure that could be disruptive to indigenous or native populations.


Are seabed mineral resources renewable like fish?

The world’s demand for minerals continues to increase and the terrestrial resources are being stretched in terms of decreasing grade. The social and environmental impacts of on-land mining are increasingly controversial, increasing interest in offshore projects, where homes and communities will not be disrupted. There are also economic drivers: deep seabed resources are believed to contain a higher concentration, and a higher number of different types, of valuable minerals in one deposit than their terrestrial alternatives.

Seabed mining has a smaller footprint, than land mining. It does not impact waterways, has reduced carbon emission as a result of limited heavy machinery with less overburden, meaning a smaller volume of non-valuable rock is removed and disposed of before the resource is exposed. Additionally, seabed mining does not require additional roads, surface ore-transport systems, buildings or other permanent infrastructure that could be disruptive to indigenous or native populations.


how are seabed minerals extracted?

It is important to note that seabed mining is not occurring currently. Nowhere in the world have any deep sea minerals yet been commercially extracted. Nowhere in the world has a licence been given to any company to mine manganese nodules. It is early days of a new and emerging industry. Currently companies and State institutions who are interested in seabed minerals are only at the exploration and technology development stage. Exploration involves marine scientific research and sampling to enable better understanding of the minerals and their associated environment. It generally requires sophisticated, multipurpose research vessels using advanced technologies such as deep-sea mapping equipment, remotely operated vehicles, photographic and video systems, and sampling technology. The Cook Islands is just now at the stage of commencing a process that will lead to the award of exploration licences. Mining is only likely to take place in any location once comprehensive exploration has been carried out that indicates a viable deposit, and only once the suitable technology has been fully developed for extracting those minerals (and processing them to separate out the valuable metals). This time is several years away.

For this reason it is not possible to say with any certainty now, what a mining operation for manganese nodules will look like in the future. However current thinking is that it is likely to involve:

the use of remotely operated vehicles (like remote-controlled robots) which operate along the seafloor, scooping up the nodules;

the transport of those nodules via a pipe or a continuous bucket system from the seafloor to a vessel or platform on the sea surface;

the separation of the nodules from water (and return of the water to the sea); the transfer of the dry nodules from the vessel, via a barge, to an onshore processing centre – most likely in an industrial hub (such as China), where the nodules can be processed in order for the metals to be extracted for sale.

 
 

Last updated: 16 May 2019