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New Zealand launching seabed mining inquiry amid environmental concerns

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-05-18 21:55

New Zealand's plan to launch an inquiry to consider the risks and benefits of ocean floor mining in waters around the country fits into environmental concerns.

"Mining is an inherently destructive process, as we have seen on land over the centuries," says Jonathan Gardner, a professor of marine biology at Victoria University of Wellington.

Most coastal countries have been cautious about allowing any seabed mining within their exclusive economic zones. Pacific leaders want bans, or stronger regulations put in place, until more is known about the environmental risks of seabed mining.

Announcing the inquiry, New Zealand Environment Minister David Parker said in a statement on May 5, "There are a range of strong views on seabed mining. A select committee inquiry would give New Zealanders a say on the issue."

"New Zealand's international position does not require the government to change its domestic approach to seabed mining. But having backed a conditional moratorium, it is timely to examine our own regulatory settings," he said.

The minister added that "concerns about the environmental impacts of seabed mining need to be considered, along with the potential role that minerals recovered by seabed mining could play in New Zealand's transition to a decarbonised economy".

The announcement came as the International Seabed Authority, or ISA, is preparing to begin accepting applications, in July, for industrial-scale deep-sea mining in Pacific waters.

The Jamaica-based ISA, comprising 167 member states, is an intergovernmental body established in 1982 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has spent decades trying to develop rules and regulations for deep-sea mining but has still not finalized them.

Paul Myburgh, a professor at Auckland University of Technology's School of Law, said only a few coastal nations are actively involved in seabed mining.

He said seabed mining is taking place off the coast of Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa), extracting diamonds and phosphorates, and off the coast of South Africa.

"The most high-profile seabed mining project to date, by a Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, off the coast of Papua New Guinea encountered significant resistance from the local community and ended disastrously," Myburgh noted.

The project's collapse "seems to have produced a consensus in the Pacific Islands Forum that this is not the way to go, which has also informed their leadership in calling for a moratorium on seabed mining in international waters too. So, these are not exactly encouraging precedents," he said.

Chris Bumby, principal investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and chief scientist (materials) at the Robinson Research Institute of Victoria University of Wellington, said metals are essential materials for the modern world, and without them society would look very different.

"Metal components underpin infrastructure, construction and most manufacturing industries," the professor said.

"In addition, there are a class of 'critical metals' which are essential ingredients for key electric technologies such as: batteries, generators, electric motors, photovoltaic cells and more."

Bumby said there is an urgent need to produce more of these metals to rapidly decarbonise the transport and energy sectors.

"In almost all cases, today's demand for industrial metals substantially exceeds the volume of 'end-of-life' material available for recycling.

"Meeting demand therefore requires new primary production from mineral deposits – and this situation will persist for decades to come."

He added that "mining anywhere always involves trade-offs, weighing local environmental degradation against other benefits. This is the case in the marine environment, just as it is on land".

Bumby pointed out that mineral exploration of the global seafloor is still in its infancy, and there are large gaps in our knowledge of potential seabed resources.

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