"Laughing All The Way To The Bank: Seabed Mining"

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September 28, 1997

OUR TURN By Hon. Sir Geoffrey Henry, KBE, Prime Minister, Cook Islands

Deep sea mining seems to have been a grand joke amongst our resident cynics. However, alerted by an overseas journalist that there may be both substance and reality to early exploitation of our nodule resource, the Cook Islands Press ran three full pages of coverage last Sunday. Much of it was factual, but the editor raised almost as many questions as she answered. Perhaps some further facts will help.

What is the resource? The so-called manganese nodules range between golf-ball and billiard-ball size. While they are scattered throughout our Exclusive Economic Zone, they are found in commercially attractive concentrations (over 20 and up to 50 kilos per square metre) just north of Aitutaki and, again, just south of Penhryn. There they literally pave 90% of the seabed. They contain three metals in sufficient amounts and of sufficient value to be worth exploiting. Thus, if 1.0 million tons of raw nodules are harvested in a year, these would process into 950 tons/copper, 1,700 tons/nickel and 2,600 tons/cobalt. At US$1/lb, US$3/lb and US$15/lb respectively, the world markets today would pay US$2.0 million for the copper, US$11 million for the nickel and US$87 million for the cobalt, a gross of US$100 million. Of this, some 15% would return to government in the form of royalties and taxes. This is not the billion dollar bonanza that some would wish for but, as a start, additional government revenue of NZ$21 million p.a. by, say, 2004 is better than a poke in the eye.

How are the raw nodules brought up? A number of ways have been proposed including giant vacuum cleaners and endless chains of buckets. But, the Bechtel study team recommended that the simplest and least expensive approach be tried first -- logic that is hard to argue against. Each off our trawlers would harvest 330 days a year, bring up 120 tons per trawl and do so 8 times per day or 960 tons/day. At 20 kilos per square metre of density, these especially equipped 100 metre vessels would extract the 1.0 million tons p.a. from just 110 square kilometres of seabed. Since the trawls are fitted with ski-like runners, they are intended to slide on the seabed surface, allowing the nodules to be scraped up with very little disturbance of the bottom itself. Since each trawl is hauled to the surface at a speed of 2 metres per second, any mud would be washed away in the first kilometre of travel, leaving nothing but 120 tons of small rock to pass through the surface into the trawler's hold.

When will all this happen? Even if the investor/operators were fully committed today, it would take 18 months to complete the at-sea tests and 2.5 more years to build the four trawlers, three ore carriers and single processing plant. Thus, production is, at best, 4 to 5 years off. However, there is some good news built into that delay for, once an investor/operator is committed to proceed, that time could be well-used to train as many Cook Islanders as possible for the many good jobs involved.

Who will the investor/operators be? Last month, the Norwegian Deep Sea Mining Group described for us their technological and financial capacity to explore and exploit non-living deep sea resources. We were most impressed. Norway is the second largest oil producer in the world, all from off shore and all engineered and operated by Norwegians. Over the last decade, Norwegian companies have constructed every offshore oil platform used by any nation. As for shipbuilding, 10% of all commercial shipping in operation today was built in Norway. Moreover, working cooperatively with a comparable group of engineering companies in India, the Group has developed an advanced suction system for extracting nodules from the seabed, providing an option to the trawling technology proposed by Bechtel. In short, the Norwegian Deep Sea Mining Group seems an excellent ally to further this opportunity. A Memorandum of Understanding signed on 4 September recognises this. It agrees to the most stringent environmental guidelines and encourages both parties to undertake further initiatives towards a firm agreement, a trial programme and ultimate production.

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