SOPAC SIGNS PACIFIC MINERAL EXPLORATION AGREEMENT

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SOUTH PACIFIC APPLIED GEOSCIENCE COMMISSION (SOPAC)

Suva, Fiji Islands

Press Release February 4, 2000

SUMMARY

A new agreement for deep ocean mineral exploration in selected offshore areas of the region in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) around the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Marshall Islands, has been signed in Suva by representatives of those countries, the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Metal Mining Agency of Japan.

CONTENTS

A new agreement for deep ocean mineral exploration in selected offshore areas of the region in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) around the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Marshall Islands, has been signed in Suva by representatives of those countries, the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Metal Mining Agency of Japan.

The Government of Japan and SOPAC have been jointly conducting surveys of deep ocean mineral resources in the EEZs of SOPAC member countries since 1985. This 15-year joint project which concludes in March 2000 has seen exploration in the EEZs of the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It has been extremely successful in discovering valuable deep-ocean mineral deposits in several areas of the ocean floor of the Pacific and also identifying promising sites for further investigation. Approximately F$150 million (US$ 73.9 million) have been spent by the Japanese Government in this joint program. Recently, concerns regarding environmental protection and the need for environmental studies and assessment relating to deep ocean mining have been raised and SOPAC member countries have expressed a strong desire to address these concerns in the proposed new program. Offshore mineral policies and guidelines are being developed by SOPAC to assist member countries.

The new agreement covers surveys to be carried out over a three-year period commencing in April of 2000. Each survey is expected to consist of about five weeks of cruise-time per year in offshore waters of the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Marshall Islands. The surveys will be carried out using the research vessel Hakurei Maru No.2. Some $15 million is anticipated to be spent in this three year phase.

Deep ocean mineral targets for these surveys are principally for manganese nodules, cobalt-rich manganese crusts and polymetalic sulphides.

Nodules, which vary in size and shape and look something much like a potato, are most abundant where sedimentation rates are lowest, which generally means far from major land masses such as in the mid-Pacific. In places the nodules are distributed so densely as to form immense carpets on the deep seabed in water depths of around 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). Grades of valuable metals in the nodules tend to be highest near the equatorial zones of high biological productivity (the plankton contain considerable nickel and copper). About 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of manganese nodules per square meter (1.2 square yard) of seabed with about 2% nickel and copper plus cobalt content, is generally taken as a minimum for potential nodule fields. In the last 20 years, much work has been done on defining the potential mineral resources involved, and on finding the most economical method of recovering nodules containing valuable amounts of these and other metals.

Because these metals are abundant and readily mined on land, the conventional wisdom is that commercial deep ocean mining for manganese nodules is unlikely to be undertaken in the foreseeable future. However, Japan remains active in evaluation of new areas, and might even go ahead with mining for reasons other than purely economical ones. Nodule fields are widespread in the Pacific Ocean, the nodules along the Equator tend to be richest in nickel and copper, and those further south in the more valuable cobalt. Nodules in the region still have to be regarded as medium to long-term resources. However, if fields with high metal grades and abundances of nodules could be defined inside EEZs, this assessment could change.

Cobalt-rich manganese crusts coat rocky outcrops, largely around volcanic islands and submerged seamounts, and are recognised as potentially economic sources of cobalt. The richest cobalt deposits (1% Co) generally lie in water 1,000-2,500 meters (3,300 – 8,250 feet) deep, commonly in crusts 2 centimeters (0.7874 inches) or so thick, but sometimes up to 20 centimeters (7.874 inches) thick. It is clear that potentially economic crusts form very slowly, from metals dissolved in the water column, and only in areas where there is little other deposition of material. It is widely accepted that cobalt-rich crusts are related to the level of the oxygen minimum zone in the oceanic water column. Cobalt-rich manganese crust deposits are also widespread in the Pacific Ocean. Thick deposits occur in the Marshall Islands, the Federated State of Micronesia, Kiribati, and Tuvalu. Similar to manganese nodules, the deposits are regarded as medium to long-tern resources. Cobalt-rich manganese crusts may be considered to have a better opportunity to be mined compared to manganese nodules because of they occur in much shallower water depths.

Polymetallic massive sulphides are currently creating the most excitement in the offshore mineral sector. Polymetallic massive sulphides deposits are metallic deposits rich in dense minerals such as copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold. These deposits were first discovered in the Pacific in 1984 in the Southern Lau Basin in water depths of 1,800 meters (5,940 feet) of water. Two years after, more sulphide deposits were discovered in the Manus Basin, Woodlark Basin and Northern Lau Basin. In 1988 the North Fiji Basin deposits were discovered, east of Fiji. Currently there are more than 100 known locations of PMS in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The Government of Japan though its marine scientific research has contributed much to the discovery and knowledge of these valuable resources. Recently the Government of Papua New Guinea granted two mineral exploration licenses in the Manus Basin. These offshore mineral licenses are the first in the world to be granted by a government.

This latest commitment by Japan to provide further assistance to Pacific island nations for exploration of their deep ocean mineral resources reflects the importance placed on the resources of the ocean as providing opportunities for sustainable economic development. This is one topic on the agenda when the Pacific Island Forum/Japan Leaders Summit takes place in Japan during April.

The importance of the oceans has been the subject of discussion in many meetings in recent times. Pacific Island states have been most vocal, especially in the United Nations. This matter was once again a focal point in a recent address to the United Nations General Assembly during a debate on ocean affairs and Law of the Sea, by the distinguished Pacific Island national Satya Nandan, Secretary General of the United Nations International Seabed Authority.

"I am grateful that the matter of coordination and cooperation, at the global level, of oceans affairs was further discussed and considered at the Commission for Sustainable Development, following which a recommendation was made by the Economic and Social Council. I am particularly appreciative that the General Assembly has acted in a timely manner, for I believe that the oceans will become an area of intense activity as the new millennium progresses. This will come about as a result of the increase in demand for food resources, more rapid communications and transportation as well as the demand for mineral resources from the sea. It is inevitable that major developments in technology and advances in scientific research on the marine environment will accelerate these activities....

"So, as the dawn of the new millennium approaches, it is appropriate to acknowledge the support of Japan to island nations of the Pacific in their endeavours to secure a sustainable use of deep ocean mineral resources they may have sovereign access to."

For more information, please contact: Dr. Russell Howorth SOPAC Tel: (679) 381-377 Fax: (679) 370-040 Email: russell@sopac.org.fj 

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