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SAIPAN, Commonwealth (Saipan Tribune, June 1) – A British company has expressed interest in exploring and ultimately extracting minerals from undersea lands within 200 miles around the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and it is for this reason that the Fitial administration is pushing for greater control over its submerged lands, the governor's spokesperson said yesterday.

The Commonwealth currently does not have any right to its underwater resources. The United States Congress has offered to grant the Commonwealth control over submerged lands extending three miles offshore, but local officials are at odds over the issue.

Washington Rep. Pete A. Tenorio and the Senate want the Commonwealth to take the three miles, but Fitial insists on getting more.

Press secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said the submerged lands issue is "not a matter of greed. It's a matter of economic survival."

In January 2006, Neptune Minerals Marianas Ltd. wrote Fitial to apply for a license to explore and mine seafloor massive sulfide deposits within 200 miles around the islands.

In the letter, Neptune Chief Executive Officer and managing director Simon McDonald said his firm is interested in getting a mining license based upon the model it negotiated in New Zealand.

The potential investor, which is part of the London-based Neptune Minerals Group, was granted a first license in 1999 to explore minerals within 3,000 square miles of submerged lands in New Zealand. The second license was issued in January 2006 for an area of some 10,000 square miles.

McDonald estimated that the revenue payable to the Commonwealth from tenement rental during exploration would be $14,000 a year, based on an exploration area of 8,000 square miles.

"Revenues, which might ultimately result from development and mining of submerged lands, could be many times higher," he said.

He also said that Neptune was willing to invest US$2.5 million in exploration budget for an initial four-year term. He added that, although opportunities for job creation would be limited during the exploration phases, significant job and wealth creation opportunities may be present under a mining license.

McDonald also expressed willingness to consider proposals from the Commonwealth for joint venture options.

Press secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said Neptune's interest in the Commonwealth's marine resources is one of the reasons the administration is hopeful that the U.S. Congress would still consider granting the Commonwealth greater control over its submerged lands."With the pronounced weakness in the Commonwealth's tourism and apparel industries, the administration is looking for other economic alternatives, such as the mining of underwater resources," Reyes said.

"If the federal government allows the Commonwealth greater control over its ocean resources, it would stand to benefit financially at a time when government revenues are very scarce," he added.

He noted that the administration had already taken numerous steps to cut costs and raise revenues for the government, citing austerity measures, the CNMI Retirement Fund bills being entertained by the Commonwealth Legislature, and the US$140-million bailout request now pending in the U.S. Congress.

"If the federal government is not willing to help with additional financial assistance, it might at least give us the tools to become more financially self-sufficient through our own efforts," said Reyes. "This could be accomplished through the federal government's agreement to grant the Commonwealth meaningful control over our submerged lands, so we can develop a whole new industry."

June 1, 2006

Saipan Tribune

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