Cook Islands To Review Seabed Mining Laws

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Passed in 2009, first in world SBMA needs updating

By Rashneel Kumar

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, April 12, 2016) – The Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority (SBMA) has taken a further step in its efforts to develop a sustainable world class regulatory framework for deep sea mineral activities in the massive Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

As the Authority awaits a bid for exploration activities for deep seabed minerals in the Cook Islands waters, it has already started a comprehensive legal review of its national 2009 Seabed Minerals Act (SBM Act) to improve the effectiveness and clarity of the future processes under the SBMA Act.

Seabed Minerals Commissioner Paul Lynch said in 2009, the SBM Act was the first of its type passed in the world, to deal specifically with the wise management national seabed minerals resources.

However, he said it had been acknowledged since back in 2012 that the SBM Act would benefit from a full review to ensure that it adopted the latest international best practices and remains user friendly to potential applicants, stakeholders and the SBMA.

"In 2015, we completed the needed Exploration Licencing Regulations. So now this current legal review of SBM Act would be mainly focused now on improving the Act as a whole, with an eye regarding the controls needed even up to the possible extraction process taking place in the future," Lynch said.

"This important legal review will also seek to adopt suitable parts of the new Secretariat of the Pacific Community-assisted, regional deep sea minerals law that has now been passed by Tonga and Nauru."

The Authority did not receive any bid to explore the ocean floor for minerals in the country’s EEZ from the 2015 tender it launched in August last year.

The tender which closed in January was aimed at attracting applications for exploration licences over 10 blocks totalling about 100,000 square kilometres of the Cook Islands’ 1.83 million square kilometre EEZ.

Lynch said lately, however, they had received serious interest from a number of companies which were still considering exploring valuable seabed minerals in Cook Islands waters.

One of the companies had even contracted a New Zealand scientist to analyse old Cook Islands seabed mineral samples stored with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in Wellington. Lynch said they would like to do the necessary preparatory exploration work over the next five years and then be ready for the next upturn in the cyclical global minerals market.

He added this was a long term sector and companies need to plan and invest for the long term, with sustainable benefits for all.

Lynch said the legal review of the SBM Act aimed to prepare for every possible aspect related to a "good and effective" national seabed minerals sector, including the possible future extraction of the mineral resources in years to come.

"Technical work on the current complex legal review is being funded externally by our national development partner, the Commonwealth Secretariat. It has contracted for the SBMA the services of expert legislative drafter, Paul Hibberd.

"In 2015, under CITAF funding, Hibberd also drafted our national SBM Licencing Regulations and SBM Act amendment, which were passed unanimously in our Parliament in June 2015.

"The results of drafting in this current 2016 legal review will again be shared with a wide range of local and overseas stakeholders for feedback and input."

In 2015, legal assistance on that on-going legal review work of the SBMA was also provided by the SPC EU DSM Project.

SBMA were able to recruit short-term legal counsel Amelia Ponton to provide legal support, while local SBMA lawyer Alexandrya Herman went on a UN Seabed Minerals-related study opportunity.

"That study is now completed. Both Ponton and Herman were former legal interns of the DSM project."

Ponton, who is of English and Tuvaluan descent, graduated from Griffith University in Brisbane with Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts Degree majoring in Cultural Sociology.

Ponton is now employed in the legal sector in London.

Lynch said Ponton was well able to assist the SBMA with legal advice and drafting assistance on relevant legislation, licensing regulations, negotiations and contracts.

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