Friday, March 9, 2012
Seafloor mining companies must invest in protecting the environment: SPREP
The Pacific region’s peak environment organistion says companies wanting to explore or mine the Pacific seafloor should be required to make a significant investment in protecting the underwater environment.
The Pacific has become world’s hotspot for exploration and looks set to be the first region of the world to embark on commercial exploitation of seabed minerals when the Canadian company, Nautilus, begins mining in Papua New Guinea.
The key to good environmental manangement is having good baseline data …but the potential seafloor mining sites have been little studied.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: David Sheppard, Director General of the Pacific Regional Environment Program.
SHEPPARD: When you consider the amount of investment that will go into the mining operations the allocation of a percentage of that for a better understanding the marine biodiversity and resources is considered necessary from the viewpoint of SPREP.
GARRETT: Many people are concerned about the risks of seafloor mining at the stage what do you see as the main risks?
SHEPPARD: Well, I guess it’s a new territory. We are not sure but clearly from SPREPs perspective it is important to identify and protect important marine ecosystems. So we know that the deep seabed mining is interested, for example, in three categories of resources, one of which is the cobalt rich crusts, often found on the flanks of submerged islands. Now, these are also the important areas for marine biodiversity so there is a need for great caution in relation to that, as one issue. There is clearly a need for care on the management of tailings that are associated with the deep seabed mining and the issue of spills is less apparent than for oil spills, for example, but still is also an issue. There are quite a few unknowns. The environmental factors are important, they do need to be considered, they do need to be factored in to any decisions relating to deep seabed mining.
GARRETT: These can be very different environments, very deep, sometimes hot and with different chemical composition. What sort of biological riches could be down there?
SHEPPARD: That is the million dollar question. From what we understand the resources are very unique and very important and that really underlines the importance of increased attention to the gathering of information on the resources. The marine biodiversity resources at these depths.
GARRETT: The sites being looked at by seafloor mineral companies are away from public scrutiny. What sort of problems does that pose in finding out the extent of the natural environment down there and in protecting it, if mining goes ahead?
SHEPPARD: Well, I think there should be an obligation on the companies that are involved. The responsibility for deep sea mining is under the jurisdiction of all of the sovereign states. There is a need to ensure that any mining that is undertaken is subject to an appropriate legal, regulatory framework. There is work at the moment, with funding from the European Union, with funding implemented through the Secretariat of the Pacific community, which is looking at these issues in more depth, so to speak, and is developing a regional legal framework for deep seabed mining and exploration.
GARRETT: To what extent is that framework taking into account the environemtnal issus and what is SPREP doing to make sure that the process will include the collection of adequate data and enforceable environmental protection measures?
SHEPPARD: This is a project which is led through SPC on behalf of member governments. SPREP has been invited to participate. We are participating. We are raising and we will continue to raise issues relating to the need for environmental protection, particularly the protection of important marine habitats, improvement of data on marine biodiversity, particularly on the deep seabed and ensuring that appropriate environmental impact assessment and monitoring protocols are in any operation that takes place.
GARRETT: What sort of independent verification will Pacific governments need to make sure that their environmental standards are met?
SHEPPARD: Well, that is a very good question. When we are talking about see we are talking about the United Nations Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. There are particular consideration within that that relate to high seas mining that is beyond the exclusive economic zones, so in fact there is an international seabed Authority and it is important that they are involved, that the standards being directed are being applied and they also need to be applied within the exclusive economic zone of each country.
GARRETT: As this affects countries right around the Pacific – on the Pacific Rim as well as in the Pacific Islands – is there a potential to draw on scientific resources and funding bodies from those countries to ensure that this is scrutinised properly?
SHEPPARD: I think they could play a very important role. Obviously, the developed countries around the Rim, including Australia and the United States, have considerably more resources than pacific Island countries to carry out these types of monitoring, these types of assessment s I think their involvement would be very important. For SPREP and these countries are members of SPREP, to the extent possible and relevant we would encourage their involvement in these activities as we move forward.
GARRETT: This sort of seafloor mining could provide enormous revenue to Pacific governments and Pacific governments are quite enthusiastic about the idea. What should they be considering as they move into this new area?
SHEPPARD: I think they need to consider appropriate national legislation. They need to ensure activities are appropriately managed and monitored. They need to ensure environmental factors are built into the operation, that wherever possible costs are included within the overall costs of the mining operation. Also, obviously in this region the leaders have developed a Pacific Islands regional oceans policy, PIROP, so that provides a broad framework for the management of the oceans and Pacific leaders have also initiated an Oceanscape initiative, which has similar objectives, which is allowing sustainable development but not at the cost of the environment, So ensuring that that is considered. So these are the types of issues that need to be considered. Organisations like SPC and SPREP will provide assistance as much as we can.
GARRETT: NGO groups say the Pacific should not be the world’s guinea-pig for seafloor mining. What do you say to that?
SHEPPARD: Well, I think that is a valid concern. The issue of deep seabed mining is largely an unknown. Many groups have suggested that we apply the precautionary principle, that if we are in doubt we be very cautious in how we move forward. I think the reality is, Jemima, is that this will happen in the Pacific. We need to ensure that, if it does, important considerations such as the environmental considerations I’ve outlined and also social considerations, particularly the need for benefits to come back to countries and local communities are applied.