Offshore mining could potentially make the Cook Islands, an archipelago of 15 small islands between New Zealand and Hawaii, one of the wealthiest nations in world within a decade.
Mark Brown, the Cook Islands’ finance minister, told the Guardian that mining the minerals on the bottom of the South Pacific could increase gross domestic product a hundredfold. “It has the potential to basically transform our economy hugely significantly with just the value of the resources sitting on the sea floor,” he told the paper.
Brown said that the nation is still a developing nation, but that the offshore mining of the vast mineral resources could help with that transistion.
The Cook Islands – named after Captain Cook, who visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 – were found to have a vast amount of underwater riches in the 1970s.
A new geological survey by Imperial College marine geochemist David Cronan estimates that the Cook Islands’ 2 million square km exclusive economic zone contains 10 Gt (11 billion st) of manganese nodules. The nodules, which vary from the size of a potato to that of a dining table, contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals. The minerals will be mined using robots first developed for underwater warfare and espionage. The technology has already been adapted for underwater oil and gas projects, but has yet to be used for large deep-sea mining projects.
Brown said it would be about five years before mining starts. He said he is in talks with some of the world's biggest mining companies and other nations about licensing deals.
Talks are under way with the United Kingdom, China, Korea, Japan and Norway, and the first tenders are due to be granted before June 2014, he said.
Papua New Guinea has already granted a deep-sea mining licence to Canadian mining firm Nautilus Minerals to extract gold and copper from the seabed, but large-scale mining has yet to start.
The Cook Islands government acknowledges that the prospect of largely untested deep-sea mining in some of the world’s most pristine tropical waters raises serious environmental concerns. “The Cook Islands already has a very good industry in terms of tourism,” said Paul Lynch, the islands’ seabed minerals commissioner. “The good, clean, green beaches are not something we want to harm just for the sake of mineral wealth.
“We have the only legislation in the world dedicated to deep water minerals,” he told the Guardian.
The country has introduced legislation to protect the environment and turn half of the country’s waters into a marine park.
Brown said the Cook Islands – which is self-governing in free association with New Zealand, and whose head of state is the Queen – would expect “stakes in [mining] companies for free” in return for their “rights to exploit our resources.”
He said the islands would maintain a significant stake in each stage of the mining process from exploration and extraction to refinement and sale.
One of the first mining companies to be involved is likely to be UK Seabed Resources, a British subsidiary of United States defense and engineering giant Lockheed Martin. Lockheed first collected nodules from the Cook Islands’ seabeds in the 1970s. UK Seabed Resources has already been awarded a license to explore 58,000 square km of Pacific seabed outside of territorial waters. The license, awarded in March, was granted by the International Seabed Authority, a UN-created body that controls oceans outside of national exclusive economic zones.