20 Aug 2012

SOPAC criticised as opposition to seabed mining grows in the Pacific

4:49 pm on 20 August 2012

There are questions over the role of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's Applied Geoscience and Technology Division, or SOPAC, in the deep sea mining industry.

SOPAC has been holding workshops to prepare Pacific island countries for seabed mining.

However opposition to the emerging industry is growing in the region as the world's first deep sea mining project, the Solwara 1 project, is poised to begin in Papua New Guinea.

Johnny Blades reports:

SOPAC's director says island governments need to establish regulatory frameworks for the emergent seabed mining industry.

However Russell Howorth doesn't know how much Pacific islands stand to gain from it.

"But one thing I do know is that with ninety-nine percent of their sovereign territory being ocean, when you're looking for economic development opportunities, clearly the Pacific Island countries need to take a holistic view of their ocean space."

The Deep Sea Mining Campaign wants full understanding about impacts of deep sea mining before exploration or exploitation can proceed.

The campaign's co-ordinator Dr Helen Rosenbaum says the SOPAC director's speech at the recent Rio+20 summit was frightening.

He's basically turned the precautionary principle on its head by saying the lack of scientific information about the impact should not be used as a reason to delay deep sea mining projects whereas the true precautionary principle says that if there's any uncertainty about the nature of the impacts but there is a reason to believe there are going to be serious negative impacts, then projects should be delayed.

Russell Howorth's assertion of substantial economic potential in seabed mining appears to be supported by the increasing approaches by mining companies to Pacific governments for access to their waters.

Phil McCabe from the group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining ,says it's unclear why SOPAC is promoting deep sea mining when the risks are unknown.

These companies have been working in the background with government agencies to set up this framework for the sale of the resources. Meanwhile, the general public just aren't aware that it's happening. The mandate hasn't been given by the public. So why are they setting up regulatory frameworks? For some reason the European Union is funding a good portion of their (SOPAC's) work.

Under the Solwara project, the Canadian company Nautilus plans to mine an area under the Bismarck Sea off PNG's New Britain province.

But Nautilus, which has a twenty-year licence, recently filed for arbitration over a dispute in its project contract with the PNG government.

Dr Rosenbaum says the tide could be turning against Nautilus.

There's been a very interesting turn of events with the election of some new MPs who have been very vocal in stating their opposition to deep sea mining and their opposition to the granting of the Nautilus licence. So I guess throwing that into the mix of the fact that things aren't easy anyway between Nautilus and the government puts into question the whole viability of the project now.

However Nautilus also has titles granted and applications lodged to explore for minerals in the waters of Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand.

It looms as the pioneer in an industry which SOPAC says Pacific islands would benefit from developing in a sustainable fashion.