As the pandemic dries up traditional revenue sources, some Pacific Island governments are considering diving into the unknown waters of deep sea mining.
Mining advocates say the world badly needs polymetallic nodules on the seabed for materials to make batteries that will drive the carbon-free societies of the future, but it's a gamble which Pacific countries are being warned is too risky.
The fledgling deep sea mining sector is moving quickly, and much of its interest centres on the world's biggest ocean. The mining would take place in the dark, furthest depths of the ocean, several kilometres below the surface, a place where humankind's destructive touch has been unable to reach - until now.
One of the key players claiming to have the technology and finance to do the work is a Canada-based seabed mining company which has explorations contracts with Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati.
DeepGreen Metals is focussed on the massive Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Central Pacific where it has marine claims under an agreement with the UN's International Seabed Authority and sponsored by Nauru.
According to DeepGreen's CEO and chairman, Gerard Barron, their aim is to source the metals needed for the batteries in electric vehicles and renewable power storage.
Barron said the nodules they seek were vital for the transition to a zero carbon economy, enthusing that they sit like golf balls on the seabed so that you don't have to drill, dig or blast for them.
"They grow a little bit like a pearl grows. And it's like Mother Nature made this resource for us, for the times that we're entering now, because of course the world is on a massive push to move away from fossil fuels, and what do we need to do if we want to do that? We need to build a lot of batteries," Barron said.
But DeepGreen's recent claim that deep sea mining would entail minimal toxic tailings and be far less damaging to the environment than land-based mining has raised the hackles of environmentalists.
Catherine Coumans of Miningwatch Canada said the scenario DeepGreen presented was more risky than for land-based mining, where its impacts are much more understood. Coming from someone like Coumans, a trenchant critic of land-based mining in parts of the world such as Papua New Guinea, that is really saying something.
"So on land if something goes wrong, if there's a spill or a dam burst or whatever, there's people there who can see it, you can fly drones over, you can see the impacts and you can get at it to try and stop the leak or mitigate the environment or remediate the environment. You can't do any of that in the deep sea."
"These nodules are millions of years old, they're a unique ecosystem, they themselves are host to flora, fauna and micro-organisms so they are not just little golf balls sitting on the seafloor. They are themselves an ecosystem," Coumans said.
"You will not find a single scientist that says (mining) is not going to have very serious impacts on the deep sea marine environment."
It is not only the deep sea ecosystem, but also interrelated mid-water and surface species, that stand to be impacted.
Regional countries such as Vanuatu and Fiji have called for a precautionary pause to deep sea mining activities. Indeed, this is also being advocated in a new report by a High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy, which has warned that mining on the sea floor should not begin before a full assessment of likely environmental impacts can be made.
The panel also has concerns about governance of the world body that is supposed to be guiding this new, experimental industry. The panel's report noted a lack of transparency around the activities of the International Seabed Authority as well as the ISA's potential for a "mining approval bias".
Barron conceded that it was natural for people to be suspicious of deep sea mining. This may also be an acknowledgement of his own background working and investing in the Canadian company Nautilus which drove the failed Solwara 1 deepsea mining project in PNG. However he said Pacific countries stood to benefit from the industry.
"So it will mean jobs for them, it will mean economic prosperity, and the opportunity to participate in one of the most exciting new initiatives that can really have a meaningful impact on addressing climate change, and that's good for everyone on the planet."
While Coumans spoke of the danger of messing with the "slow-evolving ecosystem" of the deep sea which would take a very long time to recover, the DeepGreen head dismissed the notion that it was a gamble. He said the real gamble was in not doing anything proactive to tackle fossil fuel use.
Barron is a highly competent communicator, and his smooth delivery appears to have made an impression on some Pacific governments, particularly Nauru. A statement from the Nauru government, co-signed by representatives of the governments of Tonga and the Cook Islands urged critics to allow them to explore opportunities in the fledgling deep sea minerals industry, which the three countries touted themselves as "leaders" in.
"While developed states possess a broad range of climate change mitigation and economic strategies, options for our small island developing states are far narrower, and for our futures to be secure, we once again look to the ocean," the statement said.
Without agreeing to the idea of a ten-year moratorium to allow for independent research on deep sea mining, the Cook Islands' Seabed Minerals Commissioner, Alex Herman, insisted her government was taking a cautious, research-centred approach.
She said the regulatory framework was being worked on, with involvement not just of outsiders but also Cook Islanders themselves, and that at any rate extraction was still years away.
"An exploration license only allows you to undertake research. It allows you to undertake the baseline studies that you need to do to gather environmental data and to monitor potential impacts that might occur."
New Zealander Phil McCabe, who works in the Pacific with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, admitted the polymetallic nodules could be useful for society, but said the damage from exploiting them was likely to be significant.
He said that governments such as the Cook Islands and Nauru, which have been vocal in pushing deep sea mining as "environmentally and economically vital", were going against the grain.
"Every conversation about the ocean today is about protection and restoration," he said.
"From the community level, all the way up to the UN and global climate negotiations, everyone's recognising the importance of ocean health. And then you've got this outlier, this industry that at its inescapable core, is destructive in nature."
"(The Cook Islands) government will not allow the commercial recovery of our nodules unless we are satisfied that there is sufficient information on how to address and minimise environmental impact," Alex Herman said.
But McCabe said given the Pacific community's relationship with the ocean, regional governments had no social license to pursue deep sea mining.
He said all Pacific Islands countries should take heed of the New Zealand experience where various applications to mine the seabed have been knocked back through lengthy, costly court cases.
"New Zealand has traversed three application processes through the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). We've been through the High Court appeal, Court of Appeals appeal, all of them have shown the activities, the proposals to be totally inappropriate and haven't cleared the bar.
"The public opposition was profound. We scrutinised the science around this, the economics around it, and the social impacts and ultimately the legality of it."
As the economic pinch from the pandemic tightens, and sectors like tourism are forced on to the back burner, Pacific countries are desperately seeking new economic opportunities.
But before diving into deep sea mining, they are being urged to look to the example of PNG whose government lost millions in the Solwara 1 Project, which never got off the ground, or in this case, the sea floor.
Michael Lodge – International Seabed Authority
An earlier version of this article included a reference to the head of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), Michael Lodge. RNZ accepts that as the leader of the United Nations’ body through which the States parties to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea administer and organise activities in the seabed and seafloor, including administering its resources, Mr Lodge must balance the interests of both the deepsea mining industry and the environmental concerns of, among others, Pacific States. RNZ regrets and retracts any suggestion arising from the earlier version of this article that Mr Lodge favours the interests of the former over those of the latter.