28 May 2024

Destroying the seabed for green reasons

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 May 2024

We need the ocean's riches to make concrete, fertilise pastures and create batteries for solar panels and EVs. But how do we dig them up without wrecking the environment? 

Abstract abyss under sea background. coral reef underwater with sun ray. 3D rendering image.

Abstract abyss under sea background. coral reef underwater with sun ray. 3D rendering image. Photo: Copyright: isampuntarat

It won't be a surprise that two of the companies on Chris Bishop's Fast Track email list were in the business of mining the seabed. 

A third seabed miner has a keen interest in the scheme that would enable developers to cut through mountains of red tape and court cases without pesky objections from locals and green groups. 

But one of the big reasons that permission to vacuum up seabeds off Pākiri, Taranaki and north Canterbury have been held up by various authorities is uncertainty - a lack of information on what such activity will do to the environment.

Those authorities have pointed out that it's not up to locals and concerned environmentalists to prove the mining will be damaging - the companies should be doing the work to prove it's not. 

Today on The Detail we look at three companies searching for profit deep under water off New Zealand, and why they've suddenly started withdrawing from the consents process. 

"That's the Fast Track," says David Williams, Newsroom's environment and climate editor.

"If you don't get in through one door another may open, and this government has opened the door to what they call regionally or nationally significant projects. And the way that they can get past these kind of restraints - some would say environmental protections - to development is to apply to the government and be considered for their Fast Track. 

"That would be their one-stop-shop as they call it, and you're deemed significant then you get into the process and then there is a committee that considers your application, and makes recommendations to the ministers who make the final say."

At least that's the proposal as it stands, but it's drawn so much flak that the details may change slightly.

But mining companies appear to be betting on there being an easier path for them in the not-so-distant future to push their applications through - and companies such as Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) which wants to embark on a 35 year offshore Iron Ore project to mine a 3.2 billion tonne vanadium-rich titanomagnetite resource in the South Taranaki Bight - are withdrawing from the legal process, in this case a re-hearing in front of the EPA.  

"Its eggs seem to be in the one basket now," says Williams. 

"I don't know whether you could see that as an admission that they think that they weren't going to get this EPA reconsideration off the line... but it does appear now that its fate is in the hands of ministers, and that certainly seems what they say would be a cheaper and less risky way of getting approval, because the process is shorter, [and] there seems to be fewer environmental constraints."

Forest & Bird says the proposed mining site is where creatures including the endangered blue pygmy whale live, and TTR's plan to dig up the top 11 metres of the seabed will cause catastrophic damage. 

TRR admits the mining will 'totally destroy' the marine ecosystem, but says within a very short time of mining ceasing the area will recover, and within a couple of years it will be back to how it was. 

"I don't know that everyone would agree with that assessment," says Williams. 

"If you destroy things, including living things, that's the end of that, and recovery is not the same, especially if you're changing what happens on the seabed. I think there's a lot of questions about that kind of assessment." 

NZX-listed Chatham Rock Phosphate is another company that is on Bishop's list - it also claims green credentials, saying New Zealand rock phosphate is known for its environmental qualities, and low in heavy metals such as cadmium which causes cancer in humans.  Its product is used for fertiliser. 

It plans to mine much further out to sea, at deeper levels - but the fishing industry is among the objectors. 

The World Resources Institute has pointed out that in the race to cut greenhouse gas emissions and rein in climate change, the demand for critical minerals such as vanadium is surging. 

However little is known about the deep ocean. One area of interest in the Pacific Ocean, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, hosts exploration contracts for 17 deep-sea mining contractors. And yet researchers going deeper than before in that zone have recently discovered more than 5,000 species that were entirely new to science

The great irony is that the materials being dug up are used for EV batteries, wind turbines, solar panels and other low carbon technologies. 

Williams says when it comes to energy it's often "the environment versus the environment". For example, big solar farms have an effect on the land underneath. 

"You could say seabed mining is the same kind of thing. You're chewing up one part of the environment to apparently save another. 

"You have to wonder where all this ends. When you're looking at reducing emissions, maybe actually you should drive a bit less... or fly less often. Maybe the answer is not just to keep the status quo going and grow and grow and grow." 

The Detail also talks to RNZ data journalist Farah Hancock, who has written thousands of words about Pākiri sand.  

It's used for high-strength concrete, including in projects like the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the Sky Tower, and City Rail Link. That particular sand has special qualities that make it ideal for good quality concrete. 

But locals say it's destroying the shore line and threatening the country's most endangered bird, the fairy tern. 

The company that's been digging it up for the last 80 years has run into stern opposition and unfavourable permitting authorities, and hopes getting 'sand extraction' included on the government's list of Fast Track activities will enable it to continue dredging. 

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