CSIRO Joins Pacific Deep Sea Mining Project as Islands Call to Stop Industry

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Australia’s national science agency CSIRO has agreed to work with a controversial deep-sea mining project in the Pacific as a fourth island nation joins a call for a moratorium on the industry.

CSIRO will lead a consortium of scientists from Australia and New Zealand to help Metals Company (TMC) develop an environmental management plan for its project, which is supported by the Government of Nauru.

Earlier this week, the Federated States of Micronesia said it would join Samoa, Fiji and Palau in calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Related: CSIRO has become a ‘wacky consulting company’, says one of its former top climate scientists

But four different Pacific nation governments (Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati and the Cook Islands) have already sponsored mining projects.

New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research will also be part of the CSIRO-led consortium. The Metals Company would pay $1.5 million for the work.

A coalition of conservation groups opposed to deep-sea mining said the Australian and New Zealand governments were on “the wrong side of the debate” and deep-sea mining would be “hugely damaging”.

The UN-linked International Seabed Authority (ISA) is expected to publish regulations for deep-sea mining in June 2023 after the Nauru government triggered a clause last year that could allow a change of exploration to extraction.

The projects target polymetallic nodules on the seabed four to six kilometers deep in a vast region of the Pacific called the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ). The potato-sized nodules are rich in metals and minerals needed to make batteries.

Gerard Barron, Australian CEO of Metals Company, said the CSIRO-led work “will drive the development of a rigorous management plan focused on the cumulative impacts of nodule harvesting…to enable TMC to operate within safe ecological limits.” “.

CSIRO would work with scientists from Museums Victoria, Griffith University and the University of the Sunshine Coast, a TMC statement said.

Polymetallic nodules on the seafloor of the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific. Photo: RSG/Reuters

A TMC subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources, is targeting areas in the CCZ. In May, the company said it had tested a vehicle to depths of 2.5km that will scour the seafloor to collect the nodules. Further testing at CCZ is planned later this year, with commercial operations scheduled to begin in 2024.

Related:The new mining frontier: Pacific nations caught up in the race for deep-sea riches

Barron added: “I am delighted that these trusted and independent institutions have agreed to carry out this research, setting a high standard for future work in this industry.”

The ISA has said it will publish regulations for deep-sea mining by June 2023. That deadline was prompted by a 2021 request from Nauru to finalize regulations that would allow the nation to “facilitate the approval of plans of work for the exploitation “by TMC.

In the request, Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea wrote that deep-sea nodule mining “would underpin our transition to a renewable energy future and a circular economy.”

He wrote: “We strongly believe that moving to responsible collection of polymetallic nodules from the seabed will help usher in a carbon neutral future.”

Duncan Currie, adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said: “The New Zealand and Australian governments are completely on the wrong side of this debate.”

With opposition growing, he said, it was not inevitable that the ISA would pass the regulations in June next year.

Currie said: “This is a binary situation: either regulations will be adopted and deep sea mining will be given the green light, or they won’t. Mining will be enormously damaging. We know very little about the deep sea environment and the ISA is not fit for purpose as a regulator.”

Related: Race to the bottom: the disastrous and blindfolded race to mine the deep sea

He said the coalition was calling on the Australian and New Zealand governments to “stand in solidarity with their Pacific neighbours” and oppose the start of mining.

On Monday, Micronesian President David Panuelo said his country wanted to halt all exploration activities, as well as any regulatory approvals, until more was known about the possible impacts of mining on the seabed.

A polymetallic nodule

A polymetallic nodule. Photograph: Chris Helgren/Reuters

He said deep sea mining could be a path to wealth for countries and corporations and provide essential resources.

But he added: “It is equally plausible that deep-sea mining offers a genuine path to systemic collapse of our ocean ecosystems, resulting in mass starvation and massive environmental destruction, thus pronouncing the impacts of anthropogenic climate change and instillation. abject economic conditions. suffering to peoples and communities that do not benefit from mining activities but feel its direct impacts.”

Conservation group WWF and carmaker BMW have also called for a global moratorium on seabed mining, a request also supported by Google, Volvo and battery company Samsung.

Last week’s research published in the journal Science claimed that noise from a single deep-sea mining site could increase noise levels up to 500km away.

Related: Deep-sea mine could send noise 500km across ocean: report

The researchers said that if the 17 known mining applications in the CCZ went ahead with one project each, this would raise noise levels by 5.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles), an area larger. than the European Union.

The researchers wrote that “given the costs and logistical challenges in answering basic questions about the impacts of sound on deep-sea ecosystems,” it was unlikely that enough data could be evaluated before the June 2023 deadline.

The Metals Company argues that its process is less damaging than land mining for nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese and has said it is working on a system “that minimizes acoustic disturbance from the water column”.

Barron said the study had used a low noise threshold for whales and dolphins, and locations where noise levels were high were based on the unlikely assumption that as many as 17 projects would be operating in the CCZ at the same time.

The Metals Company told The Guardian it had carried out a preliminary study on underwater noise and vibration, and the results would be verified when it tests its nodule collector later this year.

A statement said the company would develop a “noise propagation model” that would “reduce the guesswork and speculation on which the current conversation is based.”

In a statement, CSIRO said it had a key role in “providing scientific advice to support decision-making, so that decisions can be made on the best scientific advice available”.

The agency was a world leader in the development of ecosystem-based management and risk assessments “and the consortium has extensive experience in deep-sea biology and ecology, risk assessments and systems modelling.”

The project would cost 1.5 million dollars and would be delivered in three phases, the first due in 10 months. The work “would provide a rigorous and transparent risk assessment based on the benchmark studies The Metals Company has already conducted.”

A spokesman for science minister Ed Husic said in a statement: “CSIRO is Australia’s independent national science agency, governed by an independent board. Decisions about the research carried out by the organization, including individual research projects, are made independently of the government.”

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