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Experts see no way back for NZ firm blocked from trying to mine the seabed

Critically endangered Maui's dolphins. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

  • The New Zealand Supreme Court recently blocked consent for a seabed mining operation that would annually extract 50 million tons of iron ore from the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki.
  • Environmentalists see this decision as a clear victory, but the mining company has stated its intention to reapply for mining permission.
  • But experts say it’s unlikely the company, Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR), will be able to regain consent due to fundamental issues with its application, such as the distinct lack of baseline studies on resident marine life and the potential impacts of mining.
  • Conservationists say seabed mining in this part of New Zealand would cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem and threaten many rare and endangered species.

Conservationists have expressed hope that a New Zealand company whose bid to mine the seabed was blocked by the country’s highest court last month has little chance of winning approval.

The Supreme Court of New Zealand ruled unanimously on Sept. 30 to block consent for the mining operation that would extract millions of tons of iron ore from the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki on the nation’s North Island. Experts say that the decision was primarily based on the finding that mining company Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR) could not illustrate that its activities would not cause “material harm” to the environment.

While TTR seems confident that it will be able to reapply for mining consent, conservationists who have spent years campaigning against seabed mining in New Zealand say the company will not find an easy path due to fundamental issues in its application. For instance, they point out that TTR’s most recent application lacked studies about resident marine life and the impacts of mining on species and the overall ecosystem.

“The company hadn’t done its homework,” Cindy Baxter, chair of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), one group that opposed the mining application, told Mongabay in an interview. “It didn’t even have baseline data for where it wanted to mine, so no one can even measure what the [impacts] would be if it went ahead.”

Duncan Currie, an international environmental lawyer who acted as counsel to KASM and Greenpeace Aotearoa, said it would be “extremely difficult” for TTR to get its application reapproved due to this lack of baseline data. He added that researching to obtain this data would be like “throwing the money away” since it would still be unlikely for TTR to prove that mining would not cause material harm to marine life.

South Taranaki coast near Patea, New Zealand. Image by Phillip Capper / Flickr.

TTR’s application proposed to extract 50 million tons of iron-rich sand from a 66 -square -kilometer (23-square-mile) area of the seabed each year over a period of 35 years. But it would take just take 5 million tons of iron-ore each year and dump the remaining 45 million tons of sand back into the ocean.

Conservationists say the mining would have caused irreversible damage to the environment by smothering sensitive rocky coral reef systems with sediment plumes. Mining residue and noise pollution could also threaten the survival of many species, including New Zealand’s little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) and critically endangered Māui dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), experts say. The region has also recently been recognized as a foraging ground for a newly identified population of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda).

In the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, there were weeks of hearings and submissions by conservation groups such as KASM and Greenpeace Aotearoa, iwi (Maori tribes), independent scientists and even the fishing industry.

“I’ve campaigned on bottom trawling, and there we were hand in hand with the fishing industry,” Baxter said. “But the fishing industry can see the potential impact to their business … and I think we won really in the process because our environmental arguments were so strong.”

In 2017, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Agency granted TTR consent on its application to mine the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki. But in 2018, New Zealand’s high court reversed the EPA’s decision. TTR then made an appeal to New Zealand’s court of appeals, but the company was not successful.

“What was interesting there is that the [decision-making] committee specifically said in the recommendation [for the first application] that the applicant should go back and do some of these studies because basically, they hadn’t done [them],” Duncan said. TTR’s latest application still lacked these baseline studies, but did include “new plume modeling,” according to Duncan.

The new plume modeling suggested that the sediment would not cause as much harm to the marine environment as previously thought. Yet Phil McCabe, the Pacific liaison for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, told Mongabay that the modeling was “questionable.”

TTR did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. But in a statement published shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, Alan J. Eggers, executive chairman of TTR, said the company was “satisfied” with the court’s decision since it would have the opportunity to reapply.

If TTR does resubmit an application for mining, Baxter said, it will face the same opposition from environmental groups, scientists, iwi and the fishing industry.

Little Blue Penguin ((Eudyptula minor) on Maud Island in New Zealand. Image by Kimberley Collins / Flickr.

“We’re not going to go away,” she said. “We’re not going to suddenly give up and not bother to oppose any application. We’re going to be there every single step of the way.”

McCabe said a way to ensure that deep-sea mining will not occur in the future is for New Zealand to enact a total ban on the activity.

“The world views us as a country that has a pretty strong moral compass for the environment,” McCabe said. “So I think it’s appropriate for us to stand in place of caution on this issue.

Only a few other nations have pursued plans to allow seabed mining within their territorial waters, although none of these ventures have been allowed to proceed due to environmental concerns. For instance, in 2018, the Mexican government rejected a permit for Exploraciones Oceanicas, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, to start mining for phosphate in the seabed of Mexico’s exclusive economic zone, due to the damage it could cause to habitat for loggerhead turtles, gray whales and humpback whales, as well as local fishing grounds. And in Namibia, the high court recently found the company Namibian Marine Phosphate in breach of its license when it conducted trial mining, which put a halt to its activities.

In 2019, the now-defunct company Nautilus received the first ever license to begin seabed mining in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and started exploratory drilling near a network of hydrothermal vents. But before Nautilus could start extracting any minerals, the company went bankrupt, leaving the PNG government with millions of dollars of debt and the local marine environment severely damaged. David Heydon, the former CEO of Nautilus, went on to found Canada-based company DeepGreen, which recently became The Metals Company when it merged with NASDAQ-listed Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation.

While seabed mining in nations’ territorial waters faces delays, there is a move to start mining in international waters within the next two years. The Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors the Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company, recently triggered a “two-year rule” that would require the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-mandated body overseeing seabed mining in international waters, to allow mining to commence with whatever rules and regulations are in place by then.

There is considerable opposition to deep-sea mining in international waters from scientists, conservationists, governments and civil society. At last month’s congress of global conservation authority the IUCN in Marseille, France, delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion that called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and the reform of the ISA. Government agencies from 37 states voted in favor of the motion, including Germany, a sponsoring state for a deep-sea mining company.

“There’s a number of things that are stacking up in favor of a moratorium,” McCabe said. “And this New Zealand case is another solid, concrete example of this activity being shown to be too destructive.”

Banner image caption: Critically endangered Maui’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui). Image courtesy of the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: a look at whether deep sea mining is compatible with the clean energy revolution, listen here:

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