Minerals in the deep

In February, three mining companies were granted permission to explore the Cook Islands’ submarine wealth: lumps packed with rare metals on the sea floor. What has the tiny Pacific nation got to lose?

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“See this?”

Paul Lynch, an affable middle-aged lawyer, asks the schoolkids gathered around him. He holds up a baseball-sized rock—a polymetallic nodule, so called because it contains multiple metals, among them cobalt, copper, manganese, nickel, and rare earth elements. The nodule formed about five kilometres below the surface of the sea, where the pressure is intense enough to crack steel. This nodule, and others like it, grew as dissolved metals in the seawater arranged themselves around a nucleus at a rate of one to 10 millimetres per million years.

“This is our oil,” Lynch says. His eyebrows are raised, excited. “This is gonna make us rich. Like how oil made Saudi Arabia rich.”

It’s late 2019, and I’m watching him pitch this dream at a career expo on Rarotonga, the most developed of the Cook Islands, a South Pacific nation of 15 tiny islands and about 17,000 people in an area of ocean ten times the land area of New Zealand. Here, at the epicentre of the hospitality industry that propels the country’s economy, there aren’t any traffic lights, roosters strut around in restaurants, and the internet stops working when it rains.

Lynch is representing the Seabed Minerals Authority (SBMA), an agency of the Cook Islands government, at the expo. The logo on his navy-blue polo resembles a map of the Cook Islands, except without islands. There are no dots representing Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the islands that hosted more than 170,000 tourists in 2019. Neither are there dots representing the other islands—self-contained worlds visited by a cargo boat every few months, sometimes every six, where having no money doesn’t mean you don’t eat; it just means you fish. Instead of islands, the logo features large red circles announcing some of the world’s densest concentrations of polymetallic nodules.

Over the next two years, I will become obsessed with these nodules. I will discuss them with people who are interested and people who are not. I will learn that depending on whom you talk to, the nodules represent affluence, cheap cellphones, the solution to climate change, or the beginning of the end of a whole way of life.

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The story of why the Cook Islands—the tropical paradise my dad emigrated from, where I spent many summers as a child, eating mangoes in the lagoon with my cousins, going for rides in my uncle’s cement mixer, and watching my grandma suck the eyes out of fried fish—became a focal point in an emerging extractive industry could be said to begin in 1957. That was the start of the International Geophysical Year, a coordinated, worldwide study of Earth’s systems, during which researchers pulled up minerals from the seabed of French Polynesia, the Cook Islands’ next-door neighbour.

In 1965, the year New Zealand returned to the people of the Cook Islands the right to govern themselves, an American mining engineer named John Mero published a book that launched many prospecting ships. In The Mineral Resources of the Sea, he made a compelling economic case for mining the seafloor. By the early 1970s, Russian and American vessels were arriving in the Cook Islands to scope the potential.

The government formally permitted a vessel from New Zealand to do research in 1974, which was also the year the country opened its first (and still only) international airport. My 90-year-old grandma, who comes from an island inhabited by 500 people, talks often about going to see the first jet airliner land on the tarmac that year. All of Rarotonga was there, she says, to dance, drum, and watch Queen Elizabeth II disembark from the pa‘īrere—the flying ship.

Vessels also came from France, Germany, and Japan. Samples and photos produced during research expeditions suggested there were millions of tonnes of polymetallic nodules. A report published by the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in 1998 called the Cook Islands “unique, not only in having the largest area of very abundant nodules in the world but of having them in their own EEZ [exclusive economic zone] and thus under Cook Islands jurisdiction”. A vessel came every year or two until 1990. Ultimately, though, the industry remained nascent. It was cheaper to continue cutting mines into African soil than to penetrate the deep sea.

From a commercial perspective, the most attractive concentrations of nodules are located in the centre of the northern Pacific Ocean, the southeast Pacific Basin, and the centre of the North Indian Ocean. Nodules are found in abundance on vast seabed plains between 4000 and 6500 metres deep.

Then, between 2007 and 2008, the price of manganese ore increased by between 314 and 413 per cent internationally. In China, consumption of the metal, which is used to make steel, had more than doubled since 2003. The nodules got fresh attention. In 2009, the Cook Islands parliament passed the Seabed Minerals Act, touting it as the world’s first national law pertaining specifically to the deep sea. (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, enacted in 1982, deals with the deep sea, too, but only in oceans beyond the limits of national jurisdictions.) The legislation established the SBMA and a process for licensing mining companies. The year it passed was also the year I moved in with my grandma on Rarotonga and took a job as a reporter for the local paper. In 2012, I covered Lynch’s appointment as commissioner of the newly minted SBMA. At the paper, we ran stories about him flying around the world, propagating news of the Cook Islands’ nodules. In 2015, his office formally invited proposals from mining companies. None came. There was, however, interest; the Cook Islands government entered into both a joint venture with Belgian mining corporation Global Sea Mineral Resources and an agreement reserving chunks of seafloor for American company Ocean Minerals to explore.

While the Cook Islands government pursued industry and fortune, my colleagues and I were writing about a small team of people, which included a rugby star, a village chief, and an environmental scientist, touring the islands to consult communities about the idea of turning half of the country—one million square kilometres of ocean—into the world’s largest marine protected area. The environmental scientist, Jacqui Evans, would later win a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in building this vision.

Marine conservationist Jacqui Evans grew up in Masterton, New Zealand. She moved to the Cook Islands, her mother’s homeland, at the age of 15. She remembers snorkelling here, in Rarotonga’s Muri Lagoon, not long after her arrival, marvelling at the fish going about their business and thinking about how she’d like to spend her life learning about their world.

In the outer islands, the team’s pitch found resonance. More than 90 per cent of people surveyed there wanted the ocean protected from large-scale commercial activity; more than 80 per cent wanted the whole ocean protected, not just half of it.

On islands farther away from the influence of tourism, this is a likely response. People understand conservation not as a novel idea introduced by Western scientists, but as an ancient practice and serious business.

Violating a rā‘ui—a ban on harvesting an area or resource for a specified period of time—was once punishable by death. While this is no longer the case, respecting natural systems remains a matter of survival. It is also a matter of increasing urgency, given that the Pacific Islands, which did not materially contribute to atmospheric carbon levels, are on the front lines of climate change.

On islands where the average annual income is less than $10,000 and a loaf of bread costs $5, no one goes hungry. People catch fish, roast pigs, harvest seafood from the reef, and tend crops on the plots of fertile land that are every islander’s birthright. Surplus goes to neighbours, according to the cultural code of communities where everything—food, tasks, children—is shared. I remember my great-grandma, who was a subchief in her village on the island of Atiu, sharing her food with even the ants. People living on outer islands often say they are out of Rarotonga’s sight and mind; they get by anyway. “The life is not hard here,” Bele Tararo, a stout man in his 60s, told me beneath a mango tree on the island of Mauke. “You can’t go hungry here. So everything is always okay.”

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In mid-2017, the parliament passed the Marae Moana Act—a law that prioritises conservation in the Cook Islands’ ocean, lays a legal foundation for a mixed-use marine protected area, and bans industrial activity within 50 nautical miles of any shore, or in an area of about 324,000 square kilometres. Jacqui Evans, the scientist from the consultation team, became the director and sole employee of the Marae Moana Coordination Office. She began searching for funding to officially zone the protected area.

Meanwhile, the rising price of cobalt fuelled fresh interest in the minerals of the deep. The metal was being used in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other “green” technologies, as well as in cellphones and laptops. Demand surged. In 2016, a tonne of cobalt cost nearly $33,000; by 2018, the price reached $141,000. Corporations lobbied for access to international seabeds at the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a body based in Kingston, Jamaica, tasked by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to manage the minerals of oceans no country owns. They also pursued small governments with jurisdiction over big oceans in places such as the Cook Islands and Nauru, a tiny Pacific nation that sold phosphate to strip-miners until 80 per cent of its land became infertile and uninhabitable.

Marketing teams built narratives: the world will need 359 cities the size of New York City by 2100 to accommodate three billion more people; we need cobalt to build sustainable cities; land-based mines employ children as young as seven, displace communities, and account for seven per cent of deforestation in Africa, Latin America, and Asia; deep-sea mining is not only safe, but also socially responsible and necessary.

In 2018, Evans contracted me to do some copywriting about the value of marine protected areas. Several months later, I was offered a gig writing press releases, reporting on meetings, and editing documents for the SBMA.

Even though it seemed like one agency was tasked with protecting the ocean, and the other with exploiting its resources, both arms of the government declared the same mission: to regulate industry for the benefit of islanders. I would find myself wondering about this a lot.

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Towards the end of 2018, I recorded a series of public meetings organised by the SBMA. The government was updating the Seabed Minerals Act of 2009, and communities and corporations were invited to comment on the draft. Among the proposed changes were aligning the legislation with the more recent Marae Moana Act, which mandates “ecologically sustainable use of the marine environment”, and shifting the power to grant or refuse licences from the SBMA to the minister of minerals.

Each public meeting featured a version of the same speech delivered by Mark Brown, the cabinet minister in charge of minerals who would, in 2020, become the country’s prime minister. He explained how large companies wanted licences to “explore” and “exploit” the Cook Islands’ nodules. These companies, he said, would pay taxes, licensing fees, and royalties into a state-owned investment fund. He said their activity would pose minimal risk to the environment, and he cited a booklet written by a Rarotonga-based zoologist that describes part of the Cook Islands’ deep ocean as a biological desert.

When the Rarotonga meetings were over, I boarded a chartered twin-engine plane with Brown, two other politicians, and four bureaucrats to attend other meetings. For several days, we flew into and out of crushed-coral runways, staying just a few hours on some islands. At the public meetings, men wore suit jackets, ties, and rubber flip-flops. Women dressed as if for church, in bright floral fabrics and hats of woven coconut fibre. They offered us coconuts to drink and waved flies away from feasts covering long tables. The meeting houses smelled of the gardenia in the garlands the women hung around our necks.

We once considered the high seas as fathomless depths that were hostile to life. But life abounds on the seafloor, where corals thousands of years old provide scaffolding for brittle stars and crustaceans that live beyond the reach of light. It’s a fragile ecology—slow to grow, easy to destroy.

Brown explained at each meeting, mostly in Cook Islands Māori, that mining would bring great wealth. No longer would Cook Islanders have to leave the islands to access high-quality Western medicine and education, he said. He described the environmental risks as negligible and manageable, and the animals in the deep sea as the size of kutu, or lice. Deep-sea mining, he said, would be more eco-friendly than tourism with its carbon emitting passenger planes, and more responsible than the land-based mining destroying environments and communities in Africa.Members of each audience described the presentation as mānea, or beautiful, and offered their congratulations. “I can see government doing a lot for our country,” a high chief said in Cook Islands Māori. At the meeting on Mitiaro, an island with a population of approximately 150, Junior Abraham, one of 11 residents with broadband, stood up. “The thing is,” he said in English, “scientists are actually saying they’re concerned about the risk to our environment.” The island’s Catholic priest stood to apologise for Abraham’s dissent.

At the meeting on Mauke, June Hosking, a retired school principal who lives off-grid with her husband, stood. That week, she’d taken her chunky laptop to the government building in town to access the internet and download the proposed changes to the Seabed Minerals Act. She went through her list of questions now: why does the law vest all power to make decisions about the deep sea in the minister of minerals (which was and is Brown) and a committee the minister handpicks? Why doesn’t the law hold anyone responsible for covering the true cost of a leak or some other environmental disaster?

Lynch, the commissioner of seabed minerals, explained to her that humans have an inevitable impact on the environment. Did she want to live in a house, he asked, or with the trees and bugs? The island’s mayor announced it was time to eat. The local paper later ran a press release reporting overwhelming support for seabed mining in the outer islands, as well as a letter to the editor from Hosking that described the consultation as a “slick sales pitch”. The amended Seabed Minerals Act passed in June 2019. A proposed clause requiring contractors to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of ocean users in order to mine was not included.

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I call some scientists to ask them what they think. They describe the deep sea to me as a dark, slow, otherworldly place, filled with creatures large and small, monstrous and strange—faceless eels, vampire squid, oversized crabs, some of the ugliest fish humans have ever seen. Lisa Levin, a distinguished professor of biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, has been visiting the deep sea for 40 years and calls it “wondrous”. Jesse van der Grient, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii (UH) at Mānoa, who studies the connections between fisheries and the deep sea, calls the creatures of the deep “alien and weird”, then pauses.

“If you think about it,” she says, “they look alien and weird but it’s the largest habitat on Earth, so you could always make the argument that’s normal and we’re the weird ones.”

The scientists say details of the deep are slowly emerging, but what we know is microscopic compared with what we don’t. Doing research kilometres below diveable depths remains extremely expensive. Craig Smith, a professor emeritus of oceanography at UH Mānoa, tells me the deep sea is an “ecological enigma”. He estimates 90 per cent of the species living there are unidentified and unstudied.

Several large igneous boulders covered in bamboo corals were encountered midway through Dive 13 of the 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones expedition. Bamboo corals were locally abundant on these large boulders and more spread out throughout the dive on different hard-bottom habitats.

What scientists do know is that the deep sea is connected to other parts of the ocean. Currents mix layers; fish and whales travel to the seabed; carbon sinks from the surface to the bottom of the sea, where it gets stored by the sediment. The knowns raise some big questions: could a tiny, unknown creature the size of a kutu perform as integral a role in the ocean as, say, a bee does on land? How much carbon is sequestered in the seafloor? The minerals of the deep sea are being marketed as the solution to climate change, but does disturbing them actually exacerbate the problem?

This is how Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist, describes the likeliest mining process to me: enormous vacuum cleaners will move across the seafloor, “almost certainly killing all life” in their path, sucking up nodules to which hundreds of known animals have attached themselves, and delivering the material through a pipe to a vessel on the surface. She says waste—water, sediment, and crushed-up heavy metals—will likely be returned to the sea. Pressing questions for Amon and other scientists include how constant noise and light will affect natural rhythms and where the millions of tonnes of waste will go. They worry that plumes of reinjected sediment will travel great distances. They worry about toxic metals entering food chains.

Minerals are processed onboard or taken to land, with waste water and sediment returned to the ocean.

“There’s a significant probability that [plumes of sediment] could impinge on the slopes of the Cook Islands, even if they’re mining hundreds of kilometres offshore,” Smith tells me. He advises the International Seabed Authority and works extensively in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a swath of international ocean between Hawaii and Mexico, where 22 contractors are licensed to explore the seafloor. “They could be upwelled, for example, and affect shallow-water fisheries there. I hadn’t thought about that. We’re used to thinking about mining in the Pacific far removed from any island impacts.”

Jeffrey Drazen, a professor of oceanography at UH Mānoa who studies deep-sea fish ecology, tells me that “there are enough connections that deep-sea mining might very well affect the fisheries”.

[Chapter Break]

In August 2019, Teina Mackenzie, a Cook Islander who was educated in Canada, takes three flights from Rarotonga to Tuvalu, where Pacific leaders are convening for the Pacific Islands Forum. She is the president of Te Ipukarea Society, a non-profit that recently engaged a professor of environmental law from Victoria University of Wellington to write a legal opinion on the Seabed Minerals Act. The opinion, which argues in 51 pages that a lack of data makes mining “particularly unwise”, has further validated Mackenzie’s decision to attend this regional meeting.

At the gathering of leaders in suits, she tucks a flower behind her ear and thinks about the people she knows who are only marginally connected to the cash economy. She thinks about the voyages she’s done aboard Marumaru Atua, a traditional sailing canoe, that taught her to navigate across oceans the way her ancestors did, by taking many and multiple bearings: stars, moon, sun, colours, swells, winds, clouds, fish, birds. She thinks about how the decision to mine the seafloor depends on a single bearing, even if it goes by various names: progress, development, diversification, GDP, growth.

She believes in other solutions: better regulation of existing terrestrial mines, systems for recycling metals, products built to last, support for the innovation of truly sustainable technologies. On behalf of a broad network of regional organisations, Mackenzie proposes a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining in the Pacific to allow more time for research into the impact it might have.

Nodules are commercially retrieved using enormous robotic vacuum cleaners, such as the 25-tonne Patania II. It’s not always plain sailing. In 2021, a cable detached and stranded the robot more than 4000 metres deep in the Pacific’s Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ).
With much at stake, the control room on vessels such as Okeanos Explorer runs through system tests before the start of a dive.

The prime ministers of Fiji and Vanuatu declare their support. So does the prime minister of Papua New Guinea. This marks a change in the position he held three months earlier when he announced his government would focus on “maximising gain from what God has given this country” and turning Papua New Guinea into “the richest black Christian nation on the planet”. A few months after the forum, his change of tune will make more sense. Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals, which partnered with the government to mine the country’s seabed, soon files for bankruptcy, leaving Papua New Guinea with a debt of $179 million.

After the forum, the idea of a moratorium begins to gain global momentum. The European Parliament, Google, BMW, Volvo, Samsung, and naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough will all eventually endorse it.

Evans goes to her desk at the Marae Moana Coordination Office and responds to an email asking her and her colleagues to comment on a communiqué documenting the forum. She writes that a moratorium on seabed mining will buy her time to finish zoning the Cook Islands’ marine protected area, and she expresses her support for the proposal. She is let go the following week; she tells the Guardian this is because she did not align with the government’s vision. The local paper runs a story about the prime minister’s view of her Goldman Environmental Prize, expressed during a speech he delivers in San Francisco. The headline reads, “PM Says Ocean Campaigner Does Not Deserve Prize.”

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In March 2020, a coronavirus shutters tourism. Economies throughout the Pacific region grind to a halt and are propped up by aid. The Cook Islands gets COVID-related financial assistance from such institutions as the New Zealand government and the Asian Development Bank, so much of the workforce continues to get paid. Families that don’t get aid eat what’s around: fish, pigs, seafood, taro, arrowroot, kūmara, Polynesian chestnuts, coconuts, avocados, breadfruit, garden vegetables, every imaginable tropical fruit.

Below, researchers from The Metals Company sift through polymetallic nodules. The company claims the CCZ alone contains enough battery metals to power one billion electric vehicles “with a fraction of the social and environmental impacts” of mining these metals on land.

With the evaporation of tourism, economic diversification becomes a priority for governments in the region. The Cook Islands News reports that the government is cutting budgets for sending cargo to outer islands and building cyclone shelters, but is increasing the Seabed Minerals Authority’s allocation. By now the agency is under the leadership of Alex Herman, an articulate Cook Islands lawyer who replaced Lynch several months before COVID-19 became a pandemic. Hers is a strong voice on behalf of deep-sea mining; she refers to it as harvesting or mineral recovery, whereas her predecessor called it exploitation. She talks often about holding corporations accountable to standards set by the International Seabed Authority and to international best practices for environmental protection. (The Journal of Environmental Management recently pointed out that these do not yet exist.) She speaks and writes about how the government is now only considering exploratory licences, which will authorise expeditions that cost corporations tens of millions of dollars and yield useful research but will not, she says, guarantee permission to mine.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted for people on Rarotonga what people living on the outer islands never lost sight of—that even if the tourists do not come, no one starves. The land and sea provide abundantly.

In September, six months after the borders shut to tourists, Mark Brown appoints a committee to provide community perspectives on seabed mining. It is made up of a pastor, a cultural expert, a sports administrator, a consumer officer, a brand manager, and a traditional titleholder. At a formal event marking the launch of the exploratory licensing process in October, the pastor, who is also chair of the committee, gives a speech in which he explains it would be a sin not to sell the nodules. He quotes a scripture that says to do nothing with your blessings is to be wicked and slothful.

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This story, like many other stories, took a lot of turns in 2020. After losing her job, Jacqui Evans set up an environmental foundation dedicated to a well-managed ocean and seeded it with $100,000 of her Goldman Environmental Prize money. ECO Magazine named Alex Herman, the SBMA commissioner, a deep-sea hero for prioritising sustainability. The novel coronavirus exposed the precarity of the Cook Islands’ economic engine. Tesla made a cobalt-free battery for its cars. In June 2021, the tiny nation of Nauru, a sponsoring state for Canadian company the Metals Company (formerly DeepGreen Metals) at the International Seabed Authority, invoked an obscure clause in the law of the sea that requires the ISA to finalise its mining code—the rules that will govern how international seafloors can be mined—within two years. In February 2022, the Cook Islands government awarded exploration licences to three companies—one tied to the Texas-based Ocean Minerals, another to the Belgium-based Global Sea Mineral Resources, and another to the former head of global mining giant Rio Tinto.

The only thing that seems clearer to me now than it did when I became obsessed with the nodules is this: humans are moving closer to the largest mining operations in the history of Earth, and how you feel about this depends on what you value. In the Cook Islands, opinions range, conflict, and overlap. A lot of people want better-resourced schools and hospitals. Some are scientists concerned about oceans that are already bearing great pressure. Some are scientists who believe mining can occur harmlessly. Some call the nodules noodles. Some returned long ago from living overseas with a sharpened instinct to protect the humanness and healthfulness of life in the islands. Some have never considered that food could be anything but secure.

I once asked a fisherman who fishes for a living, six days a week, if he worries about industrial threats to the fishery. He curled his bottom lip towards his chin and raised his shoulders. “If it’s God’s plan,” he said, “the machineries will break.”

Kris Van Nijen, the managing director of Global Sea Mineral Resources, said during a hearing in the Belgian parliament that in the pursuit of a carbon-neutral future, it’s important to “not only look at the ocean, but look at the planet in total”. I thought about the people for whom the ocean is the whole planet. Hans Smit, the friendly president and chief executive of Texas-based company Ocean Minerals, told me over the phone that a thriving mining industry “will provide the Cook Islanders for many generations with a wonderful way of life”.

I thought about a conversation I had on the island of Atiu, over coconut shells of beer made from oranges in a hut with no walls. The bartender, who sat on an overturned bucket, told me his family left the Cook Islands when he was 14, before he spoke much English. He said he spent 28 years missing home. Now, he said, he catches fish, off the reef and farther out, the way his grandfather taught him to, and he grows vegetables and boils crabs and hunts pigs. He said he has everything he needs. “It’s peaceful. It’s a paradise,” he said. “You go outside, around the world, and that’s why they’re fighting—it’s the minerals, the resources. Good thing we’re not fighting here yet.”

This story first appeared in Hakai magazine, and is republished here with permission. Reporting was supported by Internews’s Earth Journalism Network.

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