Cook Islands to Allow Seabed Mining Licenses Despite Negative Environmental Impact
By Monica Evans
This article has been updated to reflect corrected information in the original version.
The Cook Islands government plans to license seabed mining operators to prospect its exclusive economic zone for manganese and cobalt nodules within the coming financial year, Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown told the Cook Islands News.
Brown's comments, reported in a May 23 article, came in response to a new report commissioned by environmental advocacy groups The Ocean Foundation and MiningWatch Canada. The report warns of serious environmental impacts if mining takes place in the Pacific Ocean's seabed, and says that even working out what those impacts might be will take considerable time and resources.
"We're talking about activities at depths of up to four kilometers," or about 2.5 miles, the report's lead researcher, Andrew Chin, a marine scientist at James Cook University in Australia, told Mongabay. "And trying to figure out how an ecosystem works takes a long time. I mean, people are still arguing about how mangroves work, and you can walk through them!"
Cook Islands seabed minerals commissioner Alex Herman said in an email to Mongabay that "commercial nodule recovery will have impacts on affected species and habitats in the deep sea," and added that baseline studies, mitigation strategies and monitoring would all be required if mining were to go ahead. "The Government has to look at issues from a broader perspective," she added. "This sometimes involves balancing conservation interests with sustainable development aspirations."
Herman said those aspirations include creating new income streams, as well as jobs and training, environmental protection and contributing to renewable energy development. The country's economy is dominated by the tourism sector, and has suffered greatly from coronavirus-related travel restrictions, despite itself not recording a single case of COVID-19. "The seabed minerals sector will provide economic diversity that is critical for the Cook Islands' future as a nation and lessens its reliance on tourism," Herman said. "The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted our vulnerability, and the need to diversify."
Mining a Marine Protected Area?
The Cook Islands made international news in 2017 when it turned its entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which spans nearly 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles), into the largest mixed-use marine protected area in the world. Dubbed "Marae Moana," which means "sacred ocean" in Cook Islands Maori, the park was designed to ensure all activities within it complied with its overarching purpose: to protect and conserve the ecological, biodiversity, and heritage values of the country's marine environment.
A decision-making council and a technical advisory group, both comprising government officials, traditional leaders and civil society organizations (CSOs), were established to help develop a new marine spatial plan that fit the objectives of Marae Moana, and to ensure that any new ocean-related initiatives comply with the park's overarching purpose. The plan is still being developed.
Meanwhile, the government passed a new act, the Seabed Minerals Act 2019, which sets up new institutions and processes for planning and designating areas for seabed minerals activities. The act is legally subservient to the provisions of the act that established Marae Moana, called the Marae Moana Act 2017. "No license may be granted that…would likely lead to a contravention of a declaration of a marine protected area, the Marae Moana Act 2017, or other zoning rules," it reads.
But Kelvin Passfield, director of the local conservation group Te Ipukarea Society, told Mongabay he is concerned that without having completed the research and consultation to create the marine spatial plan, there's a risk that "they're going to give out mining exploration permits for areas which may in fact be places that should be protected under Marae Moana." He also expressed concern about the effectiveness of Marae Moana's checks and balances in practice: Te Ipukarea Society sits on its technical advisory group, but Passfield said the government has ignored its advice and that of other CSOs with marine conservation expertise, and that the advisory group had only met once in the past 12 months.
"Civil society have a role to play in advocating and raising awareness on issues," Herman said when asked about the CSOs' concerns. "But at the end of the day, Government needs to make often-hard decisions based on the best interests of our country and people."
Te Ipukarea Society advocates that the Cook Islands endorse a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining that civil society leaders put forward at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August 2019 and that the governments of Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea support. The idea is to allow sufficient time to conduct in-depth research on the ecosystems in question and potential mining impacts.
But the Cook Islands government has vocally opposed the moratorium. Marine scientist Jacqueline Evans, who directed the Marae Moana coordination office from 2017 to 2019, was fired last year after expressing support for the freeze in an internal email.
In a letter to the Cook Islands News on June 4, Deputy PM Brown said the government simply wants to gain the knowledge to determine whether or not mining could be conducted sustainably, and issuing exploration licenses is the only way to fund such research. "Without exploration (which I stress, is not 'mining'), we have no realistic way of gaining a better understanding of the deep-sea environment, and indeed to know whether we may or may not be able to harness the resources which exist at these depths in the longer term," he wrote.
Passfield said while the government claims all parties want the same thing — more information — "they have not demonstrated this in their actions." Last year, it approved two short research cruises by different companies and "there was no requirement placed by Government on these cruises to collect any biological samples," he said. "Only nodule and sediment samples were taken, and this was just for analysis for mineral content, nothing biological."
Herman acknowledged the dearth of knowledge on the deep-sea environment, but said that one of the cruises did collect "targeted fauna associated with sediments and nodule surfaces" and that companies granted exploration licenses would be required "to demonstrate how they will collect and analyse environmental baseline data." Should mining go ahead, she said, the government would take a precautionary approach and adopt environmental management and mitigation strategies until further best practices can be determined. "The effectiveness of mitigation strategies to protect the environment will become known over time," she said.
But Chin said it's difficult to envisage how any mining could be carried out in Cook Islands' waters without irreversible ecosystem impacts. "These are quite diverse habitats, and so many new species are still being discovered," he said. "And we know that, generally speaking, because of the environment of high pressure, low light, low energy and low temperature, deep-sea animals grow slowly, and anything that grows slowly is quite vulnerable to an acute impact like mining."
As the report outlines, lots of species, including corals, sponges, sea urchins, sea stars and jellyfish, live on the manganese nodules themselves, and many others rely on them. Deep-sea octopuses, for example, lay their eggs on dead sponges attached there. "So if you're mining the nodules, you are removing everything that's associated with them," Chin said.
Beyond the seafloor, mining would likely also impact the whole water column right up to the surface, Chin added, both directly through plumes of sediment and tailings, and indirectly through ecological linkages. "So those impacts could be felt in things like tuna fisheries, which are extremely important for the Pacific," he said.
Correction 6/25/20: A previous version of this story contained several inaccuracies that Cook Islands seabed minerals commissioner Alex Herman alerted Mongabay to: It incorrectly attributed the assertion that "the country now earns almost 70% of its revenue from tourism" to Herman; it incorrectly stated the government aims to begin mining within five years; and it incorrectly stated that the Seabed Minerals Act 2019 allows the Seabed Minerals Authority to bypass the Marae Moana council and technical advisory group. After conducting additional research we have corrected the story. We regret the errors. This story has been updated to include the Cook Islands' non-economic sustainable development aspirations that Herman listed in her interview with Mongabay: jobs and training; environmental protection; and contributing to renewable energy development. It also includes new statements by her about the collection of biological data by companies interested in mining Cook Islands' seabed.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
By Suzanne Cords
One day Lizzie, the first-person narrator of the novel, receives an old book as a gift, with a dedication wishing the reader to be among the survivors. Like the preppers who build bunkers and stockpile supplies in remote areas to be ready for the end of the world, Lizzie is convinced that the end of the world is definitely near in times of a threatening climate disaster.
Lizzie, who lives in New York with her husband and son, is a university campus librarian. She worries about almost everything: her brother, an ex-junkie, or her dental insurance and the future in the face of the apocalypse. She is obsessed with reading reference books and articles about climate change.
She also devours words of wisdom, including about Buddhist spirituality: "A visitor once asked the old monks on Mount Athos what they did all day, and was told: We have died and we are in love with everything." But nothing can lift her spirits.
'Lizzie Is Just Like Us'
Lizzie observes rich New Yorkers plan their move to regions that are less threatened by climate change, something she simply cannot afford. Sometimes she watches disaster movies, which lead her to worry even more.
Above all, she is a gifted observer of her fellow human beings. "Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do, does?"
Lizzie, the U.S. author told DW, is a bit like the rest of us — well aware of the climate crisis, but because she cares and worries about so many other things, that awareness falls by the wayside. That's how she felt herself, Jenny Offill said, but the more she looked into the issue, the more she saw a need for action on her part, too.
"I also was trying to see if there was a way to make it funny, because, you know, so much of the world of prepping and imagining disaster is actually sort of strangely funny."
The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 UK's Women's Prize for Fiction and has now been released in German translation.
Climate Activist With a Vision
But then, there is also this serious, scientifically based concern about what climate change means. In the past, says Offill, artists were the ones who would predict disasters; today it's the experts, as well as the students she teaches. In the end, their fears and their justified anger motivated her to take a closer look at the issue. Today, she is a climate activist herself, and is involved in initiatives along with many other artists.
Lizzie, the heroine of Weather, hasn't gotten that far. But she voices her fears, and that's a start. "Of course, the world continues to end," says Sylvia, a mentor of Lizzie's, at one point — and commences to water her garden. There is hope after all.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Jake Johnson
A federal appeals court on Tuesday dealt the final blow to former President Donald Trump's attempt to open nearly 130 million acres of territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas drilling.
Though the Trump administration appealed the ruling, President Joe Biden revoked his predecessor's 2017 order shortly after taking office, rendering the court case moot. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to dismiss the Trump administration's appeal.
"Because the terms of the challenged Executive Order are no longer in effect, the relevant areas of the [Outer Continental Shelf] in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Atlantic Ocean will be withdrawn from exploration and development activities," the court said in its order.
Erik Grafe of Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of advocacy groups that challenged Trump's order, said in a statement that "we welcome today's decision and its confirmation of President Obama's legacy of ocean and climate protection."
"As the Biden administration considers its next steps, it should build on these foundations, end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters, and embrace a clean energy future that does not come at the expense of wildlife and our natural heritage," Grafe continued. "One obvious place for immediate action is America's Arctic, including the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic, which the previous administration sought to relegate to oil development in a series of last-minute decisions that violate bedrock environmental laws."
VICTORY: 9th Circuit ends fight over President Trump's illegal attempt to open up 128 million acres of Atlantic & A… https://t.co/TvYVt2F1jO— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1618347073.0
In January, Biden ordered a temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters, a decision environmentalists hailed as a positive step that should be made permanent.
"We call on President Biden to keep his promise: a full and complete ban on fracking and fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Full stop," Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said at the time. "The climate crisis requires it and he promised it."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By 2035, every new car and truck sold in the U.S. could be an EV, a new report says.
Accelerations in technology and especially battery affordability, paired with new policy, mean the dramatic transition would save American drivers $2.7 trillion by 2050, an average savings of $1,000 per household per year.
The ramp up in EV production would also create 2 million new jobs by 2035. Battery prices have fallen 74% since 2014, and their unexpectedly rapid fall is a key driver of the cost savings.
EVs are far simpler mechanically, and more efficient, than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which translates to reduced climate pollution and lower costs for consumers.
Strengthened vehicle efficiency standards and investment in fast charging infrastructure are needed to accelerate the transition, which would prevent 150,000 premature deaths and save $1.3 trillion in health environmental costs by 2050.
For a deeper dive:
Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.
The National Weather Service (NWS) station in Chatham, Massachusetts was evacuated March 31 over concerns the entire operation would topple into the ocean.
"We had to say goodbye to the site because of where we are located at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, we're adjacent to a bluff that overlooks the ocean," Boston NWS meteorologist Andy Nash told WHDH at the time. "We had to close and cease operations there because that bluff has significantly eroded."
Chatham is located on the elbow of Cape Cod, a land mass extending out into the Atlantic Ocean that has been reshaped and eroded by waves and tides over tens of thousands of years, The Guardian explained. However, sea level rise and extreme weather caused by the climate crisis have sped that change along.
"It's an extremely dynamic environment, which is obviously a problem if you are building permanent infrastructure here," Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist at Cape-Cod based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The Guardian. "We are putting our foot on the accelerator to make the environment even more dynamic."
This was the case with the Chatham weather station. It used to be protected from the drop into the ocean by about 100 feet of land. However, storm action in 2020 alone washed away as much as six feet of land a day.
"We'd know[n] for a long time there was erosion but the pace of it caught everyone by surprise," Nash told The Guardian. "We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week and realized we didn't have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem."
The Chatham station was part of a network of 92 NWS stations that monitor temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction and other data in the upper atmosphere, The Cape Cod Chronicle explained. The stations send up radiosondes attached to weather balloons twice a day to help with weather research and prediction. The Chatham station, which had been observing this ritual for the past half a century, sent up its last balloon the morning of March 31.
"We're going to miss the observations," Nash told The Cape Cod Chronicle. "It gives us a snapshot, a profile of the atmosphere when the balloons go up."
The station was officially decommissioned April 1, and the two buildings on the site will be demolished sometime this month. The NWS is looking for a new location in southeastern New England. In the meantime, forecasters will rely on data from stations in New York and Maine.
Nash said the leavetaking was bittersweet, but inevitable.
"[M]other nature is evicting us," he told The Cape Cod Chronicle.