Cover Image
close this bookConflict over Natural Resources in South-East Asia and the Pacific (UNU, 1990, 256 pages)
close this folder6. Conflict over natural resources in the Pacific
View the document(introduction...)
View the document6.1 The region and its resources
View the document6.2 Conflicts over marine space
View the document6.3 Conflicts over the marine environment
View the document6.4 Conflicting maritime claims
View the document6.5 Conflicts over pelagic resources
View the document6.6 Conflict over seabed mineral resources
View the document6.7 Conclusions
View the documentReferences

6.6 Conflict over seabed mineral resources

For two days in December 1984 about a hundred individuals from American universities and research organizations, corporations such as Bechtel, Hawaiian Dredging, and Lockheed, and government agencies from across the United States as well as from the Federal Republic of Germany assembled at the East-West Center in Honolulu to attend a conference on Marine Mining Development in Hawaii. Sponsored by the US Department of the Interior, the Minerals Management Service, and the State of Hawaii Department of Planning and Economic Development, the conference was mainly designed to discuss highly technical matters related to prospective development of cobalt-rich ferro-manganese oxide crusts, which are known to exist within the US FEZ around the Hawaiian Islands.

Although actual mining of these crusts awaits more precise determination of 'abundance, grade, deposit size and setting' (Morgan, 1984: 2; Clark et al., 1984: 163-74) and other information, there is little doubt that serious consideration is being given to this mining. An environmental impact statement is being prepared, and resource data are being acquired by the University of Hawaii, supported by the US Geological Survey and a German consortium of government and industrial interests (Morgan, 1984: 2). The Conference reiterated what is clear from the professional literature on ocean mining: the technology has been developed, and although it is not fully tested, it is available (Anonymous, 1978; Anonymous, 1988; Clark, Johnson, and Chin, 1984). Technology is not the stumbling block to mining of the Hawaiian ferro-manganese deposits.

The problems that lie ahead for ocean mining in and around the Hawaiian archipelago will probably stem from political and environmental objections comparable to those that surfaced over a proposal to mine seabed metallic sulphides located in an area known as Gorda Ridge off the coast of Northern California and Oregon (Los Angeles Times, 1984: 18; Oakland Tribune, 1984: 4-8; The Paper, 1984). Environmental activists in Hawaii and on the West Coast of the United States have closely monitored the mounting plans to begin seabed mining in and around the Islands. When public hearings were held in May 1984 to discuss the related questions of ocean mining and ocean leasing in Hawaii, there was coherent opposition from Hawaiian activists and environmentalists (Honolulu Advertiser, 2 May 1984; State of Hawaii, Department of Planning and Economic Development, 1981). The prestigious San Francisco-based Oceanic Society filed a lengthy Memorandum of Opposition against Hawaii proceeding prematurely with plans for an environmental impact assessment, arguing in part that it did 'not support governmental actions that are designed to rush forward with leases in offshore areas when such actions are precipitous, unsound and illegal'. In a detailed four-page appendix to its memo, the Oceanic Society further argued that 'extensive, pre-lease studies should be completed on basic geology/geophysics, geochemistry, chemical and biological oceanography, physiology, ecology, population dynamics, and other considerations that are pertinent to the geophysical areas of interest and onshore support sites' (Oceanic Society, 1984).

Another, although different, of opposition to seabed mining arose on the first day of the 1984 Marine Mining Development Conference in Honolulu when a small group of Hawaiian women activists bedecked with leis demonstrated their opposition to ocean mining by distributing leaflets. They attempted to speak briefly to the rather startled and embarrassed Conference attendees, who sheepishly accepted the leaflets with as much good grace as the situation allowed.

In addition to the research done in Hawaii, there has been a considerable amount of basic marine-centred geological research conducted within the past decade on the location and availability of seabed minerals and petroleum in selected areas of the Pacific (Recy and Dupont, 1982; Greene and Wong, 1984; CCOP/ SOPAC, 1981; Mizuno and Shujo, 1975) In the early 1970S, the USSR offered to assist the newly emerging island nations in geophysical research to identify possible mineral deposits adjacent to their shorelines. In quick response, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia formed a tripartite consortium to provide similar assistance to the island nations. This activity has come under the aegis of the Committee for the Co-ordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Rcsources in South Pacific Offshore Areas (CCOP/SOPAC), a major regional entity concerned with the mapping and exploration of ocean mineral and hydrocarbon resources9 (CCOP/SOPAC, n.d.). Considerable petroleum potential remains to be discovered on the continental shelves and in deeper water on the continental slope and rises of the marginal basins bordering the major circum-Pacific land masses, and perhaps behind the small island area in the western and southwestern Pacific. Further potential exists in pre-Tertiary sediments underlying already productive basins, and in gas hydrates (gas and water in the solid state) in sediments in deep water. These gas hydrates may also form an impermeable seal capping more gas and oil.

The estimated total gross value of undiscovered oil and gas resources in South-East Asia ranges from USA. 1 trillion to US$ 11 trillion, in North-east Asia from US$0.4 trillion to US$4 trillion, and in Oceania from US$0.5 trillion to US$6 trillion. This estimate for Oceania does not include resources expected in Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and most important, Papua New Guinea, all of which could be worth as much as another trillion dollars. By comparison, the United States Pacific area, including Alaska, might harbour $0.3 trillion worth of oil and gas (Valencia and Marsh, 1986; Roland, Goud, and McGregor, 1983; United Nations, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 1980).

Cobalt-rich manganese crusts have been reported from seamounts in the Hawaiian and Line islands at depths between 1 100 m and 2 600 m. The thickness of crusts reaches 7-9 centimetres and averages 2.5 centimetres. These crusts contain a mean of 25 per cent manganese, 0.8 per cent cobalt, 0.5 per cent nickel, 0.07 per cent copper, and 0.0005 per cent platinum. A seamount may contain between 2 million and 4 million tons of crust, approximating the amount of ore required for the yearly production of a commercial deep-sea mine. The concentration of cobalt is about 1 per cent greater than cobalt ores mined on land and the market price of cobalt (US$27. 56tkg) is about five times that of nickel (US4.98/kg) and 15 times that of copper (US$ 1.77/kg). Total values of cobalt, nickel, copper, and molybdenum in the mid-Pacific Mountains and Line Islands crusts from water depths less than 2 600 m are $170 to $202 per wet ton of crust or $340 million to $808 million worth of wet ore per deposit, not counting platinum. The exclusive economic zones around the Hawaiian Islands and Johnston and Palmyra islands contain an estimated 10 million tons of cobalt, 6 million tons of nickel, 1 million tons of copper, and 300 million tons of manganese. A prime mine site might contain $165/tonne of cobalt, $37. so/tonne of nickel, $1.32/ tonne of copper, and $43.57/tonne of manganese for a total of $247.39/tonne of ore, or perhaps $4 of gross contained metal value per sq. m (Clark, Johnson, and Chin, 1984; Halbach, 1984; Honolulu Advertiser, l' October 1985: B-1). Additional deposits have been found in the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.

Marine polymetallic sulphide deposits are located at 2 000 metres to 4 000 metres around high-temperature hydrothermal vents in seafloor spreading centres or mid-ocean rift zones. Known locations include the Galapagos Ridge, the East Pacific Rise, the Gorda-Juan de Fuca Ridge System, and the Guaymas Basin. Recently, deposits have been found off Tonga, in the Lau and North Fiji basins, and in the Bismarek Sea; more are expected. Minerals of commercial interest include iron, zinc, copper, gold, manganese, platinum, and vanadium. Some deposits contain up to 21 per cent copper, 50 per cent zinc, and 45 per cent iron (Honolulu Advertiser, 7 May 1984: A-6; Cronan, 1983; National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, 1983).

Manganese nodules containing nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese had long been considered the prime economic mineral resource in the deep sea. There are about 10 trillion tons of nodules in the Pacific. However, only a small portion of these deposits contain the economic cutoff percentage of 2 per cent nickel plus copper plus cobalt and are found in concentrations greater than 10 kg/sq. m over an area sufficient for 20 years' production. The highest concentration of nodules (more than 8 kg/sq. m) with the highest nickel plus copper (at least 1 per cent combined content) are found between 3 200 m and 5 900 m in the North-east Pacific. Mean values of potential mining sites here have the following ranges: manganese 22-27 per cent; nickel 1.2-1.4 per cent; copper 0.9-1.1 per cent; cobalt 0.15-0.25 per cent. Economic-grade nodule fields have also been reported within the exclusive economic zone of Mexico. In the South Pacific, nodule distribution is more irregular; one area of concentration is around the Manihiki Plateau, the Society Islands, Tahiti, and the Tuamotu Archipelago. Further south, nodules occur west of the East Pacific Rise and north-east of New Zealand. Another nodule area lies in the circumpolar region of Antartica. In the northern Peru Basin, nodule density is 7 kg/sq. m to 14 kg/sq. m up to 30 kg/sq. m with 1.1-1.2 per cent nickel and thus may be of economic interest. Manganese nodules might be mined in the 1990s when economic, technical, legal, and political factors are more favorable. In a first phase of mining, about 0.6 million sq. km in the North-east Pacific nodule belt and 2 million sq. km in the total Pacific may contain fields of sufficient nodule density, weight, and metal content. The in situ reserves amount to 16 billion tons of nodules in the first phase, with recoverable reserves of 5.6 billion tons. The area for each mining site would be between 80 000 sq. km and 120 000 sq. km. There would be space in abundance for at least 40 to 45 mining sites in the Pacific during a first generation of deep-sea mining (Halbach, 1984: 42, 45-7, 55-8)

Questions of abundance, grade, deposit size, setting, and economic feasibility aside, there is clear evidence that there are deposits of petroleum, manganese crusts and nodules with nickel, copper, and cobalt components, phosphate and phosphorites, and sulphides (Bramwell, 1977; Halbach, 1984: Figs. 2, 8). For example, in a recently completed, extensive study by the US Geological Survey of offshore areas adjacent to Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu, the following findings emerged:

1. An area identified as the southern Tonga platform was found to be a 'source for hydrocarbons [but with] its extent . . . uncertain' (Greene and Wong, 1984: 51);
2. In the Lau Basin, an area between Tonga and Fiji, geologic data suggest 'that massive sulfides may be forming along the spreading ridge from the circulation of mineralizing hydrothermal fluids with consequent precipitation of polymetallic sulfides' (Greene and Wong, 1984: 53-4);
3. In the central basin of Vanuatu, there are preliminary indications of petroleum hydrocarbons, although 'quantity, quality and type of hydrocarbon is unknown, as is the economic prospect of developing such a resource' (Greene and Wong, 1984: 54);
4. The Malakula and East Santo Basins appear to tee 'tine most promising basins . . . for accumulating hydrocarbons' (Greene and Wong, 1984: 54);
5. The Central Solomons Trough is considered to be the best prospect for the concentration and entrapment of hydrocarbons (Greene and Wong, 1984: 57).

Research on manganese nodules and crusts indicates high-grade and abundant deposits in four areas:

1. The East Central Paqcific Basin south-west and west of the Southern Line Islands;
2. The East Central Pacific Basin north and cast of the Phoenix Islands;
3. The West Central Pacific Basin west and north-west of the Phoenix Islands;
4. The North Penrhyn Basin north of Penrhyn Island (Gonan, 84: 1 6)

Other studies have shown indications of manganese nodule deposits in potentially economically significant quantities and quality in a number of other areas within the EEZs of Pacific island states (Exon, 1982a, 1982b; East-West Center, 1982). Table 6.7 provides summary information on nodule metal grades in various areas.

Complete information about these resources is not yet available, and the search for them goes on-particularly under the auspices of CCOP/SOPAC. Aside from unsuccessful drilling for oil hi offshore areas of Fiji and Tonga, there are no serious indications of marine mining in the offing such as in Hawaii. Nor have there yet been feasibility studies or proposals for ocean leasing. In short, compared with what has been accomplished in Hawaii so far, the Pacific islands although possessed of at least comparable seabed resources-are at a stage of awareness comparable to that of Hawaii about a decade ago.

The island states are not totally unaware of this new resource frontier, however. In the most recent National Development Plans for Fiji and Vanuatu, for example, offshore mineral exploration and related matters figure prominently. There are no detailed overarching policies in place yet, nor are there any indications in the documentary sources examined that consideration is being given to co-operation among Pacific island countries in the future exploitation of their resources.

There are, however, indications of exchange and sharing of information between island states on a fairly regular basis. Concerning seabed mineral exploitation, Pacific island politics differ from Hawaii in one important respect: there are no public environmental interest groups in the Pacific islands. Although there is a commitment on the part of every government in the region to environmental protection, legislation is almost non-existent. For example, nowhere is there better testimony to concern about the protection of the environment than in what has come to be known as the Rarotonga Declaration (Appendix), adopted by almost all the Pacific island nations in March 1982. 'The Action Plan for managing the natural resources and environment of the South Pacific Region' (UNEP Regional Seas Programme, 1983), which is based on the Rarotonga Declaration, is even more detailed and comprehensive, particularly with respect to the marine environment. The South Pacific Regional Environmental Program Treaty (SPREP), designed to effect the aims of the Action Plan, has been negotiated. Even after the Treaty is implemented, however, there will still be enormous problems of enforcement. When and if the prospect of seabed mining reaches the state it has in Hawaii, no amount of legislation will by itself protect the marine environment without the involvement of well-informed environmental interest groups as well as other organizations whose activities are designed to hold governments accountable.

TABLE 6.7 Summary of Nodule Metal Grades in Various Areas



  %Mn %Fe Mn:Fe %Ni %Cu %Co %Ni+Cu+Co
Manihiki Plateau
(Horn, Horn & Delach, 1973)
Mean 16.9   n.a. 0.30 0 17 0.51 0.98
Samoan Passage
(12 samples)
Min. 15.1 13.8 0 74 0.18 0.10 0.25 0.61
Max. 20.5 20.7 1 33 0.48 0.40 0.66 1.15
Mean 17.9 18.3 0.98 0.30 0.18 0.40 0.88
Samoa Basin
(9 samples)
Min. 13.0 8.1 0 75 0.21 0.11 0.11 0 45
Max. 18.6 21.2 1.85 0 45 0.28 0 55 1.08
Mean 16.3 14.6 1 13 0 34 0.20 0.28 0.67
South-west Pacific Basin
(18 samples)
Min. 12.2 14.7 0 57 0.15 0.11 0.20 0.61
Max. 21.2 25.8 1.20 0.70 0.33 0.52 1.47
Mean 16.2 18.6 0.87 0 43 0.24 0 4° 1.07
South Penrhyn Basin
(4 samples)
Min. 7.9 5 6 0 so 0.11 0 07 0.22 0 54
Max. 23.0 22 5 2.12 1.08 0.69 0.56 2.02
Mean 15.2 15.4 0 99 0.41 0.22 0.36 0.99
North Penrhyn Basin
(10 samples)
Min. 7.5 5 3 0.58 0.20 0.09 0.09 0.48
Max. 24.1 16.6 4 46 0.99 0 .95 0.43 2.10
Mean 16.3 10.1 1.61 0 .57 0.38 0.23 1.18
Equatorial North Pacific'
Red clay
Siliceous ooze
Mean 17.4 11.4 1.53 0.76 0.50 0.28 1 54
Mean 22.4 8.1 2.76 1.16 1.02 0.25 2.43

Source: Exon, South Pacific Marine Geological notes, Vol. 2, no. 4, June 1981.
n.a. = not applicable.
1Data from D.R. Horn, B.M. Horn, and M.N. Delach (1972), Ferromanganese Deposits of the North Pacific, Tech. Rep. Off. Int. Decade of ocean Expl. 1, Washington, DC, 78 pp., and D.R. Horn, M.N. Delach, and B.M. Horn (1973), Metal Content of Ferromanganese Deposits of the Oceans, National Science Foundation Tech. Rep., no. 3, NSF GX 33616, 51 pp.

As pressures and enticements increase to develop both land-based and marine resources, there will be temptation for some anxious governments to short-circuit whatever exists in the corpus of environmental law in the interests of securing contracts from prospective developers.

The potential seabed minerals are those the major industrial powers are likely to focus their attention on-cobalt, manganese, nickel, copper, chromium, platinum group metals, molybdenum, and Vanadium either because they need them or because they might want to control access to them as part of a strategic minerals denial policy (Boczek, 1984). It is difficult to escape the impression that competition for and the prospect of conflict over the mineral resources of the Pacific are already in the making. For many reasons, the United States considers the Pacific more important than the Atlantic (Anthony, 1984). With its dependence on outside sources (mainly the Third World) for certain strategic minerals-which may not now be critical but could become so in the near future-the United States may want to ensure access to what is available within the marine zones of Pacific island states for one important reason: having chosen not to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty, the United States, as long as it remains a non signatory to that Treaty, will find it difficult to obtain access to seabed minerals outside the island EEZs. If seabed minerals in which the United States has an interest can be mined within the EEZs in cooperation with island governments, there will be even less reason to submit to the requirements of the International Seabed Authority and, consequently, no reason to sign the Law of the Sea Convention. All other things being equal, US companies may even find it more attractive to deal with the resource-poor but flexible Pacific islands, which have less power to insist on transfer of mining technology and other requirements that have been an irritation to the United States.