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US miner goes after rare earths in the Cook Islands

Computer rendition of a seabed mining operation. (Image by Phil Pauley | Twitter )

Rising demand for hard-to-find rare earths (REEs) needed for high tech gadgets, green energy and batteries used by hybrid vehicles continues to push mining companies to scour the ocean floors.

The latest of them is Ocean Minerals LLC, a deep sea mining firm based in Houston, Texas, which announced Wednesday that it has inked an agreement with the Cook Islands government for exclusive prospecting and exploration rights around the country’s seabed.

According to Ocean Minerals, a recent study of alternative sources of REEs conducted by Houston-based Deep Reach Technology, indicates there are potential new sources of rare earth elements and scandium in the South Pacific Ocean’s area.

The firm believes it has reserved “the most promising areas,” containing important concentrations of heavy REEs and scandium. The later, when added in small quantities to aluminum, creates a metal alloy extremely light, strong, corrosion resistant, heat tolerant, and weldable.

Texas-based Ocean Minerals LLC believes it has reserved “the most promising areas,” containing important concentrations of heavy REEs and scandium.

The use of such an alloy in automobiles and aircraft could yield fuel savings while protecting lives, the company said in the statement.

The announcement comes on the heels of a 15-year contract between India and the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which grants New Delhi exclusive rights to explore for Polymetallic Sulphides (PMS) in the Indian Ocean.

From 2001 to 2014 the United Nations’ ISA issued over 30 exploration permits for the Pacific, Mid-Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Since then, more and more companies have been applying for rights to scour the oceans’ floors.

The heightened interest pushed ISA to update its proposed regulatory framework for deep-sea mining in 2014, which translated into allowing private firms to apply for minerals as well as oil and gas extraction licenses beginning this year.

Scientists have expressed their concern about the potential impacts of deep-sea mining in unique and fragile ecosystems. Through the MIDAS project, a group made up of researchers, industry actors, NGOs and legal experts from 32 organizations across Europe, they are currently gathering data to determine what damage, if any, might be done by mining and so inform regulators of what needs to be put in place to protect the deep sea environment.

The Cook Islands are a chain of 15 islands about 4,800 km south of Hawaii and about 3,200 km northeast of New Zealand. Ocean Minerals’ rights are in the island nation’s exclusive economic zone, or the 200-nautical-mile zone extending from a country’s shores that gives it rights to undersea activity.