Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining

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Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining

Norway is the first country in the world to start commercial mining on the seabed. The fact that Norwegian political decisions are constantly at odds with environmental councils feels disturbingly familiar. Norway becomes the first country in the world to open the door to deep-sea mining

On January 9, 2024, Norway’s Parliament approved a government plan to open a large part of its seabed to mining exploration, despite uncertain environmental impacts of deep-sea mining and warnings from scientists and activists.

The proposal, voted in by 80-20 by Norway’s parliament after attracting cross-party support, is expected to speed up exploration of minerals – including precious metals – that are in high demand for green technologies.

WWF has flagged that it will sue the Norwegian state for having taken a decision on the basis of an insufficient impact assessment. If you believe that it is possible to fully investigate a silent dark deep sea with species and biodiversity beyond human comprehension, you must be strong in your faith.

Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining
Seabed mineral sulfid i-od-20202

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However, the ministry’s recommendations specify that opening up an area will not automatically lead to extraction. At first, licenses will be granted for commercial exploration activity, which is defined in the Seabed Minerals Act as “the search for and mapping of mineral deposits for commercial purposes”. It is only after exploration has been carried out that companies will be able to apply for an extraction license, which the ministry will approve if it judges that the extraction can be done in a sustainable manner.

While the decision will initially apply to Norwegian waters, it will expose an area larger than Britain – 280,000 sq km (108,000 sq miles) – to potential mining by companies, which will be able to apply for licenses to mine minerals including lithium, scandium and cobalt. It is anticipated that an agreement on deep-sea mining in international waters could follow later in the year.

Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining
Norwegian deep sea mining areas

Industrial interests believe that extraction can be done gently. For a place less explored and less accessible than the Moon and with huge amounts of venture capital at stake, this must be said to be an impressive conviction.

The first plans for the actual extraction of seabed minerals will have to be approved by the parliament, and not only by the ministry.

Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining
“The wave of protests against deep sea mining has only begun,” says Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway.

“It is embarrassing to watch Norway positioning itself as an ocean leader while giving the green light to ocean destruction in Arctic waters,” said Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway. “But this doesn’t end here. The wave of protests against deep sea mining has only begun.”

It seems that the role of the sea as our most important climate regulator is taking a backseat to it being able to become a new main supplier of metals.

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Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining
Lønne Fjærtoft, global policy lead for WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative.

But the decision to only allow exploration for the time being and not actual extraction offers a “small glimmer of hope,” according to Lønne Fjærtoft, global policy lead for WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative. “This gives parliament the opportunity to say no to exploitation, which is a significant change to the government’s proposal”, she said in a statement.

Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining
“Deep-sea mining is a pursuit of minerals we don’t need,” says Steve Trent, chief executive and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

Steve Trent, chief executive and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), said: “Deep-sea mining is a pursuit of minerals we don’t need, with environmental damage that we can’t afford. We know so little about the deep ocean, but we know enough to be sure that mining it will wipe out unique wildlife, disturb the world’s largest carbon store, and do nothing to speed the transition to clean economies.”

However, there are divided opinions. Researchers on the extent of the minerals are emphasized by the authorities and industry, while experts on species and consequences for the ecosystem in the same ocean depths are met with arguments that one cannot necessarily know for sure.

The highly controversial vote comes as opposition grows against seabed mining worldwide. In November, 120 European Union (EU) lawmakers wrote an open letter to the Norwegian MPs, urging them to reject the project, while a petition received over 500,000 signatures. Over 800 marine scientists and policy experts across the world also called for a pause to deep-sea mining.

Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining
Industrial interests believe that extraction can be done gently.

While more than 20 countries want variations of a ban or a postponement until more knowledge is in place, the Norwegian government sees seabed materials as “a new industrial adventure”. However, the ongoing debates, protests, new lawsuits and lack of political consensus may prove to slow down the process and in the meantime raise awareness of possible environmental consequences.

Norway Becomes the First Country in the World to Open the Door to Deep-Sea Mining, compiled by Tor Kjolberg

Feature image (on top): GEO365.no

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