The Norwegian government wants to fire the starting gun on the exploitation of rare metals and minerals at the bottom of the ocean. But critics fear irreversible environmental damage.
Earlier this year, the government suggested opening more than 280,000 square kilometers of the country’s territorial waters to deep-sea mining. The plan has the broad backing of the four major parties, including the opposition, and is expected to pass in a final vote on January 9.
Green activists, scientists, fishermen and investors, as well as neighbors like the EU, are calling on Oslo to reconsider, pointing to a lack of scientific data about the effects of deep-sea mining on the marine environment — and to growing momentum for a global moratorium on the practice until more research is done.
The debate comes as global demand for critical raw materials like nickel, cobalt and copper is exploding thanks to the key role they play in building green technologies like electric car batteries and wind turbines.
That’s putting pressure on countries to secure greater supplies — and to diversify away from China, which currently controls most of the supply chains and the vast majority of refineries.
In the race to secure more critical raw materials, countries like Norway are also increasingly considering deep-sea mining as an alternative to land mining operations, which have run into stiff opposition from local communities. If its proposal is approved in January, Norway would become the first Western country to allow exploration missions to determine whether mining can be done profitably and sustainably, paving the way for future exploitation.
The government’s push is “an irresponsible move,” said Kaja Lønne Fjærtoft, a member of WWF Norway who leads the NGO’s global campaign against deep-sea mining. She pointed out that parts of the area considered for deep-sea mining overlap with protected vulnerable ecosystems.
Norway’s institute for marine research has also criticized the plan, saying too little is known about marine life at the bottom of the ocean, making it difficult to assess the potential impact of mining operations. The country’s environment agency also flagged flaws in the impact assessment commissioned by the government.
Fishermen, meanwhile, are worried about ripple effects for their industry. “We do not have enough knowledge about how this affects the fish stocks, and therefore also the possibility of sustainable fishing,” said Odd Kristian Dahle, head of communication at the Association of Norwegian Fishermen.
Norway’s deep-sea mining push puts it at odds with the EU, the U.K. and a growing number of countries that back an international moratorium on the practice.
The EU is advocating for enough scientific evidence to be gathered showing deep-sea mining is not harmful to marine ecosystems before authorizing the activity, a European Commission spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Although the institution rarely comments on the national plans of non-EU governments, the spokesperson said that “the EU is concerned about potential significant negative effects of deep-sea mining announced by Norway on fish stocks and fisheries and, more broadly, on marine ecosystems.” The spokesperson also noted that the EU and Norway earlier this year committed to deepen their cooperation on environmental protection, including of the oceans.
A group of EU lawmakers across political parties also wrote to Norwegian MPs calling on them to vote against the proposal.
The Norwegian government has defended the plan as a way to seize an economic opportunity and shore up the security of critical supply chains.
“The demand for minerals and metals is rising,” Astrid Bergmål, Norway’s state-secretary for petroleum and energy, said in an emailed statement to POLITICO, stressing that “more diversified supply chains are important to secure our economies and national interests.”
Like it does for other activities such as oil and gas drilling, the government will ensure any deep-sea mining is done according to high environmental standards, Bergmål added. “Seabed mineral activities must take place in a prudent and safe manner and in due consideration of the environment,” she wrote.
In the meantime, companies are starting to line up. Walter Sognnes, CEO of Norwegian start-up Loke, is developing new technologies to harvest minerals and metals from the seabed. He’s hopeful the Norwegian plan will go ahead and grant the industry the “social license to operate” that will help it deflect criticism from green activists.
“We are not saying it will not have any impact but … it can be a better alternative than a nickel mine in the rainforest in Indonesia,” Sognnes said, adding that exploitation isn’t likely to happen on a commercial scale before 2030 at the earliest.
To alleviate concerns about the plan, the Norwegian government recently adapted its proposal to ensure the parliament will have the final say in granting exploitation licenses.
WWF’s Lønne Fjærtoft says that’s not enough of a safeguard. Norway’s plan would go against its international commitments on ocean protection, damaging its credibility on the global stage in the process, she argued.
Norway says it’s fighting “for strong environmental regulations” in ongoing global talks to adopt standards for deep-sea mining in international waters, she said, “but this is not what they’re doing at home.”
The plan is likely to get its final green light in January, after receiving the approval of the Norwegian parliament’s environment and energy committee on December 19. Lønne Fjærtoft warned that NGOs will keep piling pressure on the government.
WWF, she said, is “currently discussing our options” and considering whether it should challenge the final decision in court.