Norway's deep-sea mining ambitions questioned by key allyas it could lead the world in commercial deep-sea mining pending parliamentary approval of a government plan to open an offshore area exceeding the size of the United Kingdom. This move comes in the face of international appeals for a global moratorium on such activities. The bill is scheduled for parliamentary discussion this coming autumn.
The government suggests that deep-sea mining has the potential to diminish Europe's reliance on China for critical minerals essential in the construction of electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. Additionally, this endeavor aligns with Norway's plan to cultivate emerging maritime industries, given the anticipated gradual decline in its primary export, offshore oil and gas.
The minority government, led by the Labour party, has put forth a proposal to unlock approximately 280,000 square kilometers (108,000 square miles) of ocean territory situated between Jan Mayen Island and the Svalbard archipelago. This proposed plan shares similarities with the approach taken for opening offshore regions for oil and gas exploration. Within the larger designated area, the government intends to allocate smaller zones or blocks to companies for exploration and mineral production.
While global regulations governing seabed mineral extraction remain undetermined, Norway does not intend to wait. The country is planning to commence mineral exploration activities within its extended continental shelf.
A government-sponsored survey has identified significant deposits of metals and minerals, including copper and rare earth elements. These valuable resources were discovered in polymetallic sulphides, often referred to as "black smokers," located at depths of 3,000 meters (9,842 feet). These formations occur where seawater interacts with magma rising to the surface through tectonic fissures, carrying dissolved metals and sulfur in the process.
Additionally, rare earth elements like scandium were found in manganese crusts that gradually form on bedrock at a rate of one centimeter (0.4 inches) per million years. Norwegian surveys have confirmed the presence of crust deposits with thicknesses of up to 40 centimeters.
At depths exceeding 1,000 meters (0.62 miles), where light is absent, temperatures hover near freezing, and water pressure is immense, life persists. Researchers have uncovered distinctive species inhabiting the vicinity of active hydrothermal vents, including corals, tube worms, and microorganisms. Despite these discoveries, our understanding of the inner workings of these ecosystems remains limited.
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An impact study commissioned by the government concluded that the effects of deep-sea mining would primarily remain localized to the extraction area, with minimal repercussions on fisheries. Companies have expressed intentions to mine minerals from inactive hydrothermal vents, where biodiversity is relatively sparse. Nevertheless, certain scientists express concerns that this approach might endanger species, potentially eliminating them before they are even identified.
The government's proposal has faced criticism from various environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, as well as its own environmental agency. These critics argue that the gaps in our knowledge of deep-sea biology are too substantial to support a decision to open these areas to mining.
Currently, no commercially viable technology exists for seabed mineral production, although experimental machines have been constructed for testing purposes in various regions. In Norway, researchers have employed undersea robots and drilling machinery to gather mineral samples from the ocean floor.
Should seabed mineral extraction become a reality in Norway, the process would likely entail the cutting and crushing of rocks before transportation to the surface. Furthermore, certain Norwegian companies with expertise in technology and services for the oil industry are exploring opportunities in deep-sea mining.
The primary supporter of Norway's minority government in parliament has urged them to reconsider their proposal to open up a vast Arctic offshore area for deep-sea mining. Instead, they are advocating for the government to implement a minimum ten-year moratorium on this activity.
Norway has the potential to become the first nation to engage in large-scale commercial deep-sea mining if the parliament greenlights a plan to allow access to an ocean area larger than the United Kingdom for this emerging industry. This mining endeavor aims to supply essential metals like copper and rare earth elements, which are crucial for the transition away from fossil fuels.
The government, led by the Labour Party and featuring the Centre Party, depends on the backing of the Socialist Left (SV), a smaller left-wing party. This support is vital for the government to secure the approval of its budget and other significant policies in parliament.
We will not vote for the proposal that the government has put forward. We think that it should be sent back to the government. We would like to have a moratorium for at least ten years so that we can find out more (about the environmental consequences) before we start digging for minerals on the seabed.- Lars Haltbrekken, SV's spokesman on energy and environment
Haltbrekken mentioned that SV was currently in deliberations regarding a set of demands for the forthcoming fiscal budget, scheduled for presentation on October 6th. He did not clarify whether SV would attach conditions to their support for the government's budget.
Nevertheless, there remains a possibility for the government to secure approval with backing from the primary opposition party, the Conservative Party, which initiated the opening process in 2020, as well as the right-wing Progress Party.
Nonetheless, Haltbrekken emphasized that deep-sea mining remains "a top priority" and "a crucial matter for us." In 2021, SV successfully opposed the government's proposal to conduct oil and gas exploration licensing in remote areas. Parliament is scheduled to deliberate on the government's bill during the upcoming autumn session, although the precise date for these discussions has not been determined yet.