Norway takes a step towards subsea mining

Norway has become the first country to authorize deep-sea mining exploration. The Scandinavian country is seeking to extract essential raw materials from its waters in response to the renewable energy boom. But environmentalists fear the destruction of the seabed.

A new gold rush could infect the world. In several countries, there is a growing interest in extracting minerals thousands of meters deep at the bottom of the oceans where there are large reserves of raw materials that could be used in the energy transition.

In Europe, last week, Norway authorized mining exploration in its territorial waters, in an area equivalent to a country like Italy. Despite criticism from environmental organizations and the European Union, the Scandinavian country, already the largest oil producer in Western Europe, now wants to be a leader in offshore mining.

Preliminary studies report the presence of several minerals in the depths of Norwegian territorial waters, explains Norwegian geographer Lars-Kristian Trellevik, a doctor at the University of Bergen, and now a consultant to the mining company Adepth Minerals. These are “very high concentrations, perhaps up to 10 times higher than what we find in current land-based mining operations, especially of copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, gold, silver and a wide range of rare earth elements. Critical minerals that are currently being depleted on land and will become scarce with electrification and the proliferation of green technologies,” the geographer details.

On the day the Norwegian parliament gave the green light to commercial exploitation of the seabed, however, representatives of environmental NGOs protested against the decision.

The environmentalists, as well as 120 European Union legislators, fear that underwater mining will disrupt deep-sea ecosystems. The Norwegian government assures that mineral extraction will only be allowed if the industry can demonstrate sustainability and responsible practices, without giving further details. is it possible to exploit minerals without damaging the ocean floor?

The answer is uncertain, due to a lack of knowledge of the seabed, acknowledges Trellevik, interviewed by RFI.

“Of course, you can’t extract anything without local disturbance and devastation. Literally, it’s all about extracting rock. Then everything that lives on that rock or very close to it will be affected,” admits the geographer who nevertheless makes the case for underwater mining. “Sulfite deposits are very, very limited in their geographic extent in Norwegian waters. This is not the story you hear in the media and from critics of deep mining. We constantly hear about an opening area the size of Germany, which is very true. That is the size of the area that was opened up for exploration. But, obviously, mining would only take place where there are minerals and the minerals are deposited in very small and limited geographic extents. Much less than 1% of the open area is expected to actually contain the minerals that would be extracted,” notes Trellevik.

Another argument of the promoters of deepwater mining is of a strategic nature: Europe consumes large quantities of metals for its industry, but the reserves are concentrated in countries such as China, the Democratic Republic of Congo or South America.

So exploiting reserves directly in territorial waters would allow the country to be more independent, says Lars-Kristian Trellevick. “When you talk about marine minerals, you have to take into account global security concerns, geopolitical strategy, who owns and controls critical supply chains: it’s very important today. How do we preserve our Western ideas of liberal democracies if we can’t control our own supply chains? And why do we close our eyes to the very, very problematic practices we see in global mining. We currently mine precarious and at-risk areas, such as biodiversity hotspots and rainforests. In addition, many current mining practices are based on working conditions that we would not accept. What we have to consider is the impact we generate per kilo of metal extracted,” insists the geographer.

Many unknowns remain about the methods of exploiting these minerals. Mining companies do not really have the technology to exploit them. There are prototypes of robots to excavate the rock thousands of meters deep, but with the challenge of extracting this rock, bringing it to the surface of the water, and carrying it on land. Added to this technological uncertainty are concerns for deep-sea ecosystems that have been little explored.

Would it be acceptable to reproduce at the bottom of the oceans the extractivist model that has caused so much ecological damage on land? For Marta Martín-Borregón Gómez, head of Greenpeace Spain’s oceans campaign, the answer is negative. The environmental NGO advocates a moratorium on underwater mining and rejects the argument of energy transition.

“We have a lot of materials that have already been extracted before. What needs to be done is to focus all efforts on reusing and recycling these materials in an optimal way,” he told RFI.

“On an individual level, it’s very important for each person to be responsible. You can’t be changing phones every time a new model comes out, or changing cars every other time.”

While each country is sovereign in its territorial waters, international waters are subject to an international jurisdiction that does not currently authorize, regulate or prohibit underwater mining.

The international community is currently negotiating within the framework of the International Seabed Authority to decide whether or not to promote this controversial activity. Countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica and Chile are calling for a moratorium on seabed mining because of the risks to the environment. Negotiations will continue until 2025. But The Metal Company, for example, wants to take advantage of the legal vacuum to obtain exploitation licenses and drill in the Pacific Ocean.



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