Norway has now become “the first country [in the world] to open its continental shelf up to deep-sea mining”. On 9 January 2024, the national parliament of Norway voted 80–20 in favor of permitting exploratory deep-sea mining on Norway’s continental shelf in the Norwegian Sea. The seafloor of Norway’s continental shelf has nodules and metal crusts – which contain minerals such as cobalt, lithium, scandium, and zinc – laying on it.
🌱 What does the decision entail precisely?
The parliamentary decision means that private companies may now apply for permits to explore the seabed in an 281 200 km2 large area (i.e. an area the size of Italy). This area is located in the Arctic between Svalbard, Greenland, and Iceland. While the government is not allowing companies to start largescale drilling right away, companies may start extracting probes and conducting research. Companies may also “submit proposals, including environmental assessments, for a licence which will then be approved on a case-by-case basis by parliament”. The fact that “[d]eep-sea mining applications will have to be evaluated by the energy department and go back to parliament” is seen more as a formality than as a real hurdle to the process. In other words, “deep-sea mining ha[s] in essence been approved”. The government is merely “yet to approve any companies to do so” specifically.
🌱 What environmental risks come with deep-sea mining?
The deep-sea is considered to be “a trove of biodiversity”, which is “rich in living resources used in medicines and critical in regulating the climate and providing spawning and feeding grounds for fish”. Notably, the seamounts which Norway is now targeting in its mining “have been shown to be hotspots for marine life”. While there is currently not “sufficient scientific research on the potential risks” of deep-sea mining, the overall fear is that it could “lead to irreparable harm to oceanic biodiversity” and “affect wider maritime ecosystems and jurisdictions for decades to come”.
🌱 Is there merit to the fears around environmental damage?
A recent article published by the scientific journal, Nature has said that “[a]lthough research on the ecological impacts of deep-sea mining is limited, studies are beginning to show that it could harm species on the sea bed by crushing them with machinery or smothering them with plumes of sediment that are kicked up by mining activities. Species in the water column, such as jellyfish, are also at risk.” Similarly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has warned that the “[t]echniques to harvest the minerals from the sea floor could generate significant noise and light pollution, as well as damage to the habitat of organisms relying on the nodules”.