Norway aims to discover new resources beneath the sea, but its push into mining has raised environmental concerns.
Norway could license companies for deep-sea mining as early as 2023, its oil and energy ministry told Reuters. That could place it among the first countries to harvest seabed metals. Copper, zinc and other metals are in high demand for electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar energy centers.
However, that could also place Norway on the front line of disputes over the environmental risks of mining the world’s unexplored seabeds.
Norway recently announced it was preparing for an environmental study needed to start mineral exploration and mining.
Once completed, the government plans to have public comments on its environmental study and on a proposal to open areas for exploration and production by the end of 2022. A debate and a vote is expected in parliament between April and June of 2023.
“We are moving forward on this, and the momentum is high,” Oil and Energy Minister Tina Bru told Reuters.
The demand for minerals is being driven by what are often called “clean” technologies. But the process of getting those minerals from the seabed could cause environmental problems.
Environmentalists including Britain’s David Attenborough have called for a temporary halt to deep-seabed mining until more is known about how it affects sea life. The environmental group Greenpeace called for a permanent ban in a recent report.
In another report, the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, known as the Ocean Panel, also called for greater knowledge about the effects of deep-sea mining. The Ocean Panel is co-chaired by Norway and has 14 member states that want to shape policy on the world’s oceans.
Peter Haugan is a professor at the University of Bergen and one of the report’s co-writers. He said the group is not seeking a complete “no” to seabed mining, but added that it affects sea life “more than oil and gas extraction.”
Moving away from oil
Norway is known as a major oil producer. But, the country of 5.4 million people wants to find something to replace its top industry that is better for the environment and can grow in the future.
The move toward deep-sea mining follows three years of expeditions. The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, which carried out the work, said it found copper, zinc, cobalt, gold and silver. The expeditions also discovered large amounts of lithium and the rare earth metal scandium used in electronics and metal mixtures, the Directorate said.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) researchers have estimated that there are millions of tons of copper and zinc under Norwegian waters.
Seabird Exploration maps out the seabed for oil and gas. The company plans to seek investment for a deep-sea mining company that would be listed on the Euronext stock exchange in Oslo within months.
The Cyprus-based company believes production could start by the late 2020s and could use technologies used in the oil and gas industries.
“We will need to design from scratch the production system, but the basic elements are there…it will be a mixture of mining and petroleum technology,” Seabird Executive Chairman Staale Rodahl told Reuters.
Not alone in development
Norway is not the only country exploring deep sea mining.
Japan has similar plans but its project with private companies is not expected to begin until sometime between 2026 and 2028, an official at the Japanese Agency for Natural Resources and Energy told Reuters. The timing will depend on metals prices and reducing the costs of deep-sea mining, the official said.
State-run Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation successfully carried out the world’s first test involving the mining and raising of deep-sea minerals to the surface off Japan in 2017.
The United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA) oversees seabed mineral activities in international waters. The ISA has approved 30 contracts for exploration. China holds the most contracts with five.
The Jamaica-based ISA was forced to delay plans to approve rules governing the production of deep-sea minerals to 2021 from last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Norway does not have to wait for permission from the ISA because its resources are not in international waters.
Walter Sognnes is chief of LOKE Marine Minerals, a Norwegian engineering services company. Of deep sea mining, he said: “It sounds fantastic to go deep for minerals, but remember what the oil and gas industry has achieved over the last 50 years, and you can stand on the shoulders of it.”
By Nerijus Adomaitis