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Norway green-lights exploratory seabed mining

Despite environmental concerns, the country becomes the first to approve exploration for deep-sea minerals in national waters

by Priyanka Runwal
January 16, 2024


Cross-section of a rock from the deep sea, showing layers of grays and greens, containing minerals that could be obtained by deep sea mining efforts.
Credit: Norwegian Offshore Directorate
Samples of sulfide deposits acquired during expeditions to the northern Norwegian Sea in 2020 indicate high concentrations of important minerals such as copper, zinc, and cobalt.

Amid pushback from scientists and environmental experts, the Norwegian parliament on Jan. 9 voted 80–20 in favor of exploratory deep-sea mining in a 280,000 km2 area of the Norwegian Sea. It’s the first country to allow this controversial practice in waters under national jurisdiction.

The concern is that extracting these seabed minerals could damage the marine environment. But proponents argue that retrieving such underwater deposits will have less impact than mining on land and could help meet the growing demand for critical minerals needed for clean energy technologies.

“It’s a great day for Norway and for energy transition,” says Egil Tjåland, a petroleum geophysicist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the secretary general of the Norwegian Forum for Marine Minerals.

Expeditions to the northern Norwegian Sea have found mineral reserves in the form of manganese crusts and sulfide deposits. Chemical analyses have revealed high concentrations of copper, zinc, and cobalt and the presence of important rare earth elements in these features.

For now, the government plans to open an area roughly the size of Nevada on the Norwegian continental shelf for mining companies to explore. That could include surveying the seabed for mineral deposits, conducting small-scale extractions, evaluating the deposits’ mineral content and worth, and assessing the operations’ environmental impact. But a parliamentary approval will be required to issue an exploratory mining license. “The authorities would like to have the last word,” Tjåland says, “so it won’t be a race without doing proper environmental impact studies.”

Similar research conducted as part of deep-sea mining explorations in other areas of the world has documented biodiversity loss due to sediment plumes generated while retrieving the minerals. A recent study also noted signs of acute stress in helmet jellyfish that were collected from Norway’s fjords and subjected to simulated mining-induced plumes in tanks. In addition to these harmful impacts on marine life, scientists are concerned about how such mining will affect carbon storage in the deep sea.

Pradeep Singh, an ocean governance expert at the Helmholtz Center Potsdam, worries that Norway’s decision to move forward with exploratory mining signals to the mining industry that the country could next allow exploitative commercial mining. “You cannot have a situation where you invite industry to come explore and then at some point say, ‘Sorry, you can’t go ahead’ after they’ve invested millions of dollars,” he says. “The danger here is that the pressure might be so high that the government may just have to give in to exploitation despite the environmental risks.”

Meanwhile, an intergovernmental body known as the International Seabed Authority has granted 31 exploratory mining permits to private companies and governmental agencies interested in surveying mineral deposits in waters beyond national jurisdiction. But many scientists, several countries, and industry groups have called for a complete ban or a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the long-term impact becomes clear.

“As scientists—me included—we would always like to know more, but we need these raw materials to fix our planet,” Tjåland says. “It’s a dilemma.”


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