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NIAS Europe Studies
Norway: Parliament approves controversial deep-sea mining

  Alka Bala

Norwegian Parliament’s approval for deep sea mining sparks a greater debate over its environmental risks and the need for diversification of supply sources of essential minerals necessary for green transition. Scientific knowledge gaps highlight the environmental costs of such an activity while also questioning its feasibility. Heralded as a responsible ocean nation, Norway’s support for the controversial practice raises concerns over its future strategies for ocean resource management.

In January 2024, the Norway Parliament voted in favour, with cross-party support to open up the Norwegian waters and its seabed for commercial deep-sea mining. Through its proposal, Norway will be adopting the controversial practice, despite avid opposition from environmental groups, scientists and fishery organisations over the “irreversible damage” to the marine ecosystem and its biodiversity. The issue of deep-sea mining faced a larger conflict of interest in the EU, whereas the global community awaits guidelines from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to navigate the exploration and exploitation of one of the essential global commons, the ocean system.

Why deep-sea mining now?
The proposal for exploration of deep-sea comes as the seabed covered with nodules (potato-sized rocks) and crusts contain critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, manganese, scandium and zinc. These minerals are considered crucial for the development of renewable energy technology, such as the making of electric batteries and turbines. Accelerating the speed of the green transition, would also position Norway as a major energy producer, and ensure the supply and security of minerals within Europe. It would solve the difficulties faced in the procurement of rare minerals, due to their unequal concentration in different parts of the world. The Government has highlighted a step-by-step approach for the implementation of deep-sea mining, where licences would be given to companies for commercial purposes only after parliamentary approval. 

Why are international environmental organisations concerned? 
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), sea-bed mining could lead to large amounts of sound, vibration and light pollution endangering marine fauna while also disturbing the habitat of organisms dependent on the nodules. In the report published by the Environment Justice Foundation, such high environmental risks highlight the need to use alternative approaches to deep-sea mining. It proposed that demand for minerals could be reduced by 58 per cent between 2022 and 2050 through improved recycling, circular economy and new technologies. Other environmentalists urge to focus on reducing the environmental damage caused by current mining operations on land, instead of starting a new industry.

What is Europe’s response and take on deep-sea mining?
bruary, the European Parliament passed a resolution raising concerns about Norway’s proposed deep-sea mining. The area to be explored by Norway falls under the Svalbard Fisheries Protection Zone and allows 22 EU countries and 23 other states to equally pursue fisheries-related activities. Concerns were raised about the detrimental impacts of deep-sea mining on fisheries, fish stocks and access to fishing groups. It called for Norway to follow a precautionary principle and supported an international moratorium on deep-sea mining until scientific concerns regarding its impact on marine ecosystems are mitigated. Norway and the EU are part of the European Economic Area, and Norway would require European markets for the minerals extracted from such processes and also to ensure that the mining industry becomes commercially feasible. Although the European Parliament’s resolution lacks legal binding, it acts as an indicator of the European disapproval of the proposed practice. 

The global and regional response to Norway’s decision has been marked with criticism, as 24 countries globally and 7 EU countries have demanded a temporary ban on sea-bed mining. France strongly opposed deep-sea mining voting for a ban in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The UK had shown its support for a temporary moratorium until enough scientific evidence was made available. Other EU countries that have expressed their support for a temporary ban are Spain, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Finland and Portugal. 

In November 2023 190 EU lawyers addressed an open letter to the Norwegian Parliament, citing the research by 700 scientists, urging them to withdraw their proposal due to knowledge gaps. The European Commission also fears the negative environmental impacts of such an activity. A resolution adopted in 2022 in the European Parliament on the blue economy has also urged international support for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. 

Sceptics of Norway’s behaviour question its reputation as a responsible ocean nation and highlight the hypocrisy in its environmental policies as it disregards potential environmental risks. Within the EU, there exists a rift on the issue of deep-sea mining, where the pro-climate Members of the European Parliament have challenged this “irresponsible” decision that overlooks environmental risks. The political right, already saturated with the EU’s climate-conscious policies and targets, highlights the hypocrisy of the EU’s dependency on non-democratic countries for its supply of minerals and considers Norway’s proposal as a step towards diversifying its mineral supply sources. They reiterate the need for diversification of sources of supply by highlighting the EU’s adoption of the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) in March 2023, which also focused on the use of sustainable practices for resource exploitation. Governance lapses and concerns about the violation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo were highlighted as it contributes to a major portion of the bloc’s mineral energy needs.

What lies ahead for Norway?
The approval allows for the exploration of Norwegian waters, opening up 281,200 square kilometres around the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard. As of now only three start-ups with links to “sea-services” companies, including Loke Minerals which aims to harvest manganese ore if its license gets approved, whereas another company Green Minerals hopes to extract copper ore and is positive to start test-mining from 2028. Deep sea mining companies post-approval of the license will explore Mohns Ridge, a wedge of Arctic seabed. Activists and scientists find mining companies collecting data on environmental concerns as problematic, as they fear such data might be biased and mask the environmental risks. However, the industry argues that the necessary resources for extensive mapping and exploration are in the hands of private companies. The feasibility of a new mining industry is also debated as these minerals might prove difficult to extract. Norway’s proposal believes deep-sea mining would allow a faster transition to a low-carbon economy, however, such an activity would be performed at the cost of losing the earth’s oldest carbon reservoirs.

In response to the European Parliament’s resolution, Maria Varteressian, the State Secretary at Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted Norway’s commitment towards a “knowledge-based approach” and assured that exploitation activities would begin only after receiving more information. She reiterated the shared interest between Norway and the European Union on principles of sustainable ocean management, and how these principles would underline Norway’s future actions.

What does the international law say? 
Marked as ‘the Ocean Decade,’ 2021-2030 is observed as the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development where the UN General Assembly aims for countries to focus on developing and driving scientific knowledge in ocean science. This would enable nations to obtain a better understanding of the ocean system while restoring the decline of the ocean system. Norway through its approval for deep-sea exploration in its national waters and mining has set an uncertain precedent for discussions regarding the exploration and exploitation of minerals in international waters, as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is yet to finalise the rules and regulations on the same. In the October-November 2023 session held by the ISA council, it framed its discussions around four working groups that dealt with the protection and preservation of the marine environment, Inspection Compliance and Enforcement (ICE), financial model and terms, and institutional matters. ISA would be further expanding and finalising these regulations, through voting and formal adoption would take place in 2025. 

Norway gained access to the continental shelf around its EEZ in 2009, however, this access is only limited to the seabed and not its surface waters. Mining activities can impact fisheries operating at the surface level, which may be UK fishing areas or EU fishing areas, raising transboundary concerns. The Svalbard Treaty ratified by 48 countries, acknowledges Norway’s sovereignty but also recognizes that exploitation of resources on Svalbard’s continental shelf would be subject to the principle of equality, meaning Norway would not be able to claim sole ownership of these resources. If Norway’s proposal for deep sea mining is brought into action, without mitigating the environmental risks, it would be a contradiction to its ocean commitments made at the OSPAR Convention on the protection of the marine environment in the North-East Atlantic and the Ocean Panel, where it has promised 100 per cent sustainable ocean management by 2025. Norway currently holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and highlighted sustainable resource management regarding Oceans as one of its four key priorities. However, Norway’s promises for ecosystem-based ocean management contradict its plans for deep sea mining as its proposed mining areas could contain vulnerable marine ecosystems. Other nations of the Arctic Council, such as Canada and Finland had earlier voiced a temporary moratorium as a precautionary pause against sea-bed mining. Additionally, in 2023, companies from Arctic Council nations, Danish company Maersk and US weapons manufacturing company Lockheed had divested in deep-sea mining citing environmental risks. Arctic Council’s International Conference on Ecosystem Approach to Management (EA) set to take place in Norway in 2024, would be crucial in determining rules and practices regarding management of ocean resources.

About the Author
Alka Bala is an undergraduate scholar at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy at St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. Her areas of interest include Southeast Asia, Europe, maritime and Climate Change. 

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