light piercing through the ocean

Norwegian deep-sea mining plans opposed by both green groups and major corporations

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Six environmental organisations have followed calls from large corporations to halt plans to explore undersea areas for their metal and mineral deposits and eventually grant licences to mine the ocean floor.

In January this year, the Norwegian government announced a process to open areas on its extended continental shelf to exploring and extracting minerals from the ocean floor. The process has started with a public consultation on a proposed impact assessment programme, which could result in the first deep-sea mining licences issued in 2023.

Deep-sea mining would involve extracting minerals from the ocean floor at depths of hundreds of metres rather than in shallow coastal waters where most marine mining is focused. Deep-sea mining would explore near hydrothermal vents (which could contain valuable metals including gold, cobalt and silver) or sites with many polymetallic rocky masses.  

Norway has supported several expeditions to map the ocean floor. According to the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, these expeditions have identified deposits of metals and minerals valuable for manufacturing components of electric vehicles, wind turbines and phones. Reuters has reported that DeepGreen, GSR, Seabird Exploration and UK Seabed Resources (a Lockheed Martin subsidiary) are among the companies holding exploratory licences.

This week, six environmental organisations called on the Norwegian government to put a stop to plans to permit deep-sea mining. The groups include the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace.

“Minerals and metals for the green shift should be obtained from consumption reduction and better reuse on land, not from the depths of the sea where brutal mining can do irreparable damage to nature,” the groups said in a joint statement.

Silje Ask Lundberg, head of Naturvernforbund (Friends of the Earth Norway), commented: “We know less about the deep sea than about the Moon’s surface. Mining on the seabed can destroy species and habitats that have an important role for both the sea and the planet.”

The coalition of environmental groups also called on the government to condemn deep-sea mining in international waters at the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority (ISA). The Norwegian government would need ISA’s consent for deep-sea mining efforts on its own continental shelf.

Professor Steinar Loeve Ellefmo, a deep-sea mining expert at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told Reuters that “I do not think it can be too early to collect data to learn.”

Last week, a group of large corporations comprising Google, BMW, Samsung and Volvo also threw their support behind a WWF statement calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until its environmental impacts have been assessed, all alternative mineral sources have been depleted, and it is clear that any such mining activity can be performed in a manner which preserves marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

The statement said that there is very limited knowledge about the deep-sea ecosystem, which may have low levels of resilience due to the slow pace of deep-sea processes limiting recovery within human timescales. It said that deep-sea mining could be expected to cause direct destruction of ecosystems, as well as damage and disturbance due to light, noise and sediment pollution.

Negative impacts could include decades-long disruption to nutrient and carbon cycles. This could be inflicted on a continental scale, the WWF statement said.

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