Norway could become the first country in the world to push ahead with deep sea mining after it voted Tuesday to open its waters for exploration, provoking an outcry from environmental groups.
In a major step towards kicking off commercial deep sea mining, the country’s parliament formally agreed to allow the exploration of around 108,000 square miles of Arctic seabed, an area bigger than the United Kingdom, between Norway and Greenland.
The deep ocean, one of the world’s last untouched habitats, has long been eyed for its vast trove of resources — including copper, cobalt, zinc and gold — which are needed for the green economy, used in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicle batteries.
A Norwegian study last year found a “substantial” amount of metals and minerals on the seabed of the country’s extended continental shelf.
Proponents of deep sea mining argue that extracting these raw materials from beneath the ocean will allow a faster transition to a low-carbon economy and could come at a lower environmental cost than terrestrial mining.
But scientists say very little is still known about the depths of the world’s oceans — only a small fraction of which humans have explored — and many are concerned about the impacts on these ecosystems already affected by pollution, trawling and the climate crisis.
The deep ocean in this region is home to a huge number of marine species, from krill to whales, as well as deep sea animals, many of which have not yet been discovered by humans. “We do not know what we risk losing for the exact reason that we do not know what the deep sea holds,” Pleym said.
The Norwegian government has said that seabed minerals offer an exciting new industry and “extraction will only be permitted if the industry can demonstrate that it can be done in a sustainable and responsible manner.”
But other countries have urged caution, including the United Kingdom, which last year announced its support for a moratorium on deep sea mining.
In November, more than 100 European politicians wrote an open letter to the Norwegian parliament, urging it to vote against deep sea mining. The letter referred to the risks to marine life and the potential for accelerating climate change by disturbing the carbon locked up in the sea floor.
Another open letter, signed by more than 800 scientists from around the world, has called for a pause in deep sea mining, saying it risks causing losses “that would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales.”
In December, Norwegian politician Baard Ludvig Thorheim told Reuters that the environmental bar for deep sea mining had been set high. “We believe, and hope, it will become the international standard for this activity,” he said.
It remains unclear how fast a deep sea mining industry might spring up in Norway. It may be a matter of months before exploration starts, Pleym said.
But parliament will still need to approve the issuing of mining licenses to begin extraction. “There will be another vote before actual mining begins,” said Kaja Lønne Fjærtoft, WWF-Norway’s deep sea mining expert.
It’s a concern shared by the European Academies of Science Advisory Council, an association of national academies of science. “The narrative that deep-sea mining is essential to meeting our climate targets and thus a green technology is misleading,” Michael Norton, EASAC environment director, said in a statement last year.
Norway’s decision to greenlight deep sea mining comes in the context of a wider debate about whether international waters should also be opened up to the practice.
The International Seabed Authority, the UN-affiliated body which regulates seabed extraction, is expected to finalize rules on mining in international waters next year.