On January 9, 2024, Norway’s Parliament approved a government plan to open a large part of its seabed to mining exploration, despite uncertain environmental impacts of deep-sea mining and warnings from scientists and activists.
In January 2023, a resource assessment commissioned by the Norwegian ministry of Petroleum and Energy found a substantial amount of metals and minerals on the seabed of Norway’s continental shelf. Six months later, energy minister Terje Aasland was given the green light from the government to start exploiting mineral resources in the Norwegian continental shelf.
The ministry’s recommendations specify that opening up an area will not automatically lead to extraction. At first, licences will be granted for commercial exploration activity, which is defined in the Seabed Minerals Act as “the search for and mapping of mineral deposits for commercial purposes”. It is only after exploration has been carried out that companies will be able to apply for an extraction licence, which the ministry will approve if it judges that the extraction can be done in a sustainable manner.
Last December, Norway’s governing parties – the Labour Party and the Centre Party – secured a majority on deep sea mining in the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, with the support of the Conservative Party and the Progress Party. They agreed on an opening but with a stricter framework: while exploration licences can already be granted, the first plans for the actual extraction of seabed minerals will have to be approved by the parliament, and not only by the ministry.
This proposal was finally approved by the Norwegian parliament – better known as Storting – on January 9, 2024, with 80 votes in favour and 20 against, making Norway, already Western Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, one of the first countries in the world to open the door to deep-sea mining.
The decision to only allow exploration for the time being and not actual extraction offers a “small glimmer of hope,” according to Lønne Fjærtoft, global policy lead for WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative. “This gives parliament the opportunity to say no to exploitation, which is a significant change to the government’s proposal”, she said in a statement.
Although extraction might not begin just yet, the parliament’s decision remains a significant first step, a prerequisite for the potential exploitation of the seafloor by private companies.
The highly controversial move comes as opposition grows against seabed mining worldwide. In November, 120 European Union (EU) lawmakers wrote an open letter to the Norwegian MPs, urging them to reject the project, while a petition received over 500,000 signatures. Over 800 marine scientists and policy experts across the world also called for a pause to deep-sea mining.
“The risk of large-scale and permanent loss of biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem functions, necessitates a pause of all efforts to begin mining of the deep sea”, their statement says. 24 countries are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, with France calling for a full ban. On the day of the vote, a group of protesters gathered outside the Parliament in Oslo. “They are opening a very new, vulnerable and enormous area that has been under-explored by scientists,” Haldis Tjeldflaat Helle of Greenpeace Norway told AFP.
A Fragile, Underexplored Ecosystem
The vote effectively opens 280,000 square kilometres (108,100 square miles) of seabed to mining exploration, a gigantic area larger than the United Kingdom, deep under the sea, above the Arctic circle for the most part. Nestled between Iceland and Svalbard, the area stretches along the Northern part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a huge underwater mountain wall rising from the vast abyssal plain. The highest summits reach around 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) below the surface, while some areas can be up to 4,000 metres (13,123 feet) deep. Along the ridge, ice cold water encounters intense heat emanating from subterranean magma, giving rise to volcanic eruptions and tall chimneys spewing toxic smoke.
Life conditions at such depths are particularly extreme, with high pressure, below zero water temperature and few nutrients. And yet, the gloomy depths host a great variety of enigmatic creatures and diverse life forms. In fact, the deep-sea contains the greatest biodiversity on Earth, much of which is still unknown. Deep-sea organisms like corals and sponges inhabit the sea mounts and slopes. Many of them are only found in the Arctic and nowhere else in the world. Certain places are covered in so-called “sponge grounds”, dense communities of sponges that provide a home for other animals like fish, crustaceans, octopi, starfish and snails. Most animals here feed on marine snow, a constant rain of organic detritus that has been eaten, digested and excreted many times, sinking into the depths from the upper layers of the ocean.
Manganese crusts, formed by dissolved metals naturally present in seawater that slowly accumulate over time, can also be found on these seamounts. Manganese crusts contain various metals of interest to the deep-sea mining industry, such as cobalt, iron, titanium, and rare earths. This means that sponge grounds and their strange inhabitants could potentially be affected by mineral extraction.
Another potential source of minerals on the Norwegian continental shelf are hydrothermal vents. Seawater seeps into cracks in the Earth’s crust where it gets heated up to hundreds of degrees and mixed with dissolved minerals and metals. When the hot water is expelled back into cold seawater, the minerals solidify rapidly and accumulate overtime, eventually creating chimney-like structures. These mineral deposits are called polymetallic sulphides and contain valuable resources for the mining industry like copper, zinc, gold, silver, and cobalt.
Active hydrothermal vents do not only create precious minerals but also support rare endemic biodiversity living in symbiosis with special bacteria that can derive energy from the chemicals expelled from the vents, in a process called chemosynthesis. Species of shrimp, small snails, crustaceans, tube worms, and anemones rely on these bacteria to live in this extreme environment.
Norway is not planning on exploiting these active vents but will focus on the inactive ones where the thermal activity has died out. There are limited studies on inactive vent sites but, according to Mari Heggernes Eilertsen, who researches deep-sea biology at the University of Bergen (UiB), it is not necessarily straightforward to define when a field is inactive, as there can still be outflows that sustain life in specialised creatures. The specialised fauna can also be replaced by typical species of the surrounding deep sea, such as sponges or anemones, and potentially by other unique species endemic to these inactive vents.
Risks and Knowledge Gaps in Deep-Sea Mining
Due to the logical complexity of exploring the deep sea, data assessing the potential impacts on deep-sea mining is scarce and requires more research. There are still many uncertainties surrounding deep-sea ecosystems and their vulnerability to mining activities, and scientists are concerned that mining would have dramatic effects on marine biodiversity.
In order to extract minerals, enormous mining machines would scrap the seafloor like combine-harvesters. It is quite likely that many deep-sea organisms will be directly crushed and killed by the mining equipment. In addition, the machines would release sediment plumes in the water, poisoning and suffocating aquatic animals. Deep-sea mining could potentially destroy species and genetic resources before they have been fully studied or even discovered.
Mining activities could disrupt ecosystems in the long run, by impairing processes associated with feeding, growth and reproduction. The machines will generate sound and light pollution in the silent, dark world of the deep sea. Bioluminescence, light produced directly by deep-sea animals, is the only natural source of light in these ecosystems. The bright lights of the engines risk masking the ecological functions of bioluminescence and may even irreversibly damage the eyes of local organisms. Noise generated by mineral extraction is likely to reach the upper water column, thus potentially affecting many marine animals like certain species of whales and dolphins that rely on echolocation.
The ocean is a great ally against climate change, absorbing around 30% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Microorganisms play a significant role in carbon sequestration in the deep sea, and their loss following mining activities might impact the ocean’s carbon cycle and reduce its ability to mitigate global warming. Not to mention the fact that mining activities will themselves emit planet-warming greenhouse gases as vessels and mining machines will require fuel consumption.
These impacts would be mostly generated by mineral extraction activities, as exploration alone is likely to have less significant impacts. However, it is not clear how large the investigated areas will be. Exploration machines and vessels will still produce noise and light pollution, and sampling might locally affect the seabed and the organisms that live on them. Overall, many uncertainties remain regarding the scale of the impacts mining exploration and extraction could have in the Norwegian deep-sea, as well as elsewhere in the world.
A Precautionary Approach?
The Norwegian Environment Agency, a government agency under the Ministry of Climate and Environment, criticised the government’s impact assessment and suggested it might even be violating the Seabed Minerals Act. According to the agency, the assessment does not provide a sufficient decision-making basis for allowing mineral exploration and extraction at sea, but shows significant knowledge gaps about nature, technology, and environmental effects.
The government argues that opening the area for exploration is a prerequisite for gaining knowledge about the environmental conditions in the area, in a “step-by-step approach” in the words of Energy Minister Terje Aasland. On the contrary, the Norwegian Environment Agency believes that the government rushed the process, ignoring important stages to ensure that the industry does not gain access to areas that should be protected.
Opening large parts of the continental shelf for exploration activity by private actors, whose ultimate interest is to drill the seabed for minerals, is not in line with a step-by-step, precautionary approach. If the government’s priority truly was to collect data on dumbo octopus and bioluminescent starfish, it could instead fund scientific studies to investigate and map areas before any permit for commercial exploration is granted. The Norway Institute of Marine Research estimates that around 5-10 years of research into impacts on species are needed.
A Green Transition Without Mining the Ocean
The Norwegian government’s main argument to allow deep-sea mining is that the minerals it would provide are essential to the green energy transition, though studies show the opposite.
According to a 2024 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, seabed mining is not needed for clean energy. Instead, more investment should go into a circular economy that recycles and reuses the minerals we already have, which could cut mineral demand by 58% between 2022 and 2050.
Destroying ecosystems that we only scarcely begin to understand can hardly be considered an acceptable way to meet climate targets. A real “green transition” cannot maintain the same extractive model that has driven climate change and biodiversity loss in the first place, the same mindset that has wiped out forests and dug craters into the earth. Mining the ocean floors could cause irreparable damage to nature, like it already does on land.
Norway’s decision to greenlight deep sea mining sets a dangerous international precedent, potentially justifying opening processes elsewhere in the world.
The deep dark depths of our oceans cannot be sacrificed in the name of clean energy. A successful and holistic approach to the ecological transition goes hand in hand with the preservation of life on Earth and the creatures below.