This week the Norwegian parliament advanced their ambition to develop deep sea mining in Arctic waters, voting to open an area for exploration in the Norwegian Sea.
The controversial plan has met vigorous opposition from environmental groups, the fishing industry, the EU Commission and marine scientists. Norway’s institute of marine research has also come out against the proposed mining operations citing a lack of scientific data, and the state environmental agency expressed concerns about inadequate assessment. Nevertheless in a vote on Tuesday the proposal met with broad cross-party support in parliament.
Deep sea mining is a developing technology, undertaken by a suite of novel and remarkably destructive methods to extract minerals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper from the seabed. These resources are currently mined on land and are in increasing demand for the transition to renewable energy as they are components of batteries and turbine generators.The practise is controversial due to the uncertainty around its environmental impact. Scientists are agreed that the deep sea ecosystems where the mining activities are proposed are extremely vulnerable, slow-growing, poorly understood, and may take decades or even hundreds of years to recover from mining, if ever. Total habitat destruction is certain in the areas mined, with chemical, light and noise pollution along with sediment plumes predicted over a much wider area. The effects on stores of carbon sequestered on the seabed are unknown.
The area of the Norwegian Sea under consideration extends to 281,000 km2, nearly the size of Italy. Not all of the area is inside Norway’s EEZ however, a proportion is in international waters under Norwegian jurisdiction. More again is in the territorial waters of the Svalbard archipelago; claimed by Norway but contested by Russia, Iceland and others.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to regulate the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources of the international seabed, which falls outside any national jurisdiction. Ireland is a member of the ISA and last summer joined calls for a precautionary pause on deep sea mining in international waters. In December 2022 the Irish Government published a Policy Statement on Mineral Exploration and Mining which provided that mining activity should not take place on the Irish seabed until such time as sufficient data is available to adequately assess the potential impacts.
The IWDG is extremely concerned about the development of deep sea mining. Actively planning the degradation and destruction of pristine marine habitat is unacceptable, especially when alternatives sources of minerals exist and the only driver seems to be profit. Norway’s recent decision does not yet extend to the granting of licenses, which must be voted on by parliament. Campaigning will continue both in Norway and internationally and there is still hope that the mining will not ultimately go ahead.
The IWDG has published a document outlining our position on deep sea mining: Deep Sea Mining, a comprehensive review (2022) is available on our website at https://iwdg.ie/deep-sea-mining-a-comprehensive-review/.
Dr Stephen Comerford
Marine Policy Officer