Skip to main content Skip to site footer

You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Responsible spotlight - February 2024

one month ago
Roundel Responsible Spotlight

Norway takes the plunge

Despite its image as one of the world’s most sustainable countries, in January 2024 Norway became the first country to licence deep sea exploration for critical metals and minerals in its territorial waters. This decision has increased the likelihood other countries will begin their own deep sea mining (DSM) activities, despite opposition from a coalition of governments, scientists and environmentalists. This group supports a continuing pause on any seabed exploitation, citing the unknown risks to the maritime ecology. Established in 1982, the regulatory International Seabed Authority (ISA) is hampered by the lack of any comprehensive agreements on rules and regulations (and effective policing action), relying instead on non-binding voluntary standards. 

Why Norway took this decision

The Norwegian government and other supporters of DSM rationalised the move on environmental grounds. To reach the targets set in the Paris Agreement for example, by 2050 global production of cobalt and lithium will need to rise by 500%. Used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, cobalt demand has tripled since 2010 and the demands of EVs alone is forecast to double between 2023 – 2027. The government believes its sea bed contains large quantities of cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals, which are used in EV batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.  They will be increasingly needed in the drive to a net zero economy, and it is believed by DSM supporters that terrestrial mining will not be able to meet this demand.

Strengthening supply chains beyond China

Supply chain security was likely a further consideration for Norway when issuing this license. Land based depositories for rare metals and minerals are smaller and more concentrated than for traditional hydrocarbon resources, making them vulnerable to disruption. China is the dominant global repository and depository of rare earths, accounting for c.70% of rare earth mining and c.85% of its processing. It also produces more than 90% of rare earth magnets, essential components in a wide range of advanced weaponry.  Alongside its land based dominance of rare and critical metals, the country recently launched its first oceanographic drilling ship, capable of exploring 10,000m down. Elsewhere, the conflict ridden Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) contains the world’s largest reserves of cobalt. According to Amnesty International, the expansion of multinational mining is leading to wide ranging human rights abuses, in addition to labour and environmental violations. A further consideration for Norway might have been the lower carbon footprint and physical infrastructure needs associated with underwater mining compared with that above ground, where the infrastructure is more invasive.

Dig deep

Depending on what is being mined, DSM takes place between 800m – 6,000m below ground. The process starts with small rock-like structures called polymetallic nodules, which litter the seabed. Built up over millions of years, they contain copper, cobalt, manganese and nickel and the largest concentration of these covers a zone of 4.5mn km² in the eastern Pacific. Elsewhere, the crusts and ores of deep sea vents contain platinum, copper, gold and silver. Scientists calling for a moratorium on DSM claim the extraction process involved in underwater mining will endanger the marine ecosystem, much of which is still not well understood. Resting on the seabed, polymetallic nodules will be skimmed off and pumped to the surface. The resultant waste water, including the left over materials (tailings), would be pumped back into the ocean. It is thought this could create debris plumes which could disperse up to a thousand kilometres, affecting filter-feeder organisms and introduinge toxic levels of heavy metals and radioactive particles to marine food chains. A weakening of deep sea biodiversity could affect the ability of the oceans to mitigate global rises in temperature. Our oceans act as the world’s largest carbon sink, absorbing about 25% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Roundel 1

Our view

The ISA is working on DSM regulations by 2025. They will be enforceable and there are also wide ranging calls for a multi-year moratorium while the threat to the marine ecosystem is assessed. Yet Norway’s decision to approve mining in its own waters, likely brings closer the day when it takes place in international waters. This is what a number of countries, including Russia, China, India and South Korea, as well as some mining companies, are pushing for. It is ironic that the push to net zero threatens the poorly understood deep sea habitat, but if successful the payoffs, in terms of smoothing the path to net zero could be substantial.    

We use cookies to give you the best possible experience of our website. If you continue, we'll assume you are happy for your web browser to receive all cookies from our website. See our cookie policy for more information on cookies and how to manage them.