Thursday, June 20, 2024

Norway Defies Scientific Warnings With Seabed Mining First

Primary author: Christopher Bonasia

Defying scientific warnings and calls for a moratorium, Norway has become the first country to allow exploratory deep sea mining, raising questions about whether industry stakeholders can protect marine ecosystems even as they seek profitability.

On January 9, Norway’s parliament voted 80-20 in favour of allowing exploratory mining on its continental shelf in the Arctic to determine whether sulphides and manganese crusts can be extracted from the seabed, reports Nature. Disappointed by the move, Norwegian scientists say the government ignored their advice that too little is known about the consequences of disturbing seabeds.

“How can we make meaningful judgments of acceptable harm or risk when we know absolutely nothing about it?” asked Peter Haugan, director of policy at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen. He suggested the approval could be subject to lawsuits, since the government lacked sufficient scientific evidence to assess the impacts of future mining activities before voting.

Meanwhile, proponents of deep sea mining, which involves extracting mineral deposits from the ocean floor at depths greater than 60 metres, say seabed minerals are key to powering the clean energy transition with less dependence on critical minerals from China. And Norway, among the world’s wealthiest countries because of its oil and gas resources, says seabed mining will help shift its economy away from reliance on producing fossil fuels, explains the Associated Press.

But studies have shown that deep sea mining can have devastating impacts on seafloor biodiversity. Many organisms will be directly crushed by mining activity, while others will face adverse effects from stirred up sediment. And since adverse outcomes have only ever become apparent after the fact, “it could be decades before the full impact on marine life would be known,” the Guardian says.

These are some of the reasons why several scientists and 24 states have called for a moratorium on deep sea mining in international waters. Canada is one of them, though Canadian mining companies are among those leading the push to open the ocean floor for resource extraction, writes the Tyee.

Back in Norway, Helena Hauss, a marine ecologist at research institute NORCE, said Norway’s proposed mining sites in Mohns Ridge, an area of the Arctic seabed located between Norway and Greenland, hosts marine communities that aren’t found elsewhere—which will be irreversibly damaged.

“This is difficult to align with the claim of the Norwegian government that this will be done in a sustainable and responsible way,” Hauss said.

But Norway insists any mining that does occur will be done sustainably, following a step-by-step opening process in which the parliament will ultimately decide whether to proceed with a project.

“Norway has a long tradition for prudent, responsible, and sustainable resource management,” said State Secretary Astrid Bergmål. “Due to the lack of knowledge in the deep sea, we will apply a precautionary approach through a stepwise development where the licensee will be tasked with collecting data on both the resource potential, as well as biodiversity in the area and possible environmental impacts.”

She added that “extraction will only be approved if a developer can document that the proposed plan is prudent and sustainable.”

Explaining the process, Wired writes that mining companies will be able to explore Mohns Ridge once they receive a licence. After years of data gathering about the underwater environment, they can apply for permission to start mining. For instance, Norwegian deep sea mining company Loke Marine Minerals plans to apply for and exploration permit, writes BNN Bloomberg, but won’t be able to start mining before at least eight years of data collection.

Activists and researchers say environmental data should be gathered by independent or government institutions, not industry stakeholders who maintain that only private companies have the resources to carry out the mapping needed to inform mining decisions.

Asking a mining company to determine environmental issues creates a conflict of interest, said Kaja Lønne Fjærtoft, senior sustainable ocean advisor at WWF Norway.

“[We need to] understand the impact before allowing commercial actors to go ahead,” Fjærtoft said.

Ultimately, the future of “the new era of deep sea mining” depends on what mining companies find, Wired writes. “And on whether they can convince Norway—and the wider world—that disrupting the seabed is necessary to source the minerals we need for modern life.”

This article first appeared in The Energy Mix

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