Last June, Norway moved to open parts of the Arctic seabed to deep-sea mining – despite international calls for a worldwide moratorium. Now, as legislation is being discussed in Parliament, scientists and activists rally against what they call an “irreversible mistake”.

The deep-sea starts at approximately 200m below the surface – where light begins to fade. Exploration of deep-sea ecosystems only started about 40 years ago. Yet now that they are at risk of being disrupted by what may be the next frontier of human economic development, deep-sea mining, the extraction of rare minerals from the ocean floor has become a widely discussed topic. 

Deep sea corals by marine photographer Alexander Semonov

Back in June, Norwegian Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Terje Aasland, laid out his government’s plan to start commercial deep-sea mining on its extended continental shelf, with the opening of an offshore area larger than the United Kingdom.

Norway’s seabed is estimated to contain up to 45 million metric tons of zinc, 38 million tons of copper and large amounts of other rare metals, all of which are critical to the manufacturing of windmills, electric cars and solar panels needed to power the global energy transition. World mineral production will  have to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 to meet expected demand for electric batteries and wind turbines, the World Bank estimates.

“We need minerals to succeed in the green transition,” Aasland said in a statement in June. “No other country is better positioned to take the lead in managing such resources sustainably and responsibly.” Still, the argument laid is that the benefit of green technology will out-balance whatever climate cost is seen as “simplistic and dangerous” by Murray Roberts, Professor of Applied Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Edinburgh

The ecological consequences of deep sea mining 

Although scientists estimate that more than eighty percent of oceans are unexplored, recent technological advances have made it possible for iAtlantic, an international research program which Roberts coordinates, to gather information about the health of deep-sea ecosystems.

“We now have enough information to say that if we decide, as a society, to go ahead with deep-sea mining, we will be doing it in the knowledge that we are going to just wipe these areas of the planet out”, says Roberts.

Their research has shown that mining operations will produce toxic sediment plumes which can disperse further than 100 km – far beyond the licensed mining areas. Because of lack of light and food in the abyss, deep-sea organisms develop and reproduce slowly, making them hyper-vulnerable to such stresses. 

Combined with pollution, ocean acidification and warming due to climate change, the far-reaching scope of biodiversity loss following mining activity is therefore “very much underestimated”, explains Roberts.

The researcher additionally fears that deep-sea mining could have serious consequences for the ocean’s carbon stocking cycle and heavily reduce its ability to mitigate global temperature rise. Today, the ocean absorbs 25% of the CO2 produced and captures 90% of the excess heat generated by these greenhouse gas emissions, making it a main actor in the slowing down of global warming. 

But everything has yet to be decided. 

The government’s deep-sea mining proposal will require parliamentary approval. Environmental activist Symre Johanne Aargaard is putting her hopes on lawmakers blocking the plan, and together with other NGOs, the 19-year old organised a protest in front of the parliamentary building in Oslo on the 2nd of October – with concerts, speeches and a giant octopus. 

The Greenpeace octopus at the Oslo protest 2nd October 2023, credit : Symre Johanne Aargaard.

“I think a big part of the problem is that people don’t have a relationship with the deep-sea.” she says, “They don’t understand why it’s important to protect it.” Working for Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom), the country’s biggest environmentalist youth organisation, she tries to bring attention to the topic before the Parliament’s vote, expected Tuesday 9th January.

“If they do pass this, it’s going to become a page in the history books because there’s so much resistance against it,” says Aargaard. At home, the governmental plan is facing strong opposition from NGOs, scientists but also politicians. 

“We will not vote for the proposal that the government has put forward,” Norwegian MP Lars Haltbrekken told Reuters, “we would like to have a moratorium for at least ten years.” 

The Labour-led government relies on Haltbrekken’s party the Socialist Left (SV), a smaller leftwing party, for support to pass its budget and other key policies in parliament. It is therefore possible that, without their support, the government’s plan will not be able to survive a Parliament vote, or that SV will use the budget vote as leverage to put an end to deep-sea mining plans. However, Haltbrekken did not say whether SV would make support for the government’s budget conditional on the issue.

Protest in front of the Norwegian Embassy in Paris, 2nd of October 2023, credit : Juliette Fekkar.

An international movement against deep sea mining 

Beyond Norway, a worldwide movement has emerged to fight against deep sea mining, with NGOs and activists across the globe calling on Norway to stop deep sea mining.

“The Norwegian government puts a lot of energy and time to build the image of a green nation,” explains Aargaard. “This image is cracking, and that puts pressure on them.”

To mark the opening of the Norwegian parliamentary session, on the 2nd of October, rallies were held in front of embassies in 19 countries with activists demanding the resignation of Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre as co-chair of the international Ocean Panel in case the Norwegian Parliament does not halt the opening process.

This international mobilisation is the result of months of debate around deep-sea mining. 

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the institution responsible for overseeing global seabed mining, held its general assembly in Jamaica in July 2023 in order to discuss a global framework in which to authorise or not mining seabeds. In this context, calls for a global moratorium rapidly gained momentum, as Brazil, Canada, Ireland, and Sweden, amongst others, publicly announced to support a ban, moratorium or precautionary pause on deep sea mining. Multinationals such as BMW,Volvo and Samsung also committed not to use minerals mined from the seabed in their products. 

Many now fear that Norway’s deep-sea mining plan will open the way to many more. On the 9th of November, 119 Members of Parliament from across the European Union addressed a letter to the Norwegian Parliament, asking MPs to vote against the government’s deep-sea mining plan. 

As the decisive vote will be held today, all eyes now turn to Norway.