Climate change used to be the reason to stop Arctic extraction. Now, as deep sea mining in Norway advances, it is given as the reason to push full steam ahead.

In a new low for a petrostate bent on telling the rest of the world to go green, Norway’s Labour Party has won the support of its rival Conservative Partry and Progress Party for deep-sea mining – even as its own coalition partner, the Center Party, has castigated the move.

Lars Haltbrekken, the Center Party’s environmental policy spokesperson, stated (in Norwegian), “It is incomprehensible that the Norwegian authorities are in the first place to raze the seabed. Environmental scientists have issued strong warnings. We have no idea of the consequences of such operations, and there are no environmental requirements for the operations.”

Environmentalists and the powerful Norwegian fishing industry vociferously oppose deep sea mining. Scientific research has shown that discharge plumes from deep sea mining can affect fish at various species, especially those that swim deeper in the sea column. Fishing vessels are also active in the 281,000 km2 zone proposed for exploration – an area similar in size to Italy.

A stepwise race to the bottom

A diagram of deep sea mining. Source: G. Mannaerts, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Norwegian parliamentary majority that now favors scouring the seabed for minerals such as manganese, sulphide, copper, zinc, and gold is moving forward with a step-by-step plan to enable a race to the bottom.

During a press conference, Conservative politician Bård Ludvig Thorheim described the government’s plan for permitting deep-sea mining. Environmental impact mapping will be required before exploration permits will be granted by parliament. In addition, permits will only be issued for deep sea mining “if future knowledge shows that it can be done sustainably and responsibly, and after the government has presented an updated knowledge base on the environment in the deep seas,” he Thorheim.

Geopolitical considerations are driving the Norwegian parliament’s support for what could potentially be an environmentally devastating activity. The government stated that consideration of national security concerns will be high on the radar when deciding to whom to issue permits. Although no companies have yet expressed formal interest, the government’s stance likely means that Chinese actors such as China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association or China Minmetals Corporation, which are dominating the global deep-sea mining race, will not be scraping up the Norwegian sea bottom.

Data sources: Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (deep-sea mining area), ICES (fishing hours), NSIDC (sea ice)

A global quest for deep sea minerals, with Arctic states at the helm

The global search for submarine minerals is heating up. Just last week in the Clarion Clipper Zone in the Pacific Ocean – a world away from Norway – a ship being chartered by Nauru Ocean Resources, a subsidiary of the Vancouver, Canada-based The Metals Company, shot water hoses onto Greenpeace activists in dinghies. A few days prior, some of the activists had managed to board the Danish-flagged MV Coco, climbing onto an A-frame from which a small submarine could be lifted into the water. They vowed to stay there until the vessel stopped its exploration. The activists also managed to press the emergency button, preventing the A-frame from folding and, consequently, the ship from sailing.

From the Pechora Sea to the Pacific Ocean

The Greenpeace protestors had made their way to the Coco from Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise. Ten years ago, the notorious protest ship attempted to stop Russia’s first Arctic offshore oil platform, Prirazlomnaya, from moving forward with its plans in the Pechora Sea. Thirty activists were detained for two months in Russian jails before being released.

This time, Greenpeace is trying to stop exploration of deep sea minerals. Mining companies such as The Metals Company claim that they are crucial for supporting the green transition away from fossil fuels – the very commodity whose exploitation Greenpeace was fighting a decade ago in hostile Russian waters.

This time, in the high seas of the Pacific Ocean, Greenpeace has received a more favorable reception. While a court in the Netherlands, where Greenpeace is based, has ordered the Arctic Sunrise activists to vacate MV Coco or face hefty severe fines, the non-profit is allowed to continue its protest as long as its members remain 500 meters away. In his ruling, Judge I. H. J. Konings noted, “Greenpeace’s protest is directed against an issue of great social importance,” adding that the organization “has so far sufficiently demonstrated that there is no common scientific opinion that deep-sea mining can take place without environmental damage and that the mining of manganese nodules is very controversial.”

Attesting to the complexity and near-impossibility of regulating activities on the high seas, Judge Konings referred to a directive from the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA), the body which regulates deep-sea mining. On Monday, the ISA cautioned Greenpeace to keep 500 meters away from the ship. Konings, however, noted, “This appears to be a call, not an enforceable measure,” the judge wrote of the ISA’s directive. “It is unclear to what extent this authority is authorized to actually impose the measures mentioned on (in this case) Greenpeace.” 

More companies and countries are beginning to make use of their 15-year contracts from the ISA for exploring polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts on the seabed of the world’s high seas. A total of 31 contracts have been issued to 22 contractors ranging from the Governments of India, Korea, and Poland to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, to name just a few. While the ISA is able to regulate their activities in the seabed, international law may be insufficient to governing the activities happening around their operations, from protests to piracy and pollution.

Arctic state hypocrisy: truly boundless

Norway and Canada are two Arctic countries that market themselves as environmentally conscientious despite extracting vast amounts of oil and minerals out of the ground each year. They are now turning to plunder the bottom of the sea in both their own backyards and the world’s global commons. Such actions make their efforts to, for instance, prohibit fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean on the basis of the precautionary principle hypocritical.

Why is it acceptable to begin mining the deep seabed without sufficient knowledge when it is unacceptable to fish in the Arctic’s high seas? Why is Canada trying to preserve the commons on its northern border when one of its own companies is tearing up the Pacific seabed for manganese modules?

And just last year, Norway announced it would resume donations to the Amazon Fund, which prevents deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest, if there were a change in government (in other words, if the logging-happy former president Jair Bolsonaro were ousted, as he ultimately was). Imagine if the tables were turned and a country were to say that they would resume doing business with Norway if the government stopped moving forward with deep-sea mining plans. That is hard to imagine because Norway is in the Global North rather than the Global South.

From the top of the earth to the bottom of the sea, the world’s frontiers are being plundered. It’s just that Arctic countries have a bit more practice with greenwashing. As Marianne Sivertsen Næss, a Labour politician from Hammerfest, a city in the Norwegian Arctic, remarked during the landmark press conference: “There are important minerals on the seabed that we need to build wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars, which will be crucial to achieving our climate goals without making us dependent on minerals from a few countries outside the West.”

Climate change used to be the reason to stop Arctic extraction. Now, it is the reason to push full steam ahead.

Off the coast of northern Norway. Source: M. Bennett.
Categories: Mining

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Norwegian parliament reaches agreement on deep-sea mining in the Arctic

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