Have mining companies ensnared Norway’s prime minister?

Seabed mining is not the salvation from Chinese world monopoly.
Seabed mining is not the salvation from Chinese world monopoly.
Wikimedia Commons

Publish date: May 23, 2024

"Deep-sea mining is the solution to the Chinese world monopoly," Norwegian Prime Jonas Gahr Støre remarked at the One Ocean Week sustainable ocean conference in Bergen last month. At best, he has been deceived by companies that have beaks to wet at the treasury’s trough. At worst, he consciously lying, writes Martin Melvær, team leader for materials and industry at Bellona, in a recent editorial for the Norwegian paper Altinget.

The story coming from the government is the same wherever it’s told— whether at industry conferences, in talks with US allies, at climate summits to embarrassing effect, or during horse-trading in Norwegian Parliament: The only alternative to seabed-mined minerals is total dependence on China, Russia, and child labor in Congo.

Fortunately, there are better solutions.

Minerals are crucial for both European security and the green transition, and the need for them is expected to multiply in the next decade. Norway can play a key role — not through seabed mining, but through land-based mining. We have the deposits and the technology that can meet the mineral demand faster, cheaper, and far more sustainably than what we can do on the seabed. At the same time, significant progress is being made in recycling, which will both reduce the need for mining and reduce its consequences – by allowing mine waste to be used for something useful. Why then does the Norwegian government consistently choose to promote seabed minerals from deep sea mining?

Full speed into the unknown – consequences be damned

The government’s application for seabed mining was rushed through after a process that garnered strong criticism. The resource estimates, and thus the profitability assessments, were heavily criticized by the state’s expert authority on minerals and other leading experts. The Norwegian Environment Agency, on the other hand, stated that the knowledge base was too poor to justify an application. Internationally, efforts were made to make Norway reconsider, and warnings came from not only from the EU, but leading scientists and the journal Nature. The government did not listen.

Why couldn’t they wait for at least one environmental agency to deem the approval justifiable?

There is much to indicate that the government’s haste may be due to the hope of finding the new oil. The startup companies wishing to being seabed mining come precisely from the oil industry, and they argue that seabed minerals could provide the same profitability — they just need some subsidies from the state to prove it. But it’s quite different to extract minerals in low concentrations at depths of several thousand meters than oil and gas. Even for mines on land, it can be challenging today to finance new projects, and often the minerals are right at the surface.

It should not be difficult for the government to understand that Norway’s opportunities for mineral extraction are better on land than on the seabed. After all, the government has itself launched a strategy for land minerals with the ambition of developing the world’s most sustainable practices. At Bellona, we were pleased, for this is something we have recommended —  but by all current indications, that strategy has been shelved. The numbers speak for themselves – in the budget, the government allocated six times more for mapping the seabed than for following up on the mineral strategy with mapping on land.

Bellona collaborates with the Norwegian mineral industry to help Norway lead the way and set a greener standard for land-based mining. But it requires support from the authorities. And unfortunately, the authorities are preoccupied with an environmentally hostile looting expedition on the seabed.