Greenpeace activists paint the word ‘RISK!’ on the side of a vessel chartered by the company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR). Photo: Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace

NO - The Geopolitics of Deep-Sea Mining

Deep-sea mining carries substantial environmental risks and its immediate profitability remains questionable due to several technical difficulties.

Yet, amid regulatory pitfalls, a handful of states are rushing to extract raw resources from the seabed.

China seems set to dominate deep-sea mining. Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese are crucial to build wind turbines and electric vehicles, among other things, that will boost the transition to a low-carbon economy. China’s dominance in this sector poses a serious challenge for democracies, as the country has on several occasions weaponized its access to critical resources as part of the ongoing competition with the United States.

Norway at the forefront

Norway is also at the forefront of this race. The Norwegian parliament recently secured a majority for its plans to explore deep-sea mining of rare earth minerals from its continental shelf in the mid-Atlantic Ridge between Jan Mayen Island and the Svalbard Archipelago in the Norwegian Sea, about 700 kilometres offshore.

The decision sparked increasing resistance, including a recent letter directed at Prime Minister Gahr Støre in which civil society organizations urged him to support a global moratorium on deep sea mining. According to the government, however, the country has the opportunity to leverage its vast seabed resources in order to strengthen the resilience of its economy and protect its national security amid geopolitical rivalry.

In the last decades, Norway has notoriously gained consistent economic benefits from the exploitation of its natural resources, particularly oil and gas. Today, the Oljefond is one of the world’s largest funds, functioning as a long-term security guarantee for the economy. As Norway gradually shifts towards renewable energy sources, deep-sea mining could present a valuable opportunity to extract raw minerals needed for transitioning to the green economy.

Green energy technologies

Discussions on deep-sea mining trace back decades. However, their saliency has increased in recent years due to growing international demand of minerals essential to produce several green energy technologies, such as electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and solar farms. For instance, electric vehicles batteries require lithium and several other primary components such as nickel, manganese, cobalt, and graphite. Amid the global rush for resources, deep-sea mining remains constrained by major uncertainties concerning its environmental impact, economic profitability, and regulatory frameworks.

Challenges and uncertainties

Deep-sea mining activities could have a potential disastrous impact on marine ecosystems. Scientists affirm that it is not possible to extract resources from the seabed without incurring in a net biodiversity loss. At the current stage, knowledge about deep-sea ecosystems is not sufficient to estimate the potential catastrophic impacts of mining. For this reason, 782 marine science and policy experts from 44 countries released a statement calling for a temporary moratorium on deep-sea mining. A growing number of governments and parliamentarians expressed their resistance to deep-sea mining, with France’s Macron joining calls for banning the practice.

In addition to environmental concerns, the material economic benefit of deep-sea mining remains uncertain due to several technical difficulties in the extraction process. A report released in June by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) suggests that deep-sea mining is not a strategic priority to transition to the green economy and that the increasing demand for critical minerals can be satisfied in various alternative ways, for instance through technology choices, recycling materials and circular economy practices.

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