Deep-sea mining greenlit in Norway

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The robot about to be let loose on the Norwegian seabed looks like a giant tripod, kicking up sand as it drills to collect samples from one of the last untouched places on Earth.

This eerie contraption belongs to Loke Marine Minerals, expected to be among the first companies to embark on an exploration process that lays the groundwork for deep-sea mining in the Arctic. In a world-first, Norway’s parliament voted on Tuesday to allow a new generation of mining companies to search a large area of Norwegian waters—the size of Italy—for the minerals needed to build electric cars, mobile phones, and solar panels.

Walter Sognnes, CEO of Loke, considers the vote not just a license for exploration but also a foot in the door for extracting these minerals. “If you find the resources, and if you have the technology that shows that you can develop this with acceptable [environmental] impact, then you will have your green light,” he says of the process. If his company receives a license to harvest minerals, Sognnes plans to mine the seabed’s manganese crust, which, he claims, is rich in cobalt and rare earth minerals.

This is controversial new territory, with researchers saying they do not know enough about the deep sea to predict how these companies’ activities will affect underwater ecosystems. Norway’s government-funded Institute of Marine Research has recommended another five to 10 years of research. “We have an idea about what sort of organisms are down there,” says Steffen Leth Jørgensen, director of the deep sea center at Norway’s University of Bergen, explaining that he is concerned about the corals and sponge grounds. “We don’t know how they will respond to mining.” Activists, who protested outside Norway’s parliament building on Tuesday, have described the prospect of deep-sea mining as a disaster that will pose a grave threat to marine life.

The three companies expected to apply for licenses to start exploration in Norway are all startups launched since 2019. Although they are all backed by more established “sea services” companies—Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg Gruppen and Norwegian shipping group Wilhelmsen both hold stakes in Loke—the startups have no established reputation to lose.

Tuesday’s vote arrived at a moment when many larger companies seemed to be cutting ties with deep-sea mining. In May last year, Danish shipping giant Maersk announced it was selling its stake in The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian company with ambitions to start deep-sea mining in international waters off the island of Nauru, near Australia. In March, US defense company Lockheed Martin also unloaded its deep-sea mining subsidiary, UK Seabed Resources (UKSR), to Loke for an undisclosed sum.

The divestments have been linked to mounting controversy around deep-sea mining and the damage activists say the new industry risks causing to underwater life. BMW is one company that has already pledged not to use raw materials from deep-sea mining in its cars. In October, the UK joined Canada and New Zealand in calling for a pause on deep-sea mining until the environmental impacts of this new industry could be better understood. Those concerns are already making it difficult to find investment and strike deals with technology partners, Sognnes claims.

But deep-sea mining is considered a risky business not just because of environmental concerns. Norway’s startups are betting on an industry that doesn’t yet exist. “It could end up not becoming an industry at all because the resources are not there or the technology’s not good enough,” says Håkon Knudsen Toven, spokesperson for the industry group Offshore Norway. “I think that’s one of the main reasons why for now you only have some small startups.”

Loke might be focused on the Norwegian seabed’s manganese crust, but another Norwegian startup, Green Minerals, wants to try to extract copper from what’s known as seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits, according to its CEO Ståle Monstad. The technology needed to transport these deposits from the seabed, roughly 3 kilometers underwater, to the surface is already being used in the oil and gas industry, Monstad claims, adding that he believes the company could start test-mining as early as 2028.

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Once they receive a license, Norway’s deep-sea mining companies will be able to explore a wedge of Arctic seabed known as the Mohns Ridge, located between Norway and Greenland. However, companies will first have to spend years gathering data about the underwater environment before they can apply for permission to start mining. Activists and researchers would rather independent or government institutions gather this environmental data. Asking a mining company if there are environmental issues that would make their business unviable is problematic, says Kaja Lønne Fjærtoft, senior sustainable ocean adviser at WWF Norway. “[We need to] understand the impact before allowing commercial actors to go ahead.”

Industry argues that only private companies have the resources to carry out the expensive mapping and exploration necessary to understand the area, while Monstad objects to the idea that company-collected data would be biased. “We have no intention of hiding or doing anything unethical with the data,” he says, adding he is happy to accept NGOs onto Green Minerals’ boats as observers. “We are not going to do this if we are risking severe damage to the environment, that’s for sure.”

Yet the next generation of mining companies accept that even with careful operations the seabed will be disturbed in some way. A 2020 study from Japan suggested that underwater animal populations decreased after deep-sea mining tests took place nearby. But mining companies argue that extracting copper, for example, from the seabed could cause less damage to the environment than extracting it from land if deep-sea deposits offer a better rock-to-metals ratio.

“The data currently shows that the ore grade is potentially higher [in deep-sea mining], which is very important, because that means you can dig out less and get out more,” says Anette Broch M. Tvedt, CEO of Adepth Minerals, which is also planning to apply for a license to explore and hopefully extract copper and other minerals from Norway’s SMS deposits. “We will do better than the alternative—or there is no industry.”

The future of the new era of deep-sea mining hangs on what these startups find and whether they can convince Norway—and the wider world—that disrupting the seabed is necessary to source the minerals we need for modern life. Their impact on the international debate is exactly what people like WWF’s Lønne Fjærtoft are so worried about. “We have an expression in Norway, ‘Aldri for sent å snu,’ or ‘It’s never too late to turn around,’” she says. “This is a perfect example of a moment to turn around and just reassess, because we’re really steering the ship in the totally wrong direction.”