In a shift away from fossil fuels, Norway is planning to deep dive for metals as part of its plan for a greener future. Having gained most of the country’s wealth from its successful oil industry, Norway is now looking to get ahead of the curve in metals by mining copper, zinc and other metals found on the seabed.
The deep-sea mining project, expected to commence in late 2023, will see metals mined for use in electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar farms.
However, environmentalists worry that disturbing the seabed could wreak environmental havoc. Huge polymetallic nodules – manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt – on the seabed are attractive to those trying to adapt to new technologies and move away from traditional energies such as oil and coal. But ocean experts are concerned about the environmental impact of deep-sea mining as it has not been done before, and the potential repercussions are still unknown.
Reducing worldwide reliance on fossil fuels will require alternatives to be developed. Ditching oil and gas would mean using billions of kilograms of metal to fuel wind turbines and electric car batteries. For example, a wind turbine requires around a metric tonne of copper to work.
At present, many of these metals come from terrestrial mines, which has led to deforestation and water pollution. Mining from the sea-bed, around 3 kilometres underwater, could provide a less harmful extraction option as global demand for these metals increases.
While the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA), established in 1994, has deemed deep-sea resources “common heritage of mankind” in recent years it has allotted 30 exploration contracts across an area of 1.4 million square kilometres. These contracts have been delivered to both private companies and governments, with the aim of developing these metallic resources.
In response to environmental concerns, the Norwegian government plans to carry out an environmental impact assessment, after which the matter will go to vote in parliament in 2023.
Norway presents an exception to ISA regulations as its metals are not in international waters. According to recent studies, Norway’s waters contain large quantities of these valuable metals. Higher estimates suggest the Norwegian continental shelf could provide as much as 21.7 million tonnes of copper and 22.7 million tonnes of zinc; figures well over the world’s annual output.
If estimates are correct, Norway could see an annual revenue of up to $20 billion in metal mining within the next 30 years. While the country’s oil and gas industries contributed $61 billion in revenue in 2019, this is not insignificant as Norway adapts to greener energy practices.
This week, Oil and Energy Minister Tina Bru told Reuters “We are moving forward on this, and the momentum is high”, explaining “This is an industry with great potential.”.
Cyprus-based Seabird Exploration plans to develop a deep-sea mining subsidiary, to be registered with the Euronext Growth Oslo small-cap stock exchange this year. The company aims to use existing oil and gas sector techniques to extract metals from the seabed by the late 2020s. Nordic Mining is also expected to request mining licenses if the plans go ahead.
Several other countries already hold contracts for seabed exploration including Germany, China, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, and Japan. And others are highly interested in getting involved as regulators call for greener energy practices. Some of the countries that have so far shown interest include Poland, India, France, the UK, Belgian, Singapore, and the Pacific islands of Kiribati, Cook Islands, Tonga, and Nauru.
However, many of these countries must rely on the ISA to grant permissions for exploration following a full environmental impact assessment of the area in question. This could significantly delay hopes of mining, as well as hinder development plans if the assessment deems the potential impact too high.
Following recent interest in metal extraction from the world’s seabeds by several countries across the globe, as well as the increase in contracts issued by the ISA, it seems inevitable that mining will go ahead. The question now is when will this mining take place and what the environmental impact of the extraction will be in practice as we move into a “greener future”.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com