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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Deep sea mining swamps protesters

The Norwegian government is defying its own environmental directorate and activists once again, by rolling out plans to move forward with highly controversial deep sea mining in the sensitive Arctic. The paradoxical goal is to search for minerals from the floor of the Barents Sea that are needed for the “green shift” away from fossil fuels, but opponents claim the plans “shatter” Norway’s international credibility and bring shame upon the land.

Protests against deep sea mining have been strong, but the Norwegian government is overlooking them. PHOTO: © Will Rose/Greenpeace

The minority Labour-Center government in Oslo had to resort to negotiations with its own opponents in Parliament in order to to win a majority for the plans. The more environmentally oriented Socialist Left Party (SV), which usually cooperates with the government, refused to go along with the deep sea mining plans. The Labour and Center parties have thus formed an unusual political alliance with the Conservatives and right-wing Progress Party in order to launch what they call a “step-by-step” plan to issue exploration rights in portions of the Norwegian Continental Shelf in the Barents Sea, albeit under “strict environmental demands.”

If the proposed exploration itself turns out to have “more serious environmental consequences” than expected, demands for surveillance will be sharpened. If the exploration results in discoveries of minerals needed, for example, for battery production, initial licenses for actual mining and extraction will need to approved by Parliament.

“We will do this carefully, we will do this step by step,” promised Oil & Energy Minister Terje Aasland of the Labour Party on Tuesday. “We will gather information, then we’ll evaluate whether it’s viable to move forward with actual extraction.”

Aasland, already under constant criticism for his government’s devotion to Norway’s increasingly controversial oil and gas industry, defended the deep sea mining plans that have been roundly criticized both in Norway and abroad. “I think this can be responsible and defensible,” Aasland told state broadcaster NRK, adding that those finding undersea minerals “must show that they can be extracted in a sustainable manner.”

The brown areas depict the vast area (equal to the size of Great Britain) where Norway wants to search for and eventually extract minerals from the sea floor. MAP: Oljedirektoratet

The area targeted covers 281,000 square kilometers of the Barents and Greenland seas, lying roughly between Svalbard and Jan Mayen. Earlier studies have indicated the seabed there contains large quantities of minerals including copper, zinc and cobalt, all of which are needed for alternative energy projects. Proponents also argue that it’s important to reduce dependence on China, where most such minerals are currently mined.

“Important minerals can be found on the ocean floor that we need to build wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars, which are needed to meet our climate goals without making us dependent on a few non-Western countries,” said Marianne Sivertsen Næss of the Labour Party at a press conference Tuesday. She said she was glad that the agreement among Norway’s largest parties on both the left and right “gives us a broad majority.” She and the other Norwegian politicians view the exploration phase as a means of gathering information on the environment, eco-systems and conditions on the seafloor.

Norway’s own environmental directorate, however, has objected to the deep sea mining plans. The directorate contends there’s far too little knowledge of how deep sea mining can be carried out in a defensible manner, and it refused to recommend opening up the Norwegian continental shelf for mineral exploration.

Environmental advocates fear lasting damage to the sea floor, to seafood and maritime pollution. Member of Parliament Lars Haltbrekken of SV can hardly believe Norwegian authorities are willing to “ravage” the seas for more economic gain.

“We have no idea what the consequences of such operations will be,” Haltbrekken told NRK. “Environmental researchers have issued strong warnings against this.” That’s why his party, which just agreed on a state budget for next year with the government, refused to support this project: “We risk destroying enormous nature value for unclear returns. The signal Norway is sending by being the first country to open up its seafloor for mining deeply worries me.”

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre was confronted by Greenpeace Nordic during a demonstration in Oslo this autumn. Now Støre’s government is moving forward with plans for the controversial deep sea mining. PHOTO: ©Will Rose/Greenpeace

Reaction was swift from environmental organizations, with Greenpeace noting how there’s been “massive protests” from scientists, fisheries and the international community, not just environmental activists.

“This is a disaster for the ocean and shameful for Norway,” claimed Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway. “The Norwegian government is not only ignoring hundreds of concerned scientists but also showing disregard for its international obligations and national environmental legislation.

“By opening up for deep sea mining, Norway has lost all credibility as a responsible ocean nation that signed the UN Ocean Treaty,” Pleym said. He vowed that Greenpeace will “work to stop every deep sea mining project,” adding that Greenpeace is “ready to confront the industry on land and at sea.”

Norway’s interest in deep sea mining has already sparked demonstrations, and not just at home. Activists in 20 countries have protested at Norwegian embassies, not least in London, and the EU Commission has expressed “strong concern about the environmental impact” of the plans. Greenpeace noted that more than 800 ocean scientists have called for a pause in deep sea mining globally, while more than 100 Members of Parliament around Europe have written an open letter to their Norwegian counterparts, asking them to stop the process of opening up for deep sea mining.

WWF, the World Wildlife Fund for nature, is also firmly opposed to the plans, and extremely disappointed. “This is the biggest stain on Norwegian ocean management history in modern time, and another nail in the coffin for Norway’s reputation as a responsible ocean nation,” said Karoline Andaur, head of WWF in Norway. She said the government’s decision to defy “all professional advice” on the issue “is nothing less than a scandal.”

The National Geographic Society has called deep sea mining “a serious threat” also for unknown and fragile marine life. “We have so much more to learn before opening Pandora’s box,” said Dr Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence and founder of the organization Pristine Seas.

“Companies and countries should not rush to mine the deep sea until we know enough about the impact of mining operations on the marine environment and the climate,” Sala stated last summer. Norway, however, is taking the plunge.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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