Norway said Tuesday it plans to open parts of its continental shelf to commercial deep-sea mining exploration, a controversial move it hoped would set the standard for good practices.
The announcement comes a day after the UN adopted the first international treaty to protect the high seas.
Environmentalists are vehemently opposed to seabed mining amid fears it could inflict damage on deep-sea ecosystems, such as fish populations, marine mammals and the ecosystems’ function regulating the climate.
“We need minerals to succeed with the green transition,” Norway’s Petroleum and Energy Minister Terje Aasland insisted in a statement announcing the government’s proposal.
The seabed on the country’s continental shelf is believed to contain large deposits of minerals, including the possibility of rare earth minerals.
“Seabed minerals can become a source of access to important metals, and no other country has a better basis to lead the way… when it comes to managing such resources in a sustainable and responsible way,” Aasland said.
Often considered a champion of the environment, Norway is also Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer.
The government said extraction would “only be permitted if the industry can demonstrate that it can be done in a sustainable and responsible manner.”
Aasland said the minerals needed for the green transition were “today controlled by few countries, something that makes us vulnerable”.
China is currently the world’s largest producer of rare earths, a group of 17 heavy metals that are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust.
Mining the metals requires heavy chemical use that results in huge amounts of toxic waste and has caused several environmental disasters, making many countries wary of shouldering the heavy financial costs for production.
Rare earths are used in industry and can be found in a wide variety of both everyday and high-tech devices, from light bulbs to guided missiles.
Norway’s announcement came a day after UN member states adopted the first treaty establishing a legal framework to extend swathes of environmental protections to international waters, which make up more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans.
Norwegian environmental organisation Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) told AFP it was “really disappointed in the Norwegian government”.
“We don’t have enough research to know the full environmental impacts,” said Gytis Blazevicius, the group’s deputy head.
“We can’t build a sustainable industry, a sustainable society, continuing with the same ‘business as usual’ mindset, doing exactly the same as what made the society we live in now unsustainable,” Blazevicius said.
But the head of the University of Alaska’s Center for Arctic Security and Resilience downplayed the risks.
“I think localised sea-bed mining will have a relatively minor impact to ecosystems if done responsibly,” Troy Bouffard told AFP, adding that the impact of global warming on maritime ecosystems “is the more urgent problem.”
“I absolutely believe that Norway should help lead the world into seabed mining if such production is the foregone conclusion,” he added.
Bouffard cited Norway’s “rare and effective model” for the oil and gas sector “that removes private-sector pressure to exploit gaps in pursuit of maximum profits.”
“If seabed mining grows into a large-scale, world-wide practice, then early development of effective practices is critical to preventing avoidable problems that are part of the immediate and ongoing debate,” Bouffard said.
© Agence France-Presse