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.
The regulatory framework remains equally unclear. At the international level, licenses for deep-sea mining operations are granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was funded in 1982 and has its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. To date, the ISA has entered into 15-year contracts with 22 contractors to explore mining zones worldwide and has already awarded its contractors with 31 extraction licences. While international calls for a moratorium are gaining momentum, at the end of the ISA’s final session for 2023 on Wednesday 8th November, the body’s Secretary General Michael Lodge declared that the authority is currently working on a draft set of regulations, which are expected to be finalized by 2025.
Some are still moving ahead
Notwithstanding all risks and uncertainties, some countries are moving ahead with their plans. In 2017, State-run Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp (JOGMEC) successfully conducted the world’s first test involving the excavation and raising of deep-sea minerals to the surface off the coast of Okinawa. Similarly, China extracted resources from the Mariana Trench in 2020. Importantly, in the last decades, Chinese diplomats have been setting the agenda at the ISA, playing a crucial role in defining the rules of the game. As it stands, China holds extracting rights to 92.000 square miles of international seabed, roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Considering that China already dominates minerals supply chains, its potential first-mover advantage in deep-sea mining further threatens the security of European countries. Even more concerning is the potential military advantage that China could gain from using deep-sea materials for modern warfare, as suggested by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) itself.
Within this context, the decision of the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy to go ahead with its plan can be better explained by geopolitical calculations. Starting deep-sea mining in its national waters could place Norway in a leading position internationally, as exemplified for instance by a recent cooperation agreement signed between Norway and the United States, which includes collaboration on energy security and seabed minerals. Seen from the perspective of geopolitics, Norway’s plan to begin deep-sea mining would fit in a long-term policy of exploiting its natural resources to play a pivotal role in the international arena and secure its economy.
Therefore, despite major uncertainties concerning its environmental impact, economic profitability, and regulatory frameworks, preparing for deep-sea exploration would align with the recent push in liberal democracies to reduce reliance on China over critical technologies. It would also reflect the broader geopolitical scenario, where national security and geopolitical calculations have gained more prominence. Tragic events such as the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine raised awareness about the need for European countries to reduce their external reliance in critical supply chains, including the energy sector. Norway’s future policy on the issue of deep-sea mining is informed by the need to secure its energy future in a sustainable and environmentally safe way, while cooperating closely with democratic allies to get ahead in the geopolitical competition for resources.
- Giacomo Bruni is a PhD Researcher at PRIO
- Ilaria Carrozza is a Senior Researcher at PRIO
- This text was published in Norwegian by Klassekampen 30 November 2023: “Geopolitisk spill om havbunnen“