EU Policy. Oslo defends seabed mining plans amid concerns over environmental impact

Norwegian foreign ministry state secretary Maria Varteressian speaks at a Belgian government event to promote the United Nations' new High Seas Treaty on biodiversity.
Norwegian foreign ministry state secretary Maria Varteressian speaks at a Belgian government event to promote the United Nations' new High Seas Treaty on biodiversity. Copyright THOMAS BLAIRON/PIXELSHAKE SPRL / Belgian Presidency
Copyright THOMAS BLAIRON/PIXELSHAKE SPRL / Belgian Presidency
By Robert Hodgson
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Norway has declared its full support for a UN treaty to protect marine biodiversity in the high seas, despite drawing fire over plans to open up swathes of its own territorial waters to exploration for critical raw materials, potentially a step towards granting seabed mining concessions.


Norway will not go ahead with plans to permit seabed mining of critical raw materials on its continental shelf if initial exploration suggests it cannot be done sustainably, a foreign ministry official told Euronews, as the European Commission prepares to sign a bilateral agreement with the Scandinavian state on the sought-after materials.

State secretary Maria Varteressian affirmed Oslo’s support and intention to quickly ratify the United Nations Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Treaty, also known as the High Seas Treaty, at an event in Brussels on Thursday (7 March).

Norway attracted sharp criticism earlier this year over its decision to open up swathes of its extensive territorial waters to exploration for critical raw materials, a potential step towards mining the seabed for what EU markets commissioner Thierry Breton is not alone in characterising as the “new oil”.

Elements such as lithium and cobalt are used in electric car batteries and other technologies essential to the ongoing shift from fossil-fuel based energy system, while rare earth metals are crucial for anything from making smartphones to advanced medical equipment.

But critics of seabed mining have warned of the potentially devastating impact on marine ecosystems. The European Parliament adopted in February a resolution expressing “concerns” over the decision of the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, to open up 281,200 square kilometres of its Arctic continental shelf to commercial exploration.

MEPs repeated an earlier call for the European Commission and EU governments to back a moratorium on deep-sea mining, a move supported by a growing list of countries in Europe and around the world.

“Nothing has started yet, and that's very important to underline,” Varteressian told Euronews, dismissing the suggestion that Norway’s domestic policy might be at odds with its international stance on marine protection.

“No seabed mining activity has started,” Verteressian said. “There are no bulldozers on the Norwegian seabed and we take our responsibility, and also our reputation as a sustainable ocean nation, very seriously.” The foreign ministry official cited “huge knowledge gaps”, related for example to the potential impact on marine life, as one reason no licences have been granted.

Moreover – as the European Parliament acknowledged in its resolution – Norway will not give any mining firms the green light without a further vote in the Storting. “From the Norwegian side, if it cannot be done sustainably, the parliament will say no – that's the way the whole process has been planned," the state secretary said.

The EU has recognised the need to secure supplies of elements essential to its green ambitions while also reducing a geopolitically risky dependence on major suppliers like China or Russia, and last year negotiated a Critical Raw Materials Act to address these concerns. In parallel, the European Commission has been avidly signing bilateral partnership deals on sustainable raw materials supply, from Canada first to Rwanda just last month.

On 4 March, EU ministers approved the text of what will be the eleventh such memorandum of understanding, to be signed with Norway in the coming weeks. But several governments clearly share the parliament’s concerns over Norway’s undersea mining aspirations, and demanded the agreement be limited to “land-based” operations.

“Some member states’ delegates requested assurances to the commission that the bilateral memorandum of understanding did not include deep seabed mining,” an EU Council source told Euronews, without naming those concerned.

The issue has gained traction in recent years as demand for raw materials increases and pressure to exploit an essentially untapped resources intensifies. After initial vacillation, France has come out in favour of a ban on deep-sea mining, while Germany, Spain and Sweden are among other EU member states who have called for a moratorium or ‘precautionary pause’.

But with global supplies of critical raw materials already becoming a serious geopolitical issue as the world’s major economies compete for a share of the growing clean tech market, Norway apparently believes a degree of pragmatism is needed.

“We need to have an honest discussion about what it will take to succeed with the green transition. There will be a need to transform energy systems…and we must have an honest discussion about what components need to be a part of the value chains which are being created."

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