There is a debate about the viability and sustainability of marine mining. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The environmental dilemma of marine mining

Norway has a reputation for environmental leadership, but its decision to approve seabed mining exploration has drawn widespread criticism. Much of the scientific community warns that the practice will lead to the destruction of ecosystems.



In early January 2024, Norway became the first country in the world to approve seabed mining exploration. The aim is to accelerate the search for metals and minerals essential to the green technology industry. This decision has disappointed many scientists and environmental organisations who believe that it will irreversibly damage biodiversity and ecosystems.


Extracting metals and minerals from the seabed


Deep-sea mining is the practice of extracting metals and minerals from the seabed. "The world needs minerals in the transition to a low-emission society," says the Norwegian government. The vote in Norway opens the door to "sustainable and responsible" exploration in an area of 281,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Italy. Commercial-scale mining will require a further parliamentary vote.

Astrid Bergmål, state secretary at the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, told the scientific journal Nature that the vote "does not mean extraction starts" immediately. "We have to collect more information before we can take a decision about extracting these minerals. That is what this opening is all about. It is not the same as approving extraction," Norwegian Energy Minister Terje Aasland told CNBC.

Maria Varteressian, Norway's deputy foreign minister, agrees: "Minerals will be a critical component in the new energy systems so the main question is not whether we need the minerals or not, the important question is can we produce them in a sustainable way." Several scientists have criticised the Norwegian government's decision, pointing out that it goes against the advice of the Norwegian Environment Agency, the scientific advisors of the Ocean Panel and other researchers.


Norway is looking for ways to obtain essential minerals for manufacturing batteries and green technologies. Credit: France 24 English


An "irresponsible" decision for the planet


"Researchers are both baffled and deflated by the decision," says an editorial published in NatureSome experts point out that too much is still unknown about deep-sea ecosystems. They believe that exploiting them without a full understanding of their fragility could have devastating consequences.

Anne-Sophie Roux, European deep-sea mining lead at the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, considers Norway's decision "irresponsible" and "puts a nail in the coffin" of the country's proclaimed role as a climate leader. "The goal of any exploration activities should be to better understand the scale of the environmental threats deep-sea mining poses—not to justify a practice we know will have vast negative impacts on marine life and the planet’s health," she told CNBC.

The argument that deep sea mining can be done sustainably goes against the broad consensus of the scientific literature, according to the expert: "There is no way to sustainably mine the deep sea in our current day and age, as it would inevitably lead to ecosystem destruction, species extinction, various sources of pollution and disruption of the climate ecosystemic services of the ocean."


Deep-sea mining is the practice of extracting metals and minerals from the seafloor. Credit: MIT Mechanical Engineering


The uncertain future of deep-sea mining


In addition to the fact that deep-sea mining can cause irreversible damage to biodiversity and ecosystems, it can also affect the fishing industry, create sediment plumes, damage the seabed and increase pollution. Several scientists also question the arguments that such mining will boost Norway’s economy, and that land-based supplies of metals such as manganese and cobalt (which are used in batteries and other electronics) are insufficient to support the transition to a low-carbon economy.

While Norway has a reputation for environmental leadership, its stance on environmental mining has drawn sharp criticism from much of the scientific community. "Norway’s about-face isn’t just a setback for the country’s sustainability efforts; it undermines the progress and the credibility of the Ocean Panel [a global alliance of national leaders that aims to promote the sustainable use of the oceans]," says the Nature editorial. It remains to be seen whether the government will allow deep-sea mining to move beyond the exploration phase and whether it becomes an important part of the Norwegian economy.


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