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Researchers warn: The time is definitely not yet ripe to start deep sea mining
The Norwegian government has proposed opening an area of the continental shelf to deep sea mining. Researchers say we have much to learn before Norway can decide if this can become a viable industry.
On June 20th, the Norwegian government presented its plans for commercial seabed mineral mining on the Norwegian continental shelf (press release).
Research groups at NTNU have been working on this topic for more than a decade.
Interdisciplinary research teams have looked at technological, geological, social, ethical, and environmental aspects through the NTNU Oceans pilot programme on deep-sea mining, among others.
Technologies have not undergone full-scale testing
This research project is headed by Professor Steinar Løve Ellefmo. He has the following comments on the government’s plans:
“Society needs minerals. Deep-sea mineral mining must be regarded as a source along with recycling and reuse, reduced consumption, and onshore mineral mining. This is the best way to ensure coordinated, holistic management of our mineral resources."
The Professor argues that the time is more than ripe to find out whether underwater mineral mining can be done responsibly. This is something the researchers have been working on for many years, and this work should continue.
"Allowing mineral activities on the Norwegian continental shelf will also increase the opportunities for collecting the data we need for good decision-making in the future about whether to go ahead with mining," he says.
The researcher explains that numerous technological concepts have been proposed, but none of the technologies have undergone full-scale testing. Work is now being done on this, and opening Norwegian waters for mineral activities will enable the necessary testing of both mining technologies and environmental monitoring technologies.
Norway has years of experience
Ellefmo says that Norway has many years of experience in marine operations. Over the decades, we have developed a sound resource management system with strict environmental legislation.
Prior to any start-up of operations and extraction, there will be a need to collect additional data to characterise deep-sea ecosystems and geological structures, as well as to describe and assess possible consequences of deep-sea mining.
"By taking these necessary management steps, Norway will be in a good position to demonstrate what responsible management of mineral resources on the seabed actually entails," he says.
NTNU has been working interdiscipinarily on marine mineral extraction for several years. The researchers will continue their work through projects such as the research project TripleDeep - The Deep Dilemmas: Deep Sea Mining for the new Deep Transition.
He believes that NTNU will be able to contribute valuable knowledge and expertise in connection with any award of mining licences.
Concerned about political haste
The main objective of the TripleDeep project is to investigate whether deep-sea mining can be developed as a new source of critically important minerals in a sustainable way.
The TripleDeep group is a multidisciplinary team consisting of historians, marine biologists, economists, geologists, and engineers, including Ellefmo.
The research project is headed by Professor Mats Ingulstad. Here’s what he had to say about the government’s decision to allow deep sea mineral mining:
“The TripleDeep project is still relatively young, and we consequently can’t give any clear answers as to whether seabed mining can be carried out in a sustainable way."
He adds that the issues are too broad and complex, and the knowledge gaps are still too great.
"What worries me personally, as someone who researches the political economy of natural resources, is that the government has not taken this complexity seriously enough. The political haste and Norway’s decision to do it alone are incompatible with the precautionary principle," he says.
We do not know enough
Ingulstad believes that there is also a lack of recognition that environmental problems and their solutions require a broader approach with extensive international collaboration on research and resource management.
"Not only do we currently know far too little about the conditions at the bottom of the ocean, we also know nothing about how this industry might affect us on land. What new vulnerabilities might this kind of mining unleash, in terms of environmental impacts, in value chains, and in international politics, for Norway and for the rest of the world?" he asks.
He explains that Norway is often referred to as having a great deal of experiences in making money from commercial activities at sea.
Before allowing any commercial operations, it should therefore be a minimum requirement for the government to invest some of the profits from the oil and gas industry, through the Research Council of Norway or other channels, to ensure a proper knowlegde foundation.
Now is not the time to start mining
"The fact that there is uncertainty about the relevance of a rent tax is just one of many indications that we lack both hard knowledge and political understanding," Ingulstad says.
He believes that much more research is needed here with a broad approach. If history can teach us anything, it is that opening up new types of industries in unknown waters creates a multitude of unforeseen challenges. In such cases, it is important to be prepared, and we are not today.
“The overall verdict from NTNU’s experts on the government’s public consultation is that there is so much uncertainty, especially in terms of the potential effects on ecosystems, that now is definitely not the time to start mining, and perhaps not even to allow commercial exploration as is currently being done,” says Siri Granum Carson, director of NTNU Oceans.
Formed by underwater volcanoes
Minerals on the seabed are found along the ridges where the tectonic plates meet in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These are areas with high volcanic activity, most of which takes place at depths of several thousand metres.
Where the Earth’s crust has split open and forsm openings, seawater seeps several kilometres down into the Earth’s interior. In geology, this process is called hydrothermal activity.
This water is heated up to temperatures of about 400 °C by liquid magma, and is then shot up again in an underwater geyser called a hydrothermal vent. The seawater extracts minerals and metals from the crust and brings them up to the seabed. When this superheated water comes into contact with cold water, metals including gold and silver, copper and cobalt, zinc and lead are deposited on the ocean floor.
The minerals we currently mine on land were formed by these same processes. The metal ore deposits in Sulitjelma, Kongsberg, and Røros were submerged under water some 500 million years ago.
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