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Norway seeks to open vast ocean area to deep-sea mining

Norway’s government is readying plans to open an area of ocean nearly the size of Germany to deep-sea mining as it seeks to become the first country to extract battery metals from its sea floor.

The country’s energy ministry is racing to submit to parliament in the next two weeks a proposal to open the vast area to applications for exploration and extraction. The plan would then face a parliamentary vote in autumn.

But Oslo faces a battle with fishing businesses and environmentalists over the proposals, and risks opening a dispute with other nations as it pushes to enable mining close to Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic. Norway argues it commands exclusive mining rights over a larger area of water there than Russia, the UK and the EU contend it does.

Volcanic springs up to 4,000m deep that surge from the Earth’s crust on faultlines between tectonic plates in the proposed area contain an estimated 38mn tonnes of copper, more than is mined around the world each year.

Amund Vik, state secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, told the Financial Times that deep-sea mining would help Europe meet the “desperate need for more minerals, rare earth materials to make the transition happen”. The government would take a “precautionary approach” on environmental issues, he added.

The fluid that emerges from hydrothermal vents such as those in Norway’s waters also contains other metals used in electric car batteries, including cobalt. Metallic seabed crusts can meanwhile be mined for rare earth metals such as neodymium and dysprosium. These are used to make the magnets in wind turbines and in the engines of electric vehicles, but their supply chain is largely controlled by China.

Of the region earmarked for potential mining, the most contentious part would be the area close to Svalbard. The Svalbard Treaty, which gives Norway sovereignty over the islands, also gives other countries the right to mine on land and in the territorial waters around the archipelago. Russia, the EU and the UK are at odds with Norway over how large an area of water this treaty covers.

Fishing operations are meanwhile concerned that pollution from the mining may taint their catch. Jane Sandell, chief executive of UK Fisheries — whose super trawler Kirkella is one of the last UK fishing vessels to operate so far north — said she was “deeply concerned” about the possibility of toxic heavy metal particles being released.

Sverre Johansen, general secretary of the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association, said Norway’s fishing industry was “not at all impressed” by the proposal. The government says the “conflict potential” is small, given limited fishery activity and ship traffic in the area.

Norway’s environment agency has strongly opposed the plan. It said in a consultation response this year that the proposal violated Norway’s legal framework for seabed exploration by failing to provide enough sustainability data.

It warned of “significant and irreversible consequences for the marine environment” from mining, and argued that volcanic smokers, or hydrothermal vents, should remain untouched and only small areas be opened up to mining.

One problem for the energy ministry is Norway’s claim on the international stage that it is a protector of its oceans, and a source of sustainably sourced fish.

Kaja Loenne Fjaertoft, a marine biologist at the Norwegian branch of the campaign group WWF, said “the government is speaking in two tongues” by defending marine conservation while “bulldozing ahead” with mining plans.

Norwegian prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre, currently co-chair of the Ocean Panel network of world leaders committed to protecting the oceans, told a local newspaper in March that deep-sea mining could be done without harming biodiversity.

Miners operating in other countries including China, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Japan and New Zealand have been exploring how to extract metals from coastal waters. The UN-backed regulator overseeing bids to mine international waters, primarily in the Pacific, is expected to reach a crunch point in negotiations next month.

Egil Tjaland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Forum for Marine Minerals, an industry group, said deep-water was a “speciality” for Norway because of its strong offshore oil and gas base. The group recently held a workshop in Berlin to discuss partnerships between Norwegian and German industry on deep-sea mining.

“If someone gets there first it should be us,” said Walter Sognnes, chief executive of Loke Marine Minerals, which plans to mine Norway’s metallic crusts and recently took on two UK-sponsored exploration contracts in the Pacific. “We are a big fishery nation, we live by the sea, the ocean is our biggest resource . . . We would not be reinventing the wheel.”

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