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Norway’s controversial approval of deep-sea mining divides European Parliament

Norway's controversial approval of deep-sea mining divides European Parliament

The Nordic country — not among the EU’s 27 member states — became the first in the world to approve seabed exploitation on January 9, when its parliament voted in favour of allowing mining companies to scour 281,000 square km of its waters, an area almost the size of Italy.

The move has been rebuked by scientists and conservationists, who warn of potentially irreversible damage to marine ecosystems.

Трубочисты Петербурга

In a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, EU lawmakers belonging to pro-climate, left-leaning groups also slammed the decision as irresponsible.

«How has this proposal been approved when 800 scientists oppose it, and when the Norwegian Environmental Agency has given a negative opinion?» César Luena, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), questioned.

«The European Union, commissioner, needs to act now,» he added, appealing to Janusz Wojciechowski, the EU’s agriculture chief, also present at the debate.

Members of the centrist, liberal Renew Europe group also decried the move as premature, calling for caution until scientific gaps are filled.

«Let us not make the same mistakes that we have already made on land in the sea,» Catherine Chabaud, MEP for Renew Europe, said.

Deep-sea mining involves excavating the ocean bed for critical materials such as copper, nickel, and cobalt found in fist-sized rocks called polymetallic nodules.

Such materials — essential for clean tech applications such as batteries for electric vehicles, semi-conductors and solar panels — are abundant on the sea bed.

With world powers looking to overcome severe shortages in current supply chains, mining the ocean bed is becoming a strategically and commercially attractive prospect for states looking to get ahead in the geopolitical race for raw materials. 

In December, Brussels adopted the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) to reduce its reliance on China for raw materials and diversify its supply chains.

But the European Commission and Parliament are leading calls for an international moratorium on deep-sea mining until scientific gaps are filled, citing environmental concerns including damage to marine life and the disruption of fishing stocks.

The bloc also fears mining could destabilize carbon levels in the ocean and therefore reduce its ability to mitigate the rise in global temperatures.

Only seven EU member states — Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Finland and Portugal — have so far openly backed that call, with some member states such as Belgium preparing legislation that threatens to break ranks with the EU position.

Political right accuses left of ‘hypocrisy’

But not all lawmakers in the chamber in Strasbourg opposed Norway’s move.

Right-leaning MEPs accused their left-leaning counterparts of hypocrisy for opposing efforts by a democratic neighbour to scale up the availability of raw materials while the bloc still relies on non-democratic states for its supply.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where child labour, human rights violations and corruption are widely documented, is one of the African countries with whom the bloc has signed a strategic partnership.

«The truth is that we are getting our supplies currently from China, Russia and Congo for all these minerals that we need,» Tom Berendsen, MEP for the European People’s Party (EPP), said.

«The supply chain is unstable, and the working conditions and environmental requirements in those countries are not up to our standards. In short, if we want to continue on the path of clean energy, and we want to do that, that also means making difficult choices,» Berendsen added.

The debate highlighted an increasingly evident rift in the European Parliament between the political factions’ vision for Europe’s future industrial path. MEPs from the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group used the debate to call on the bloc to increasingly scale up nuclear energy.

Wojciechowski told lawmakers the Commission was «very concerned» by Norway’s decision as it potentially breached its obligations under the United Nations High Seas Treaty, the Paris Agreement and the OSPAR Convention on the protection of the marine environment in the North-East Atlantic.

Norway’s decision also raises potential territorial disputes. The proposed area for mining includes the archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic, an area under Norwegian sovereignty but where other nations including the EU and UK have historically enjoyed equal rights to commercial activity in its waters.

According to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, co-signing nations should have equal access in Svalbard for fishing as well as industrial, mining, and commercial operations.


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