Norway reveals plans to switch from oil to subsea metals

Norway, one of the wealthiest countries in the world due to its oil and gas reserves, is looking to transition to deep-sea mining for copper, zinc, and other metals in high demand in green technologies.

According to Reuters, Norway could license companies for deep-sea mining as early as 2023 potentially placing it among the first countries to harvest seabed metals for electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and solar farms.

The country’s government announced on Tuesday that it started preparations for an environmental impact study needed to open areas for seabed mineral exploration and production.

Sulphide field on the seabed (Photo: Norwegian Petroleum Directorate)

This follows three years of expeditions by the Norwegian Petroleum Directory which found deep-sea deposits of copper, zinc, cobalt, gold, and silver.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) researchers have estimated that there could be up to 21.7 million tonnes of copper – more than the world’s copper output in 2019 – and 22.7 million tonnes of zinc on the Norwegian continental shelf. Mean estimates, however, are far lower at 6.9 million and 7.1 million tonnes, respectively.

The expeditions also discovered high concentrations of lithium and the rare earth metal scandium used in electronics and alloys in manganese crusts which grow on bedrock.

Norway has mapped these deposits along the mid-Atlantic Ridge between Jan Mayen Island and the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian Sea as far as 700 kilometres offshore.

“Copper mining inside Norway’s jurisdiction will probably never replace extraction onshore, but …it can be an important contributor in meeting future global demand. Deep-sea mining might also change the geopolitical climate”, NTNU Associate Professor Steinar Loeve Ellefmo told Reuters.

The government plans public consultations on its environmental impact assessment and a proposal for opening areas for exploration and production by the end of 2022 followed by debate and a vote in parliament in the second quarter of 2023.

“Were parliament to decide to open up, exploration licences could be issued – possibly in the second half of 2023 or in 2024. We are moving forward on this, and the momentum is high. This is an industry with great potential”, Norway’s Petroleum and Energy Minister Tina Bru told the media outlet.

It is worth noting that Japan has similar plans but its project with private firms is not expected to begin sometime between 2026 and 2028.

Some have expressed their concerns regarding seabed mining. Environmentalists including Britain’s David Attenborough have called for a moratorium on deep-seabed mining until more is known about species living on the seabed and the potential impact on them. Others include Greenpeace and Ocean Panel.

In response, Bru said she believed that Norway would be able to do this sustainably, but step by step, which was a key success factor for developing the country’s oil and gas industry.

Norway to pivot from oil

Oil and gas is the main reason for Norway’s wealth, but the country is keen to find alternatives to gradually replace its top industry and to play its role in greener energy and the growth it offers.

Deep-sea mining could generate up to $20 billion in annual revenue for Norway towards 2050 – compared to around $61 billion from oil and gas in 2019 – and create about 20,000 jobs, Rystad Energy estimated.

We will need to design from scratch the production system, but the basic elements are there. It will be a mixture of mining and petroleum technology”, Seabird executive chairman Staale Rodahl stated.

Walter Sognnes, chief executive of start-up LOKE Marine Minerals and a former co-founder of several oil firms, stated: “It sounds fantastic to go deep for minerals, but remember what the oil and gas industry has achieved over the last 50 years, and you can stand on the shoulders of it”.

To remind, the Government of Norway earlier this week revealed plans to increase its national tax on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions more than threefold by 2030 to help it reach its climate goals.

During the presentation of the Government’s “Climate plan 2021-30” last Friday that the cost of emissions would be raised to 2,000 Norwegian crowns ($237) per tonne by 2030 from 590 crowns for most industries at present.

This is another point which reinforces the fact that Norway is looking to push away from oil and become net-zero sooner rather than later.

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