The Norwegian Parliament voted on Tuesday to authorize the opening of parts of the Norwegian Sea to seabed mining exploration, a move that reflects rising international demand for the metals needed to build batteries for electric vehicles worldwide.
The decision clears the way for prospectors to look for seabed deposits between Norway and Greenland, mostly above the Arctic Circle, in areas under Norway’s national jurisdiction.
Proposals for mining exploration in both international waters and coastal areas like those off Norway have encountered stiff opposition from environmentalists who say that not enough is known about the life at the bottom of sea to authorize mining.
Initially, the work in Norway will involve collecting information about the amount of metals in the seabed and what harm large-scale mining might cause to aquatic life.
The Parliament would have to consider the plan again before industrial-scale seabed mining would be allowed to start.
Norway joins a growing list of nations — including Japan, New Zealand, Namibia and the Cook Islands in the South Pacific — that in recent years have either considered or taken steps toward seabed mining.
Separately, a United Nations-affiliated agency known as the International Seabed Authority is drafting regulations that could eventually allow seabed mining in international waters in parts of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.
The authority has spent a decade trying to finalize rules for international waters. While that debate continues, nations can decide on their own whether to authorize mining in the coastal areas they control.
Norway has long derived much of its wealth from the sea, initially from fishing and, in more recent decades, from large-scale offshore oil drilling, with the oil industry generating so much revenue since the 1960s that Norway is now one of the richest nations in the world.
But officials know that, given global concerns about climate change and a shift away from fossil fuels, oil will eventually begin to decline as a revenue source. So, they are looking for new ways to sustain the Norway’s economy, again from the sea.
“Extraction of seabed minerals has potential to become a new and important marine industry,” said a report issued last year by the Norwegian Ministry of Energy, which changed its name as of January from the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, reflecting this shift.
Some academics, scientists and environmental groups in Norway have challenged the plan.
“The ocean is vitally important for our survival on this plant,” said Kaja Loenne Fjaertoft, a marine biologist from Norway with the World Wildlife Foundation, which is working to block seabed mining around the world. “Risking ocean health is gambling our future.”
Environmentalists also say that battery chemistry is rapidly changing, and soon carmakers might not need some of the metals Norway is targeting.
Seabed mining in Norway would take place inside an 108,000-square-mile expanse of the Norwegian Sea reaching up toward the Barents Sea in waters between Norway and Greenland, according to the government report on the plan.
The mining contractors would use remotely operated equipment to reach the seabed and then bring up so-called sulphide deposits, which are formed by underwater volcanoes and contain copper, zinc and even small amounts of gold, silver and cobalt, which is a key ingredient in many electric vehicle batteries.
Some major oil industry players like Equinor, the company in which Norway holds a majority stake, have expressed skepticism. Equinor said in a statement last year that it “recognizes the potential for environmental risk associated with exploration and extraction of minerals on the seabed.”
Terje Aasland, Norway’s energy minister, said in a statement that he remained confident that this new effort could succeed as long as it makes economic sense, which will depend in part on the amount of metals the companies find when they begin extraction.
But the Ministry of Energy has also said it would only move to allow mining if it could be documented that extraction can be done in a “reliable and responsible manner.” Mining will also not be allowed in areas where there are active undersea volcanic vents, which are considered especially sensitive.
“I strongly believe that our seabed mineral resources can be extracted sustainably and responsibly, as long as they are profitable to recover,” Mr. Aasland said in a statement.
Contractors working with the International Seabed Authority still have a head start, because they have spent years doing the kind of exploration work that Norway has now authorized, mostly in a part of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
The Metals Company, a seabed mining start-up based in Canada, is the farthest along. It completed a test mining effort in late 2022, extracting over 3,000 tons of seabed rocks. The company plans to apply this year to the Seabed Authority for permission to start industrial-scale mining.
But it remains unclear whether or when that might be approved, as environmentalists continue to press the agency to delay and regulations still have not been finalized.
Among nations considering seabed mining along their coasts, Japan and the Cook Islands are the closest to starting. Japan has already conducted a test collection and even moved to create battery metals from some of the materials it lifted from the ocean floor.
The Japanese government has built its first seabed mining collection ship and said in November that it intended to commence industrial-scale seabed mining before the end of this decade. The area it is targeting has “enough cobalt to meet Japan’s demand for 88 years and enough nickel to meet Japan’s demand for 12 years,” the government said.