European anger over deep-sea mining push despite urge for energy independence from China, Russia

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Norway’s push to start deep-sea mining in its territorial waters has created a massive rift in the European Parliament as lawmakers debated the policy and whether to intercede. 

“The truth is that we are getting our supplies currently from China, Russia and Congo for all these minerals that we need,” Tom Berendsen, a Dutch Member of European Parliament (MEP) for the European People’s Party, argued in favor of the policy. 

“The supply chain is unstable, and the working conditions and environmental requirements in those countries are not up to our standards,” Berendsen continued. “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.”

Norway’s government last week passed a bill that will make it the first country in the world to implement the controversial practice of commercial deep-sea mining. 

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The bill mainly empowers Norwegian companies to determine mining opportunities in the country’s territorial waters. Exploration of international waters has already occurred in some cases, but no country has pursued meaningful efforts to actually pursue proper mining operations until now. 

Companies will use heavy machinery to scrape the nearby Arctic seabed for metals and minerals, such as magnesium, niobium and cobalt – vital materials in some industrial processes – according to Sky News. 

Anti-mining protests Norway

(L-R) Norwegian member of Parliament Arild Hermstad, French climate activists Camille Etienne and Anne-Sophie Roux, and French actor Lucas Bravo attend a demonstration against seabed mining outside the Norwegian Parliament building in Oslo, Norway on January 9, 2024.  (Javad Parsa/NTB/AFP via Getty Images)

The process could also yield significant amounts of copper and nickel, which also prove useful in the production of clean technologies such as car batteries, semiconductors and solar panels, according to Euronews. 

The decision met with significant backlash from environmentalists and conservationists, and many in the European Parliament have been left scratching their heads over how the policy passed without significant support from the scientific community. 

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“How has this proposal been approved when 800 scientists oppose it, and when the Norwegian Environmental Agency has given a negative opinion?” César Luena, a Spanish MEP for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), asked.

Luena demanded that the European Union – of which Norway is not a member – must “act now” to protect the seabed. Anti-drilling MEPs argue that Norway’s decision potentially breaches its obligations under the United Nations High Seas Treaty, the Paris Agreement and OSPAR Convention on the protection of the marine environment. 

European Parliament drilling

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate on the conclusions of the December 14-15, 2023 European Council and preparations for the extraordinary European Council scheduled for February 1, 2024, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on January 17, 2024. (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

Right-wing lawmakers in the European Parliament have accused their left-wing counterparts of “hypocrisy” for opposing efforts to continue developing resource independence from nations like China and Russia, who remain powerful players in the energy space. 

The European Commission and Parliament have urged the international community to support a moratorium on deep-sea mining until governments and the scientific community can better inform about the process and dangers of operations. 

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In a parliamentary question submitted in March 2023, Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan from the European Green Party asked if the commission had any evidence of “environmentally friendly” underwater mining technologies and a summary of research demonstrating “no harmful effects” from mining. 

O’Sullivan has remained one of the most ardent opponents of deep-sea mining, writing op-eds in local papers and championing any support for the moratorium, including when French President Emmanuel Macron at COP 27 called for a ban on current operations even as he remained open to continued exploration of its potential. 

Norway Parliament energy

Campaigners demonstrate by setting up several lavvu tipis at an intersection in Karl Johans gate in central Oslo, Norway, close to the Norwegian Parliament, on October 11, 2023, two years since the so-called Fosen judgment concerning wind power plants on the Sami Fosen peninsula was handed down. Norway’s highest court, the Norwegian Supreme Court, had unanimously ruled in 2021 that the expropriation of reindeer hearding land and operating permits for the construction of 151 wind turbines were invalid. However, they gave no guidance on what should be done with the turbines, which were already in operation. Two years after the judgement, the wind turbines are still in operation. An indigenous minority of around 100,000 people spread over the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, the Sami have traditionally lived off reindeer herding and fishing.  (Javad Parsa/NTB/AFP via Getty Images)

Norway’s decision is part of its effort to boost drilling operations in the Arctic waters, raising concerns about territorial disputes. Oslo approved stakes in 62 offshore oil and gas exploration licenses to 24 energy companies, including state-controlled Equinor, Reuters reported. 

The number of awarded licenses and stakes increased by 50% over those awarded in 2023, though the number of companies involved in the process remained the same. 

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The increase involved drilling permits in the Arctic Barents Sea and the adjacent Norwegian Sea, the country’s energy minister told a conference.

“Last year I asked companies to look more closely at Barents Sea opportunities… this award shows that more companies have responded positively and are taking responsibility,” Minister of Energy Terje Aasland said.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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