The sector of Marine non-living resources is crucial to the Blue Economy. For many years, the industry has played a critical role in ensuring that the European economy has access to energy and raw materials. However fora decade, the mature offshore oil and gas sector has been in decline, in line with the net-zero emission targets and decarbonisation objectives of the EU. Nonetheless, it is expected that oceanographic research, the exploration of ocean resources, the exploitation of sources of energy and the extraction of raw materials from Europe’s seas and oceans will play a crucial role in the transition to a sustainable Blue Economy, particularly in terms of enabling the development and large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies.
The extraction of oil and gas and other minerals (including gravel, sandpits, clays, kaolin, and salt), and their support activities, are all part of the Marine non-living resources industry.
Offshore production in the North Sea is mainly driven by Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland. Due to declining production levels, rising production costs, and the European Green Deal's drive toward renewable energy, the mature offshore gas and oil sector has suffered a downturn in recent years.
At the same time, the prices of other minerals are rising. The transition to a sustainable Blue Economy depends on the supply of the raw materials needed to develop the low-carbon technologies, which in turn will help reduce the impact on the marine environment, and mitigate climate change. Rather than mining, Europe's activity is mainly focused on exploiting marine aggregates. More than 50 million m3 of marine aggregates, chiefly sand and gravel, are collected from the European marine seabed each year, primarily for use in the building sector, beach filling, and sea defence work (i.e., to safeguard dunes, beaches, coastal areas and islands). The Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Belgium were the top EU aggregate extractor countries in 2018.
In 2020, the GVA generated by the sector amounted to EUR 2.8 billion, corresponding to approximately one fourth of the GVA registered in 2009 (€11.2 billion). Since 2019, turnover registered a 28% decrease (€9.4 billion), while gross profits shrunk by 49% (€1.9 billion) and GVA contracted by 40%.
The sector also employed 9 490 people in 2020, 5.6% less than in 2019 or less than one fourth of those employed in 2009. Since personnel costs dropped by 40% in total, the annual average gross wage more than doubled compared to 2009, reaching EUR 92 375.
Like most sectors of the economy, the marine non-living resources sector has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result between 2019 and 2020, the sector’s turnover contracted by 28% and its GVA by 40%. But the pandemic has only worsened an already clear declining trend triggered by the climate, biodiversity, environmental and international ocean governance commitments taken by the EU over the past decade.
Most of the offshore extraction fields are mature, with declining production and rising costs. Therefore, domestic production in Europe is set to decline even further. As installations reach the end of their lifecycle, decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure is increasing. Decommissioning is also expected to accelerate due to the shift from fossil fuels to renewable and low-carbon energy sources. Nearly 200 platforms, 940 wells and 389 000 tonnes of topsides and sub-sea structures are expected to be decommissioned in the EU-27 by 2030, at an estimated cost of €4.8 billion.
There is a broad consensus in the scientific community that knowledge related to deep-sea environments and the impacts of mining are not comprehensive enough to enable evidence-based decision-making to allow for proceeding safely with exploitation. Impacts include direct biodiversity loss, contamination of commercially relevant species, noise pollution, disruption of important ecological processes such as ocean carbon sequestration, etc. .
Against this backdrop, the EU confirmed in June 2022 that it would continue to advocate that the exploitation of marine minerals in the seabed and ocean floor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction should not start before the following conditions are met:
i) sufficient scientific knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems and the potential effects of mining on marine ecosystems and their services is available;
ii) adequate provisions for the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects of mining activities are in place in line with the precautionary principle and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS);
iii) it can be demonstrated that no harmful effects arise from mining technologies and operational practices.
Furthermore the EU will continue to contributing to the negotiations of the exploitation regulations at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to achieve a robust framework for marine environment protection, including standards and guidelines for threshold values and normative standards. In parallel, the EU is supporting research to improve knowledge on deep sea ecosystems and on monitoring and supervising technologies.