Following the EU’s recent push for greater autonomy on critical minerals, France has begun preparations for a “major mining inventory” to explore the resources of its subsoil – though experts urge that time is of the essence.
Following the signing of a partnership agreement on critical materials with Australia at the end of September, France on 12 October signed a similar agreement with Mongolia, during a visit to Paris of the country’s President Ukhnaa Khutelsukh on 12 October.
The French Geological Survey (BRGM), which signed the agreement for the French side, declared that this new partnership “should enable the launch of various projects of common interest, enabling Mongolia to better understand and exploit its critical materials resources”.
Following the announcement of the partnership, France and Mongolia launched a satellite exploration project for lithium in Mongolia – a project seen as key for Mongolia and the EU, which is keen to diversify supplies of strategic materials needed for the green transition.
The partnership between France and Mongolia comes amid a fresh EU push for greater autonomy on strategic minerals. In March, the European Commission tabled a proposal for a Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), aiming to decrease the EU’s dependence on China for minerals like rare earths or lithium, which are used in wind turbines and electric cars.
Currently, EU member states are dependent on imports for 75% to 100% of their supply needs in key minerals.
For lithium alone, France would have enough reserves to equip between 700,000 and 950,000 cars with electric batteries every year for several decades, which is just under half of the French government’s annual target to produce two million electric vehicles by 2030.
However, self-sufficiency in lithium alone will not be enough to secure the French and European energy transition – as there are currently 34 minerals on the EU’s list of critical raw materials.
This is why French President Emmanuel Macron announced in September the imminent launch of a “major inventory of mining resources”.
Abundant resources in France
France’s resources include nickel, cobalt, magnesium, copper, tungsten and rare earths, as well as “many minor resources needed to adjust the properties of critical and strategic materials”, Christophe Poinssot, deputy director-general of BRGM, told a press conference in early October.
Echoing Macron’s words, Poinssot also urged policymakers to launch a major mining inventory.
“The last one of its kind dates back to the last century,” he said, noting that the inventory covered only part of the territory and its subsoil without re-examining areas that had already been drilled. “Needs at the time were less acute,” he remarked, with only around 20 minerals sought at the time, compared with some 50 today.
French authorities are currently examining the scope and timeframe of the future inventory. The timetable for the exercise has not yet been defined, but pilot operations have already begun, according to experts at the BRGM, who say “we must be ready to move as quickly as possible”.
However, the time left to reach EU targets is already running out.
In July, Poinssot told Euractiv France that the EU would never be able to achieve the objectives of its CRMA without the rapid launch of new mines.
The inventory alone will take five to six years, he pointed out, saying it would come at a cost of about €100 million.
However, an average of 15 years is needed to pass a mining project through all the necessary stages – from prospection to impact studies, authorisation, and operations – Poinssot said, adding this can take “even 17 years for copper”.
Other European countries further ahead
At the European level, Poinssot was more reassuring, though. “Unlike France, many neighbouring countries have not stopped their mining industry,” he said.
This, combined with greater attention to the environmental and social aspects of mining projects, could ensure that mining returns to Europe sooner than previously expected.
“Nobody can deny the real environmental sensitivity of the Swedes or the Finns, for example. Yet they have succeeded in maintaining and developing mining activity”, Poinssot argues.
To speed things up, the EU’s CRMA plans to support exploration programmes across the EU by requiring member states to update data on national projects once a year.
In 2022, the EU database contained more than 955 projects in 22 countries, covering 26 critical and strategic metals, according to the European Commission, which has been collecting this type of data since 2018.
What’s more, “know-how is shared within EuroGeoSurveys, which brings together the leading forces in Europe”, Poinssot explained.
In other words, the expert believes there is no need to develop an EU service similar to the US Geological Survey, a federal agency which supervises all geological studies in the United States.
“Perhaps it would be better to ask the three largest European observatories of mining resources [France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries] to coordinate their efforts and share their data, rather than recreate a European office ex nihilo,” commented Philippe Varin, a former industrial CEO who, in January 2022, submitted a report to the French government on strategic materials.