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16/04/2024
Mining News

Navigating the challenges of Europe’s rare earth mining

The European Union’s pursuit of “strategic autonomy” has gained prominence following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, shedding light on the EU’s reliance on autocratic regimes for fossil energy. However, the planned green transition under the European Green Deal presents similar challenges, particularly in the context of rare earths and other minerals, where China dominates the supply chain.

Rare earths are vital for emerging technologies, including renewable energies, electronics, and advanced military applications. This has led to an unprecedented surge in “domestic” mining across Europe, sparking questions about local democracy and the equitable distribution of costs and benefits associated with extractive activities.

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The experiences of Ulefoss, a small village in southern Norway, offer a glimpse into the complexities faced by many European communities. Positioned atop one of Europe’s largest rare-earth deposits, Ulefoss grapples with competing interests—urgent geopolitical demands and profit-driven mining conglomerates—while seeking to shape its local future.

The prospect of hosting Europe’s largest rare-earths mine brings potential benefits such as local value creation, job opportunities, population growth, and increased tax revenue for public services. However, historical instances of failed industrial “booms” and unfulfilling community benefits elsewhere raise concerns about the actual impact on Ulefoss.

Ulefoss faces a significant challenge in aligning its local expertise and workforce with the skills required for what the Norwegian government hails as “the world’s most sustainable mineral industry.” The need for approximately 300 people to operate the fully automated underground mine poses a dilemma, as these workers may need to come from outside the community.

Environmental concerns add another layer of complexity to mining endeavors. Despite promises of a “clean mine,” the reality is that negative environmental impacts are challenging to avoid. Ulefoss, in particular, grapples with the presence of radioactive thorium alongside rare-earth elements, necessitating safe mining and disposal practices.

Technologically advanced mines, like the one planned for Ulefoss, have higher energy demands. Initial estimates suggest an annual consumption of at least two terawatt hours, nearly 1% of Norway’s total energy consumption. The reliance on wind, solar, or hydropower for this “clean mine” would require extensive land use, triggering protests against the extensive development of renewable-energy infrastructure.

As Europe grapples with increasing geopolitical tensions, achieving strategic autonomy becomes imperative. Key mining projects, including Ulefoss, are fast-tracked, adding further complexity to the situation. The success of Ulefoss in realizing local benefits and mitigating environmental and social costs hinges on a transparent and participatory process, allowing the community sufficient time and opportunities for input and negotiation.

As Europe rushes to develop its mineral resources, there is a genuine risk of national and international pressures sidelining the interests of local communities. The experiences of the global south highlight the potential for negative social and ecological impacts when large-scale extraction collides with modest administrative structures.

The commitment to a ‘just transition’ embedded in the European Green Deal is crucial. However, its application should extend beyond fossil-fuel closures, guiding the development of new industrial frontiers, regardless of their perceived strategic importance or urgency. The clarity and boldness of just-transition claims will shape how Europe respects its commitment amid the evolving landscape of mineral extraction.

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