The environmental push across Europe has whetted its appetite for certain resources. As much-touted electric cars require more critical minerals, this results in an ideological conundrum, where potentially harmful mining and production have to be scaled up, ostensibly for the sake of the environment.
The Rönnbäcken mine in Västerbotten County, which ranks as Sweden’s largest deposit of cobalt and nickel, among the largest of its kind in entire Europe, may play a key role as the EU wants to ramp up own production of minerals needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles and guarantee strategic independence.
While none of these strategic metals is being mined in Sweden today, partly due to environmental concerns and stringent regulations that scare off investors, the directors-general of its Energy Agency, its Environmental Protection Agency and its Geological Survey have penned a joint government report claiming that it is “of great importance to scale up the supply of raw materials.”
“The rapid development means a lack of access to raw materials, and strategic independence for the EU is becoming increasingly important based on the geopolitical situation. We therefore need to ensure the availability of the sustainable raw materials needed for battery manufacturing within the EU,” Swedish Geological Survey director general Anneli Wirtén told Swedish media.
The EU’s forecasts indicate that the member states will need up to five times more cobalt to reach international 2030 climate goals. Farther ahead, the needs are expected to grow even faster— with the demand for lithium and cobalt growing 60-fold and 15-fold respectively. Right now, China is one of the largest players in the battery value chain; the EU is one of the largest net importers. More broadly, Europe consumes about a quarter of the world’s raw materials, while only producing 3 percent.
The Rönnbäcken mine has therefore been identified as “one of the most interesting,” yielding the most cobalt per ton of rock. Crucially, the same area is also home to one of Europe’s largest deposits of nickel, yet another key element of the modern-day battery production for the continent’s much-touted “Green shift”. Geographically, the area is close to planned battery factories in Skellefteå (Sweden), Vaasa (Finland) and Mo i Rana (Norway).
In 2012, the company Bluelake Mineral obtained the mining rights for the Rönnbäck deposits. However, it recently estimated that it may take at least five-six years before mining starts in earnest due to massive investigative work, financing issues and environmental permits to be resolved. The mine’s operating cost has been estimated at SEK 10-15 billion ($0.92-1.37 billion).
The plans in Rönnbäcken have previously received a lot of criticism, including from the environmental movement, parts of the local population and the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination, which urged Sweden to withdraw the permit to guarantee the indigenous Sami’s right to influence and way of living, that includes reindeer husbandry.
However, Erika Ingvald of the Swedish Geological Survey called the long bureaucratic process a hindrance for the strategic mining.
“Companies must be able to rely on faster and more transparent permit processes. It must be a clearer kind of documentation the authorities require. The current permit process is problem for Sweden, it scares companies away,” Ingvald told Swedish media.
As the so-called “Green transition” intensifies, so does the need for more resources. In its final months, Sweden’s previous Social Democrat government voiced plans to review the Minerals Act to enable more mines in the country that aims to become the world’s first fossil-free country — a course likely to be pursued by the centre-right coalition government led by the Moderates.
However, electric cars and other rechargeable appliances require even more rare-earth metals and critical minerals. This, in turn, results in an ideological conundrum, where potentially harmful mining and production have to be scaled up, allegedly for the sake of the environment.