6. Mining in Europe

Despite millennia of mining, Europe still has metal deposits that are feasible for extraction. These include many of the metals that we need for the energy and digital transitions, such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths. Stepping up metal mining and processing within EU borders would increase security of supply. It would also shrink the ecological footprint of our metal consumption, thanks to EU environmental regulations and reduced intercontinental transport.

Still, metal mining comes at a price. Open-pit mining in particular affects biodiversity, which is already in serious decline in Europe. Toxic mining waste may pose a threat to river basins and drinking water resources. Europe has not been spared from the widespread pollution caused by the failure of dams containing muddy mining waste. This is a price many Europeans are unwilling to pay. As a result, new mining projects often provoke civic protest.

Left-overs

One way to minimise the damage is to look at our existing mines, both active and inactive, before creating new scars on the landscape. Current mining practices often cause valuable minerals that are extracted alongside target metals to end up as waste. Unless costs, risks, or laws (1) are prohibitive, mining operators should be obliged to utilise all of the marketable minerals they dig up instead of dumping all but one of them as left-over ‘tailings’. This obligation should extend to downstream processors. Thus, for instance, cobalt can be obtained as a companion metal of copper and nickel.

pickaxe

Rare earths as a by-product

In Sweden, state-owned mining
company LKAB is planning to
recover rare earths and
phosphorus from the waste of
its iron mines in Kiruna and
Malmberget. 
The company
wants to open a new
processing facility in 2027, by
which time it hopes to be
capable of meeting some 10
per cent of the EU’s demand
for rare
earths. (2)

The extraction of geothermal energy, for example to heat buildings, can also yield a valuable by-product: lithium. In some places in Europe, particularly Germany and France, the hot water pumped from the depths contains recoverable concentrations of lithium. Geothermal energy thus promises both renewable energy and lithium with low environmental impact, if geology is favourable.

The tailings from abandoned mines, which can be found all over Europe, represent a further source of scarce metals. The recovery of these metals should go hand in hand with the ecological rehabilitation of the mining sites. Closed landfills can be remediated in a similar way, freeing up land, reducing pollution risks, and bringing valuable metals and minerals back into circulation. (3)

Metals

Re-mining

The Penouta tin mine in the Spanish region of Galicia was closed in 1985 without undergoing rehabilitation. Over 30 years later in 2018, a processing plant was erected to extract the minerals contained in the mining waste. The plant, which operates without the use of chemicals, provides industrial minerals such as quartz and mica as well as metals: tin, tantalum, and niobium. Of the metals, the first two are conflict metals (4), while the latter two are on the EU’s list of critical raw materials. (5) The processing plant in the Penouta mine uses no chemicals. The rehabilitation plan for the site includes the spreading of topsoil and the sowing of plant seeds collected locally. (6)
Recent plans to re-open the mine have, however, been meet with opposition, given the area's proximity to a Natura 2000 site and the existing leakage of heavy metals from the mine waste pond. (7)

The recovery of raw materials from extractive and industrial wastes has ‘a remarkably high potential to contribute to a sustainable and secure supply’, according to the European Commission’s research centre. (8) But it cannot satisfy the projected demand for metals. Therefore, the Commission is pushing for the opening of new metal mines in Europe. (9)

Set a high bar

There is a case to be made for new mining projects in terms of securing enough metals for Europe’s energy and digital transitions. However, in order to minimise the social and environmental trade-offs, we must set a high bar. All stakeholders should be involved from the project’s inception, first and foremost local and indigenous communities. Using their knowledge of the land and creating local benefits are key to obtaining their support. Locations belonging to Natura 2000, the EU’s network of nature protection areas, should be off-limits to mining.

e-car and metals

Mining tradition

Among the metal mining projects in Europe, the plans to extract lithium in the British county of Cornwall stand out because of the lack of organised opposition. (10) Several companies are preparing to mine lithium from either hard rock or geothermal brine. Using the heat from the brine to power the extraction brings zero carbon lithium closer.
Until the last mine closed in 1998, Cornwall had a long tradition of tin and copper mining, which still evokes pride today. Also, there is a lack of decent jobs. Cornwall is one of the poorest areas in the United Kingdom. This helps to explain the high level of public acceptance of new mining ventures.

Metal mining must fully respect the relevant EU legislation, such as the Habitats and Birds Directives for biodiversity, the Water Framework Directive for clean water, and the Extractive Waste Directive. (11) There should be no grounds for exemption. Both EU law and international standards (12) call for the cleanest possible mining operations: minimal use of hazardous and fossil-based chemicals, a closed water loop, maximal removal of toxic substances, minimal waste, and optimal restoration of biodiversity. The EU should also task its metal mining sector with becoming climate-positive within a decade. This can be achieved by switching to zero-emission machinery and locking up atmospheric CO2 in remaining waste minerals wherever this is feasible and safe. (13) Finally, mining corporations must be made to pay fair compensation for the appropriation of common resources. (14) In summary, metal mining in the EU should be exemplary, pushing up global standards.

GEF_MetalsGreenDigital_icons9a mining ban transparant

EU laws have teeth

A Canadian company is planning to mine rare earths in Norra Kärr, uphill from Lake Vättern in southern Sweden. The project has received financial support from the European Commission. However, the company saw its mining permit withdrawn in 2016 after a court ruled that the EU Habitats Directive had not been respected. (15) This law stipulates that a project’s impact on Natura 2000 sites be assessed before a permit can be granted.
The Swedish government is now reviewing its permit process to bring it into line with EU legislation. Meanwhile, the mining sector is portraying the Habitats Directive as an obstacle to the energy transition. (16)

The displacement of massive amounts of soil and rock within their own borders instead of in distant countries would confront those living in Europe with the downside of their hunger for metals. There is some climate justice in that. It might make us think twice about our lavish consumption of joules and bytes. (17)

Footnotes

Further viewing

Lucy Crane (Cornish Lithium), 'Mining our way to a low carbon future' Afspelen op YouTube
Visio & Green European Foundation, webinar 'Reforming the Finnish mining law' Afspelen op YouTube

Further reading

Juho Heikkilä, Mining operations taxed lightly in Finland, 2021
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), the Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

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