Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided Europe with the opportunity to conduct a much needed reappraisal of its raw materials supply chain and its vulnerabilities. The EU has been forced to take a similar look at the parlous state of its own metals mining industry.

There is widespread agreement that if Europe is to have any chance of achieving its clean energy goals, renewable energy is an obvious prerequisite. However, this requires metals such as lithium, a metal in which Europe remains far from self-sufficient. Recognising this urgency, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in her 14 September state of the union address announced a new European Critical Raw Materials Act.

“Never before has this parliament debated the state of our union with war raging on European soil,” she began. “Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas. Our demand for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030. We must avoid becoming dependent again, as we did with oil and gas,” she continued.

The act will update the 30 raw materials that the EU has already classified as critical, and could provide a framework for a new balance of power in European mining, if the continent can overcome challenges to expanding its internal mineral production.

Setting targets for European metals

Commenting on the address, Thierry Breton, the European commissioner for the internal market, said that the EU Critical Raw Materials Act will help by: focusing on strategic applications including setting the criteria for identifying raw materials relevant for transition and defence needs; creating a true European network of raw materials agencies to anticipate risks; and building and strengthening a more resilient supply chain.

“For example, a target could be set that at least 30% of the EU’s demand for refined lithium should originate from the EU by 2030, or to recover at least 20% of the rare earth elements present in relevant waste streams by 2030,” Breton said.

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Demand for all battery materials is skyrocketing with demand for graphite and rare earths predicted to jump 14 and five times, respectively, by 2030. This is expected to create enormous supply problems. Indeed, so dire is Europe’s raw materials plight that Bernd Schäfer, CEO and managing director of EIT Raw Materials, told Euractiv: “With the recent energy crisis, it has become difficult to prioritise. This is because all critical raw materials are becoming super critical now.”

However, observers caution that serious hurdles stand in the way of the EU achieving an adequate level of raw materials self-sufficiency. At an event held last year organised by Ghent University, Professor Jonathan Holslag, a lecturer on international politics at the Free University Brussels, warned that there is a huge gulf between China’s economic nationalism and determination to control the global raw materials supply chain, and the EU’s lukewarm attitude to supporting its own raw materials industry.

“China does not consider its basic industries as backward,” said Dr Holslag. He noted that despite 16 years of EU policies on mining and the mineral supply chain in place, production volumes in Europe, “have decreased and mining in the EU is currently almost absent”. In September, a joint Franco-German paper supported by Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Romania called for greater financing for raw material production within the bloc.

The role of recycling

One aspect of the Commission’s critical raw materials plan that might hold more promise, according to Julie Klinger, a geologist, is recycling. Interviewed in Politico, Klinger said that while the EU may need to open new mines, this should only be a “distant third choice behind reprocessing waste and behind recycling.” Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted to impose mandatory recycled content targets for the lithium, cobalt, nickel and lead in lithium-ion batteries.

A number of recycling ventures are now under way. The EU-funded Susmagpro project that is running to November 2023 is looking to kick-start the recycling of rare earth magnets. These magnets are applied in electronics, wind turbines, electric car motors and others.

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“The aim of the project is to develop a recycling supply chain for rare earth magnets in the EU and to demonstrate these new materials on a pilot scale within a range of application sectors,” said the European Commission. “The EU imports far more neodymium-iron-boron magnets than it manufactures.”

Considering that the EU imports less than 1,000 tonnes of such magnets a year, and up to three times that volume are currently available for recycling, the reuse of these batteries presents a significant opportunity.

Acceptance versus apathy

However, while EU governments largely accept the need for greater raw materials self-sufficiency, within the European population at large there is substantial apathy, if not downright hostility, towards the metals resource industry. Serbia, the Czech Republic, Spain and Portugal host world-class lithium deposits, but there is considerable opposition to their development.

In Spain, local residents are battling to defeat Infinity Lithium’s proposed lithium mine in the Valdeflores Valley. Campaigning under the banner of the citizen group “Save the Mountain” they have resisted the company’s plans and taken Infinity to court. This is despite an amended proposal for an underground, rather than open pit, mine.

Also in the region, Lithium Iberia has proposed another large lithium mine, known as Las Navas, but it too has faced steep opposition from locals on the grounds that it is an area traditionally dedicated to common pastures for ranchers and cork harvesting.

Similar opposition is on display to the EU’s most notable deposit of heavy rare earth metals zirconium, hafnium and niobium in Sweden. Three years ago, Canadian company Leading Edge Materials presented a plan to the Swedish Mining Inspectorate for an open cast pit development of the Norra Kärr rare earth element deposit located in Jönköping County. Mark Saxon, interim company CEO, stated: “Norra Kärr is a strategic project that has a unique ability to dramatically reduce European reliance on China for critical raw materials.”

However, the company’s plan was vigorously opposed by environmental campaigners at the time. They now appear to have had some success as a subsequent ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden ruled that a Natura 2000 permit was required, prior to the evaluation of the mining lease. Natura 2000 is a network of nature protection areas in the territory of the EU. The project is now in limbo and the company is carrying out maintenance activities to protect its tenure over the project. With the mining lease application valid until August 2026, the dispute could continue for a number of years.

The opposition by local activists to mining projects is creating something of a dilemma for the EU’s goal of increasing its raw materials self-sufficiency. A similar dilemma is being faced by the energy industry. The hard lesson that is having to be learned by that industry is that there is quite often a disconnect between the need for more renewable energy and opposition at the local level to the building of any new wind and solar farms.

How the metals mining sector squares this sort of circle is uncertain, but if European industry is to wean itself off Russian and Chinese metals, then a solution needs to be found, and quickly.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on our sister site Mining Technology.