EU battery push hampered by Sweden mining hurdles
While Sweden has a centuries-old history of extracting metals from the earth and ranks as Europe’s largest iron ore producer, new projects have been beset by concerns about the environment and encroachment on the indigenous Sami people in the north – whose reindeer grazing rights are crucial to their livelihood.
“Mines still have a big impact on the environment and on other activities, such as reindeer herding and tourism,” says Jonas Rudberg, spokesman for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, a environmental group.
In southern Sweden, a struggle over the extraction of rare-earth minerals at Norra Kärr – considered the most promising such deposit in Europe – has been going on for more than a decade. Residents fear that a mine will not only destroy surrounding farms and forests, but also contaminate nearby Lake Vättern, the source of drinking water for 300,000 people.
Such accidents are not without precedent. In 2012, leaks from a tailings pond at the Talvivaara nickel mine in neighboring Finland dumped toxic levels of metals and uranium into nearby lakes and rivers in one of the world’s worst disasters. environment of the country.
Industry leaders say local concerns risk standing in the way of broader technological changes that would help the environment and fight climate change.
“It’s a double standard,” said Roberto Garcia Martinez, CEO of Eurobattery Minerals, an exploration company that seeks to develop sustainable and ethical mineral mines in the EU. “Everyone wants to drive electric cars, but we don’t want to have a mine in our backyard – and that needs to change.”
The region’s painstaking progress towards a mining base capable of powering the transition to electric vehicles contrasts with the speed with which battery cell maker Northvolt has established an independent supply chain.
The Swedish company, which obtains graphite from China, has encouraged the development of domestic mines while funding research into alternative battery technologies.
As sales of electric vehicles take off, the European Commission estimates that demand for lithium, a key ingredient in batteries, will increase up to 18 times by the end of the decade. The use of cobalt should be multiplied by five.
Rudberg said he hopes some demand for these raw materials can be met through mining “where it doesn’t conflict too much with other interests.” He also underlined the importance of other avenues for making the green transition, such as recycling batteries and reducing consumption.
“It’s kind of unrealistic to imagine a future where everyone on earth drives a Tesla,” Rudberg said. “The resources of the earth will not suffice.”
Sweden’s Ministry of Economics is investigating how to streamline the licensing process to ensure a sustainable supply of ‘innovation-critical’ metals and minerals. The review sought input from industry, legal and environmental experts, including Rudberg, and results are expected in October.
“The process scares off a lot of people who want to invest in Swedish mines, because it’s so uncertain whether you’ll get a permit or not, even if you do everything right,” said Maria Suner, CEO of the Swedish Mining Association, minerals and metals producers.
Erika Ingvald of the Geological Survey of Sweden, who acted as an expert in the investigation, hopes this will lead to a simpler process. As for the mines awaiting a decision, she said she did not know when they might expect progress.
“It’s like playing the lottery,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to say.”