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MINING

Spain’s vast supplies of untapped rare minerals pit environmentalists against high-tech

Spain's untapped rare earths (the second biggest supply in Europe) are stoking tensions between mining companies and environmentalists over fears of the devastating impact of extracting minerals considered essential for a high-tech and low-carbon economy.

This photograph taken on June 22, 2021 shows vials filled with pieces of magnets containing rare earths (terres rares) after they were extracted from electronic waste at the Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minieres (BRGM) (Geological and Mining Research Office) in Orleans, central France. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)
Rare earths are essential in a range of high-tech products key to combatting climate change. Photo: Christophe ARCHAMBAULT/AFP

The group of 17 minerals are — despite their name — widely distributed across the globe, but exist in such thin concentrations that extracting even small quantities requires the processing of enormous quantities of ore.

Still, they are key ingredients in a range of high-tech and cutting-edge products, from wind turbines and electric vehicles to smart phones, medical devices and missile-guidance systems.

With China having a stranglehold on global supply and demand surging to meet the transition to a low-carbon economy, the political pressure – and financial incentive – to put strategic interests ahead of the environment is growing.

“Spain has the largest amount of rare earths in Europe after Finland. There is real potential,” said Vicente Gutiérrez Peinador, president of the National Confederation of Mining and Metallurgy Companies (Confedem).

Ninety-eight percent of the rare earths used in the EU are imported from China, prompting Brussels to recently urge member states to develop their own extraction capacities.

Spain’s reserves are estimated at 70,000 tonnes, according to the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain.

“On a global level this is not much, but on a European scale it is significant,” said Roberto Martínez, head of mineral resources at the institute.

‘Opportunity for Spain’

And it is enough to arouse the interest of investors as demand for the minerals continues to surge.

“It is an opportunity for Spain,” said Confedem’s Peinador, but also “for Europe”.

“Two sites in particular are considered interesting: one in Monte Galineiro, in Galicia,” and the other in the province of Ciudad Real, in the Castilla y Leon region, said Martinez.

Only the 240-hectare (590-acre) Matamulas site in Ciudad Real has so far been the subject of an application to mine.

The site is rich in monazite — an ore containing rare earth minerals including thorium, lanthanum and cerium.

A cyclist wears a protective face mask while riding along a dusty roadv where dozens of factories processing rare earths
China has a stranglehold on global supply of rare earths — along with the environmental devastation their extraction creates Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP

However, the project has been blocked: the region refused the mining permit filed by Madrid-based Quantum Mineria in 2019 due to concerns about its environmental impact.

“This deposit is located in an area of great environmental value”, between two protected areas, said Elena Solis, coordinator for mining issues of the NGO Ecologists in Action.

It would involve “moving an astronomical amount of earth, which would put the whole area at risk”, said Solis, who also pointed to the “enormous amount of water” needed for this operation and the risk of pollution by toxic or even radioactive dust.

Holes filled in

These arguments were rejected by the company, which lodged a legal appeal.

The refusal of the permit “is incomprehensible” because “we are in a territory considered suitable for mining” by the administration, said Enrique Burkhalter, project director of Quantum Mineria, who denounced “unfounded fears” around the proposal.

According to the company, the extraction would take place on the surface, using a technique that limits the risk of toxic dust: the earth would be transported by truck to a factory, then sieved and finally returned to the site, once the minerals have been removed.

“It is not an open pit… The holes would be quickly filled in so that the crops could be cultivated again,” said Burkhalter.

These arguments are in turn rejected by Ecologists in Action, which believes that the land concerned will be permanently affected.

What will the courts say?

Beyond their differences, industrialists and environmentalists agree on the importance of the court’s decision, which could make or break the extraction projects.

The ruling, expected in several months’ time, will be “important” but “will not put an end to the debate”, said Martinez, who pointed to a paradox inherent in mining: “On paper, everyone wants to reduce external dependence, but as soon as we talk about concrete projects, it’s a different matter.”

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ALMEDALEN 2022

Green Party leader: ‘Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament’

Per Bolund, joint leader of Sweden's Green party, spoke for thirteen and a half minutes at Almedalen before he mentioned the environment, climate, or fossil fuels, in a speech that began by dwelling on healthcare, women's rights, and welfare, before returning to the party's core issue.

Green Party leader: 'Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament'

After an introduction by his joint leader Märta Stenevi, Bolund declared that his party was going into the election campaign on a promise “to further strengthen welfare, with more staff and better working conditions in healthcare, and school without profit-making, where the money goes to the pupils and not to dividends for shareholders”. 

Only then did he mention the party’s efforts when in government to “build the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”. 

“We know that if we want welfare to work in the future, we must have an answer to our time’s biggest crisis: the threat to the environment and the climate,” he said.

“We know that there is no welfare on a dead planet. We need to take our society into a new time, where we end our dependency on oil, meet the threat to the climate, and build a better welfare state within nature’s boundaries, what we call a new, green folkhem [people’s home].” 

He presented green policies as something that makes cities more liveable, with the new sommargågator — streets pedestrianised in the summer — showing how much more pleasant a life less dependent on cars might be.  

He then said his party wanted Sweden to invest 100 billion kronor a year on speeding up the green transition, to make Sweden fossil fuel-free by 2030. 

“We talk about the climate threat because it’s humanity’s biggest challenge, our biggest crisis,” he said. “And because we don’t have much time.” 

In the second half of his speech, however, Bolund used more traditional green party rhetoric, accusing the other political parties in Sweden of always putting off necessary green measures, because they do not seem urgent now, like a middle-aged person forgetting to exercise. 

“We know that we need to cut emissions radically if we are even going to have a chance of meeting our climate goal, but for all the other parties there’s always a reason to delay,” he said. 

“We are now seeing the curtain go up on the backlash in climate politics in Sweden. All the parties have now chosen to slash the biofuels blending mandate which means that we reduce emissions from petrol and diesel step for step, so you automatically fill your tank in a greener way. Just the government’s decision to pause the  reduction mandate will increase emissions by a million tonnes next year.” 

The right-wing parties, he warned, were also in this election running a relentless campaign against the green party. 

“The rightwing parties seem to have given up trying to win the election on their own policies,” he said. “Trying to systematically push out of parliament seems to be their way of trying to take power. And they don’t seem above any means. Slander campaigns, lies, and false information have become every day in Swedish right-wing politics.” 

He ended the speech with an upbeat note. 

“A better, more sustainable world is possible. There is a future to long for. If you give us a chance then that future is much closer than you think!”

Read the speech here in Swedish and here in (Google Translated) English. 

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