New EU Regulation Worries Industry and Green Groups
The European Union's new regulation policy is freaking out both industry and NGOs alike. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown that Europe needs raw materials from other countries to make the green transition. This has put more pressure on EU policymakers to come up with a set of rules for managing mining projects across the continent.
In response to the mounting concern, the European Commission produced a Raw Materials Action Plan in 2020, which included ten non-legislative initiatives such as mapping "potential supply" and promoting "responsible mining methods."
According to a Commission official, given the "increasingly tense geopolitical context" and "ever-growing ecological and digital ambition," the Commission now wants to go even further.
When pressed for more information, the Commission indicated it is stepping up its efforts on the issue but wouldn't say much more.
Kerstin Jorna, head of the Commission's internal market department, said she was "certain" that a Raw Materials Act would be introduced "soon" at an event this week.
Last week, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told the European Parliament's environment committee that an EU mining law may assist defuse opposition to new mining projects.
According to a Commission official, the Commission "has received a clear political mandate from the EU leaders and the European Parliament to pursue its work in this direction," adding that speculation on the "most effective and proportionate additional tools to reinforce resilience in this area" is still "premature."
Those signals from Brussels have rung alarm bells in the industry and among environmental groups, but for different reasons.
Green Groups' Worries
The Commission's 2020 action plan, which environmentalists dubbed "a double-edged sword," had already worried them. Although it emphasises the need for more sustainable extraction, it also allows for additional mining. Most environmental groups are against this, supporting efforts to limit consumption and get raw materials through alternative methods, such as recycling. For example, the European Environmental Bureau has urged the EU to concentrate on "cutting the use of finite resources and averting environmental disasters."
NGOs are also concerned that any new mining legislation will be excessively pro-industry.
According to Meadhbh Bolger, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, the way it is now being debated by the Commission shows that "the primary reason" for new law "will be to speed and promote mining in Europe" rather than to increase environmental protections.
She said any new legislation should be drafted by the Commission's environment department rather than Breton's internal market department.
Campaigners have been raising awareness about mining's environmental impact, claiming that not enough attention is paid to mines' effects on biodiversity in the immediate area and local farmers' livelihoods.
According to Diego Francesco Marin, associate policy officer for environmental justice at the European Environmental Bureau, any new EU legislation should include measures to address the carbon footprint of mining projects, as well as standards for waste management and rehabilitation of areas around mines. Local communities should also have "veto power" over mining ventures in their area, he believes.
His fear, shared by many environmentalists, is that the Commission will "put economic interests ahead of the environment and local communities."
Members of the mining and metals industries are represented in the Commission's expert groups on raw materials, the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials (EIP) and the European Raw Materials Alliance. The EIP, according to the Commission, "plays a vital role in the EU's raw materials policy framework."
According to a Commission official, the EU executive has "encouraged" additional NGOs to join the groups, but they are "frequently hesitant." They also stated that the Commission's "relevant services" are "open to debate" on how to better incorporate people in decision-making.
The idea of more regulation is also unappealing to the sector.
"Is it a priority to increase regulation at the moment?" No, I believe it is a top priority to have effective projects that produce what you require as soon as possible," said Mark Rachovides, president of lobbying organisation Euromines.
"What we should be looking at is strategic autonomy and supply security, provided that the current regulatory environment is working very well," he added.
He also noted that the bloc already has guidelines for sustainable raw materials, even though green groups argue that they are too lax and allow projects to be approved without proper inspection.
The major concern of mining businesses is the expediting of permitting procedures for new projects, which they think would be impossible under an EU mining law that establishes the kind of severe, legally binding environmental criteria that green groups demand.
At an event organised by metals lobby Eurometaux, Mikael Staffas, president of Eurometaux and CEO of Swedish mining corporation Boliden, remarked, "Europe already has the projects and capabilities to strengthen its raw materials resilience."
He wants a "coherent regulation" that focuses on making permission easier and providing a level playing field for non-European producers. New projects are currently "extremely difficult or nearly impossible" due to environmental restrictions, he said.
According to a study done by KU Leuven and commissioned by Eurometaux, Europe has only a "tight window" of two years to launch mining projects in time for an estimated 2030 rise in raw material demand prompted by the energy transition due to high lead times of 10 to 15 years.
Liesbet Gregoir, the study's primary author, highlighted that EU leaders must "stick to" their plan for securing the bloc's raw materials supply, whether that policy is to diversify supply, promote domestic mining and refining, or invest substantially in recycling.
She went on to explain that expediting approvals may coexist with strong environmental standards, but that the business needs to do more to win public support for the projects.
Even with the promise of greater environmental regulations, activist Catarina Alves Scarrott, who is organising a campaign against a lithium mine in northern Portugal, said she doesn't put much faith in the impact of new EU standards.
"My fear is that as long as [the EU] is willing to listen to advice that says they should soften planning restrictions and expedite the process, what's the point?" she stated
"It's all about the mining firms, not the environment, and not the people who live there," she says.