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EU mining code plans alarm both industry and NGOs

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The EU is looking into new rules for mining raw materials in the bloc — freaking out both industry and green groups.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted Europe’s dependence on third countries for the raw materials it needs for the green transition, ramping up pressure on EU policymakers to come up with a set of rules for how to manage mining projects on the Continent.

In 2020, the European Commission published a Raw Materials Action Plan that set out 10 non-legislative measures — including mapping “potential supply” and promoting “responsible mining practices” — in response to growing concern.

Now it’s aiming to go further, given the “increasingly tense geopolitical context” and “ever-growing green and digital ambition,” a Commission official said.

Pressed for details, the Commission said it is ramping up work on the issue but isn’t giving much more information.

At an event this week, the head of the Commission’s internal market department, Kerstin Jorna, said she was “confident” a Raw Materials Act will be presented “soon.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told the Parliament’s environment committee last week that an EU mining code could help defuse resistance to rolling out new mining projects.

The Commission “has received a clear political mandate from the EU leaders and the European Parliament to pursue its work in this direction,” according to a Commission official, who stressed that it is still “premature” to speculate on the “most effective and proportionate additional tools to reinforce resilience in this area.”

Those signals from Brussels have set alarm bells ringing both in the industry and among green groups — for opposite reasons.

Green concern

Environmentalists were already spooked by the Commission’s 2020 action plan, which they called “a double-edged sword.” Although it stressed the need to make extraction more sustainable, it also paves the way for more mining.

That’s something most green groups oppose, favoring efforts to reduce consumption and to source raw materials through other means, including recycling. The European Environmental Bureau has called for the EU to focus on “reducing the use of limited resources and avoiding environmental disasters,” for example.

NGOs also fear any new mining legislation will be too industry-friendly.

The way it is currently being discussed by the Commission suggests “the sole reason” for new legislation “will be to accelerate and promote mining in Europe” rather than to improve environmental protections, according to Meadhbh Bolger, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

The Commission’s environment department, rather than Breton’s internal market department, should be in charge of crafting any new legislation, she added.

Campaigners have been sounding the alarm about the environmental impact of mining, arguing that not enough attention is paid to mines’ effect on the biodiversity in the immediate area, as well as the livelihood of local farmers.

Any new EU legislation should include measures to tackle the carbon footprint of mining projects, and set standards for waste management and rehabilitation of areas around the mines, said Diego Francesco Marin, associate policy officer for environmental justice at the European Environmental Bureau. It should also give local communities “veto power” over mining projects in their backyard, he said.

His concern, shared by many green campaigners, is that the Commission will “have business interests in mind before thinking about the environment and local communities.”

The Commission’s expert groups on raw materials — the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials (EIP) and the European Raw Materials Alliance — includes members of the mining and metals industry. In the Commission’s own words, the EIP plays “a central role in the EU’s raw materials policy framework.” 

A Commission official said the EU executive has “encouraged” more NGOs to participate in the groups but that they “are often reluctant.” The Commission’s “relevant services” are “open to discussion” on how to better involve them in the decision-making process, they added.

Worried miners

The industry isn’t keen on the prospect of new regulation either. 

“At the moment, is it a priority to increase regulation? No, I think it’s a priority to have successful projects, delivering what you need as a matter of urgency,” said Mark Rachovides, president of lobby group Euromines.

“What we should be looking at is strategic autonomy and security of supply, given that the regulatory regime that’s in place at the moment does work pretty well,” he added.

He also pointed out that the bloc already has principles for sustainable raw materials, although green groups claim they are too lax and allow projects to be greenlit without appropriate scrutiny.

Mining companies’ top concern is a fast-tracking of permitting procedures for new projects — something they fear would become impossible under an EU mining code that sets the kind of strict, binding environmental standards that green groups are calling for.

“Europe already has the projects and skills to build its raw materials resilience,” said Mikael Staffas, president of Eurometaux and CEO of Swedish mining company Boliden at an event organized by metals lobby Eurometaux.

He said he’d like to see a “coherent regulation” focused on easier permitting and ensuring a level playing field with non-European producers. Environmental legislation is currently making new projects “very difficult or almost impossible,” he said.

Due to mining projects’ long lead times of 10 to 15 years, Europe has only a “narrow window” of two years to launch projects in time for an expected 2030 spike in raw material demand spurred by the energy transition, according to a study conducted by KU Leuven and commissioned by Eurometaux.

The study’s lead author, Liesbet Gregoir, stressed that EU leaders urgently have to define their strategy to secure the bloc’s raw materials supply — be that by diversifying supply, promoting mining and refining at home or investing heavily in recycling — and “stick to it.” 

She added that speeding up permitting can be reconciled with high environmental standards, saying the industry has to do more to garner public support for the projects.

Activist Catarina Alves Scarrott, who is leading a campaign against a lithium mine in northern Portugal, said she doesn’t put much stock in the impact of new EU rules, even with the promise of better environmental protections.

“My concern is that as long as [the EU] is willing to listen to advice that tells them that actually they should facilitate the process and so they should ease planning rules … what’s the point of it really?” she said.

“It’s all about the mining companies, it’s not about the environment, and it’s not about the people that live there.”

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