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Charting Europe’s mineral frontier: Balancing priorities amidst the pursuit of autonomy

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Amid the European Union’s pursuit of “strategic autonomy,” the recent events surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have highlighted the EU’s reliance on fossil energy from autocratic regimes. Yet, as the EU pushes forward with its green transition under the European Green Deal, it faces similar challenges due to its dependence on rare earths and other minerals, predominantly sourced from China.

Rare earths are essential for various future technologies, including renewable energy, electronics, and advanced military applications. This has prompted a surge in domestic mining activities across Europe, raising significant questions about local democracy and the equitable distribution of costs and benefits associated with mining.

The story of Ulefoss, a small village in southern Norway, serves as a microcosm of the dilemmas many European communities face. Sitting atop one of Europe’s largest rare-earth deposits, Ulefoss grapples with competing pressures from geopolitical demands and profit-driven mining companies, all while seeking to secure its local future on its own terms. While the prospect of hosting Europe’s largest rare-earths mine promises economic opportunities, new jobs, and increased tax revenue, the community also faces uncertainties and risks.

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One challenge is the disparity between the local workforce’s skills and the demands of a highly automated underground mine. The development plan calls for hundreds of skilled workers, potentially from outside the community, raising questions about their integration and contribution to local life. Moreover, mining inevitably brings environmental impacts, including waste disposal and the risk of contamination, particularly concerning in Ulefoss due to the presence of radioactive thorium alongside rare-earth elements.

Furthermore, the energy demands of such a mine, even with advanced technology, pose another challenge. Ulefoss would require a substantial amount of energy, potentially up to 1% of Norway’s total consumption, emphasizing the need for renewable energy sources like wind, solar, or hydropower.

In light of geopolitical tensions and the push for strategic autonomy, Europe is fast-tracking mining projects like the one in Ulefoss. However, the degree to which local communities can benefit while minimizing environmental and social costs depends on transparent and participatory processes. Ensuring community input, negotiation, and collaboration are essential to secure positive outcomes and widespread support.

As Europe navigates its mineral extraction ambitions, it must heed the lessons from global experiences to avoid unjust social and ecological impacts on local communities. The commitment to a just transition, integral to the European Green Deal, must extend beyond fossil-fuel closures to guide the development of new industrial frontiers, prioritizing equity and sustainability.

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