European officials expect the Critical Raw Materials Act, unveiled last week, to significantly improve the bloc’s capacity to extract, refine and recycle key metals such as lithium. The law aims to reduce dependence on third countries, while China currently dominates the supply chain for numerous items on the European list of strategic metals.
The EU is also in a race with the United States, which is already investing heavily in critical metals production capacity under the Defense Production Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Europe, however, may have secured itself an advantage by moving to streamline procedures for issuing project permits, a painstaking process that often drags on for years before the first shovel hits the ground.
The law covers a list of critical minerals in the EU, with a particular focus on battery metals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese.
Copper is on the list as a driver of all things electrical, while aluminum and zinc are not, which could be a glaring omission given the recent reduction in European manufacturing capacity.
While environmental groups are concerned about Brussels’ plans to increase exploitation of critical raw materials, advocates of the approach say it is necessary to achieve the bloc’s green goals.
The European Union wants to diversify the supply of critical raw materials beyond China and facilitate the use of domestic reserves of minerals needed to build green technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels.
However, local residents and environmental activists warn that cutting red tape for mining projects could jeopardize decades of work to preserve nature and biodiversity, pointing out that mining can cause serious water and soil pollution and lead to deforestation and biodiversity loss.
This clash between Europe’s appetite for critical raw materials and its environmental ambitions is already playing out across the continent – local protests against new mining projects are underway in Portugal, Germany, Sweden and Spain, and will only intensify after new legislation is passed to accelerate mining activities.
The draft rules suggest that the European Commission could allow mining strategic plans to be designated as projects of overriding public interest, which would give them priority in the event of a conflict with other EU legislation, such as species conservation law.
The reason for this is the fear that the EU cannot increase its reserves of key minerals without relaxing strict environmental requirements, which make opening new mines a major bureaucratic headache.
Environmentalists argue that EU rules on nature protection are necessary and that destroying local biodiversity in search of materials, that are climate neutral, would be counterproductive.
Getting the green light for a new mining project in Europe can take up to 15 years — something the EU wants to fix in its Critical Raw Materials Act.
Under the draft, the commission will allow mining projects designated as strategic to receive shortened two-year permitting deadlines, with the aim of the bloc reducing its dependence on imports more quickly.
Although the EU cannot supply all the raw materials it needs on its own, its most important lithium projects, for example, could meet 25 to 35 percent of European demand by the end of the decade. Currently, about 78 percent of the block’s lithium comes from Chile.
Mining companies have long argued that the issuance of permits can only be accelerated if the EU agrees to relax some environmental rules, such as zero water emissions, which is difficult to achieve.
Mining projects in protected areas, although permitted, must also undergo an additional impact assessment to demonstrate that they will not damage the integrity of the site.
Treating mining activities as projects of overriding public interest would resolve a number of similar issues.
Because most of the bloc’s known reserves of critical raw materials are located in or near protected areas, the EU will have to make concessions on environmental protection if it wants to exploit them, mining industry leaders say.
Green groups have long fought the expansion of mining in Europe, favoring efforts to reduce consumption and source raw materials in other ways, including recycling and developing alternative materials.
In light of Brussels’ new plan, they are now calling for compliance with EU nature laws. However, they fear that the focus of the law will be to increase the supply of raw materials at any cost, and not to limit the impact of mining on the environment.
NGOs and experts warn that the Commission is shooting itself in the foot if it ignores environmental concerns as protests against new mining projects could potentially derail EU goals.
Serbian “critical raw materials”
Demand for rare earth metals for wind turbines is expected to grow four and a half times by 2030. Demand for lithium, a key element for batteries in electric vehicles and appliances, will increase 11-fold by 2030 and 57-fold by 2050, according to Commission estimates. However, only a small fraction comes from EU mines.
The largest estimated lithium deposits in Europe are in Germany, the Czech Republic and Serbia. The deposits in Germany are located at great depths and require new extraction technologies that, among other things, can cause earthquakes, and whose ecological and economic sustainability is still not sufficiently explored.
In 2021, Serbia began negotiations on Chapter 15, which concerns energy, which implies the application of relevant legal acquis of the European Union in the field of energy, environmental protection, use of renewable energy sources and protection of competition in Serbia. It remains to be seen whether the new European regulation will reopen the issue of the controversial Jadar lithium project.
Although neither the new law nor the accompanying documents mention Serbia, increased cooperation with strategic partners around the world has been announced and it seems that Serbia will be an important point in the future plans of European mines of critical raw materials.
Also, in Serbia there is a deposit of borates, natural salts that contain boron and are mainly used for the production of glass, but they are also of vital importance for the growth of plants, so they are found in fertilizers. In addition, they are used to insulate homes and in car safety components such as airbags. Currently, the EU receives the vast majority, 98 percent, of its combatants from Turkey.
On the other hand, the Serbian exploitation mining company Belkalhan could become the EU’s primary supplier of graphite, which is also on the list of critical materials. It is used in pens, batteries, steel furnaces and can be turned into artificial diamonds.
The Belkalhan mine is based on a high-grade graphite deposit, with 4 million tonnes of reserves confirmed on just 25 percent of the project site. The mine is designated as a mineral deposit of national interest in the EU.
The potential joint venture partnership and investment will allow Belcalhan to integrate along the production chain of graphite-based products for a number of high-growth markets, including lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, fuel cells, graphene and nanomaterials, thermal management in consumer electronics and products for buildings.