Rare Earths Find in Sweden: A Gamechanger?

That has become a major political issue given how the EU wants to both end trade dependencies on China and Russia and boost its own green technologies to achieve its climate goals. The $369-billion (€340-billion) Inflation Reduction Act in the US, which gives massive subsidies to green technologies, has also ramped up the pressure on the EU.

So How Significant Could This Find Be for Europe?
“Superlative claims abound whenever a new rare earth deposit is announced, so it is important to look at the data,” Julie Klinger, a professor of geography at the University of Delaware, told DW.

If you take a look back at the headlines concerning rare earth deposits in Greenland, North Korea, Afghanistan, Turkey, the ocean floor, the Moon: all are claimed to be the largest or one of the largest,” she added, stressing the need for the find to be verified.

Nabeel Mancheri, secretary-general of the Global Rare Earth Industry Association, says a lot more work is needed to determine the quality of the deposit.

Economically speaking, these are not ‘reserves’ yet. You still need a lot of drilling, a lot of testing, and you don’t have the full information about what quality the ore grade is yet,” he told DW.

Klinger says the find could potentially end up being an alternative source for Europe’s rare earth needs, but said it would take between 10 and 15 years to develop a mine, which is in line with the company’s own estimates.

This is not just because of the permitting, although that is often blamed. It is a monumental construction and engineering feat to open a new mine,” she said.

What Needs to Happen Now?
In order for LKAB to exploit the discovery, they would need to drive a change in how the EU approaches the issue of mining for such raw materials.

The EU has long since discarded mining as something that ‘we don’t want to be in our backyard,’” said Mancheri.

LKAB CEO Moström says he hopes the stringent permitting processes for mining within the EU can be sped up in order for the company to bring finished materials more quickly to market. “If we really want to pursue the green transition we must find ways to speed up this process quite substantially,” he said at a press conference.

The European Commission is currently working on lowering the barriers to the mining and production of critical raw materials for the green transition.

However, Mancheri says establishing a mining industry is still only half the job. “Once you have the mining, you also need to establish the processing industry,” he said, referring to the complex and hugely energy intensive processes of isolating and refining rare earths.

Will the Rare Earths Only Be Used for the Green Transition?
Experts say this is a critical question, as rare earths are also used in many polluting industries.

Although most of the press releases emphasize the importance of rare earth elements for renewable energy technologies, rare earth elements are also important for petroleum refining and are important for military-industrial applications,” said Klinger.

There is currently no policy in place, in the EU or elsewhere, that protects materials mined in the name of climate change from capture by other, less climate-friendly sectors.  Even the Swedish state-owned LKAB, or any other mining company for that matter, is not required to sell its output to firms in the renewable energy technologies sector.”

She says that if mining firms such as LKAB are to demand that the permit process is sped up for them in the name of fighting climate change, there must be EU rules which prevent the output going to non-green sectors.

Arthur Sullivan is a freelance journalist. This article was edited by Uwe Hessler, and it is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).