The European Commission is eyeing opportunities within the EU’s minerals and mining sector, and has put forward, in its Strategic Action Plan (SAP) on batteries, a comprehensive set of targeted measures to make Europe a global leader in sustainable battery production and use.
The SAP focuses on including raw materials research and innovation, financing and investment, standardization, regulation, and trade and skills development to secure a sustainable supply of battery raw materials.
In his opinion piece in the EU Observer, Raw Materials: ‘holy grail’ of 21st century industrial policy, Maros Sefcovic, Vice President of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union, said that Europe has world-leading technologies as well as high environmental and social standards, and that the EU aims to ensure that mining is no longer the polluting industry of the past.
"Our strategy is not to displace environmental costs to other parts of the world. Our strategy is to see sustainable mining with high-quality jobs created in Europe as well as transparent information about the environmental footprint and recyclability,” Sefcovic wrote.
According to the European Commission's 2016 data, actual primary production by the EU member states represents only a fraction of global production: 0.1% for lithium; 1.1% for natural graphite; 7.7% for cobalt and 13.8% for nickel. “We don’t see all member states have really woken up to the need to put the raw materials in their industrial strategies, and their strategies to achieve climate goals, because too many are just relying on importing these raw materials from abroad" — European Commission
But lithium-ion manufacturing facilities are starting to pop up in Europe, with at least seven new gigawatt sized factories scheduled to be in operation by 2020. Tesla Motors is reportedly in discussions with authorities in Germany and the Netherlands to build its first ever European factory. In October 2018, Germany's BASF and Russian miner Norilsk Nickel struck a nickel and cobalt supply deal to meet the growing demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
There are a relatively high number of exploration projects already in the pipeline, with large lithium deposits identified in the Czech Republic, Austria, Finland, Germany, Portugal and Spain; a large cobalt deposit in New Caledonia, France and a medium sized deposit in Finland; large nickel deposits in New Caledonia, France and medium sized deposits in Finland and Spain; and natural graphite deposits in Sweden and Slovakia, according to European Commission reports on Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials.
But only few are actually moving to commercial projects, as even after having demonstrated the feasibility and economic viability of a project, it can be challenging to attract investors, and growth is forecasted to be slow.
“We have a lot of raw materials in Europe [and] a long tradition of extraction activities. We know that we need to do more to make use of our domestic potential, because global competition of raw materials is going to increase,” Peter Handley, Head of Unit, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials at the European Commission, told MINING.com.
“While we’re looking at how we can be more effective in accessing the long-term supplies we need outside Europe, we try to do more to make use of our raw materials in Europe itself,” Handley said. “We have a batter action plan, and we’re looking at what we can do to identify and extract lithium, nickel, and graphite… we have identified what’s critical for us to develop batteries in Europe.”
Handley is optimistic about the projects in the pipeline within the EU, such as lithium projects coming on line in Finland and Portugal.
“We have a dedicated €600 million stream of projects on raw materials. A lot of that is about innovation in the technologies used in mines," he said.
EU member states have projects on the way on the use of remote operations, on replacing diesel in mining vehicles with electric-powered vehicles, on identifying and accessing resources underwater, processing innovative materials, and are also doing work on the policy framework through research programs.
Europe is still far from the EV switch, and it is still in the research and innovation stage.
Handley said that in Europe there still exists a public impression that mining is an "old-fashioned, dirty industry."
"But we see that it’s very high-tech, there’s a lot of new digital-driven technologies being applied in the mining sector and a lot more complex skills required for people who work in the sector," Handley emphasized.
“We don’t see all member states have really woken up to the need to put the raw materials in their industrial strategies, and their strategies to achieve climate goals, because too many are just relying on importing these raw materials from abroad. We might find ourselves constrained on raw materials unless we make a really coherent effort to do more for ourselves,” Handley added.“As Europe, we’ve just come out with our ideas on 2050 decarbonization strategies. That highlights the importance of seeking raw materials. The demand for raw materials is going to be a hot issue.”