In every part of the world, and in every important or trivial aspect of our lives – every time we eat or drink, write or paint, wash, cook, travel, or simply sit in the hearth of our home – we avail ourselves of some derivative of metallic and nonmetallic mineral ores.
From our faded jeans to our toothpaste; our televisions and mobile phones, or even a seemingly-trivial product like cat litter; from solar panels to cosmetics — all of these products, use processed minerals. And the list is endless. Even if we are largely unaware of it, minerals exist in and affect our daily lives, and we co-exist intricately with them.
In the past few years, the increased demand for energy, along with the swift corresponding increase in the necessity for raw materials – has created a vital economic issue internationally. In the face of this “boom” and the unprecedented peaks in the price of metals, the mineral industry has gradually abandoned its traditional character as a heavy industry with low added-value, and is turning to the corporate model of innovation and competition. In this new economic landscape of mining, the mineral wealth of every country has acquired new and significant importance.
Already, most countries that possess important natural and mining resources are engaging in the “geopolitics of resources” and the EU (which, when first established, was given the name “European Coal and Steel Community”) has begun to perceive this shift, and is currently struggling to create and implement, for the first time, a geopolitical strategy toward natural resource initiatives (Gunter Ferhoigen initiative).
The EU is highly dependent on imports for the supply of the principal raw materials required by industry, since at least 50% of worldwide mining resources are found in third world countries. At the same time, approximately 70% of European manufacturing depends on raw materials obtained from mining. The import dependency rate for minerals ranges from 74% for copper ore, 80% for zinc ore and bauxite, 86% for nickel, to 100% for materials such as cobalt, platinum, titanium and vanadium.
EU industry can be put at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis third countries by measures which restrict its access to raw materials. Moreover, the increasing “relocation” of the mining industrial bases (quarries and auxiliary activities) outside of the EU, with the intent of addressing environmental concerns, leads to limitation of new investments in the mining industry inside the EU and the reduction of research and innovation, and consequently, to an obvious risk to the viability of the sector in the EU altogether. And moreover, because third world countries do not practice policies of sustainable development, the policies restricting mining in the EU completely fail to accomplish their primary purpose of reducing global-scale risks (e.g. the greenhouse effect).
In this global framework, addressing the environmental and safety challenges, together with the increasing needs for quality control and transparency in communication and dissemination of information, are becoming the most crucial factors. Moreover, local communities are becoming better informed, and are beginning to demand that exploitation of natural resources should, first and foremost, meet the needs of the citizens where those resources are located. Consequently, the tremendous shift in the character of the mining industry, along with the booming growth, should be approached with a greater spirit of corporate social responsibility that is connected closely with sustainable development models while addressing the economic, social and environmental impact of these activities.
Greece is one of the EU countries that possesses substantial mineral wealth, consisting of a variety of minerals and ores with a large industrial interest. The high quality and the many specialized uses of minerals available in Greece in comparison with other EU countries and internationally, provides significant comparative advantages to the economy of the country. The mining industry has a strong outward-looking character, since exports account for more than 65% of national sales, and holds leading positions in the global market. Today, mining companies are well organized and hold significant market shares in products such as bauxite, alumina, aluminum, nickel, caustic calcined magnesite, raw magnesite, pumice, silica and marble.
Greece is a major global supplier of several key industrial minerals, notably bentonite, magnesite, and perlite. The country’s position as a leading producer of these minerals is well established. Greece is the only producing country of huntite, the leading global supplier of perlite, the second in the production of pumice and bentonite, and the first in the export of magnesium compounds within the EU. Greece is also the second largest producer in the EU, and the fifth largest worldwide, of lignite (brown coal), which is Greece’s only significant fossil fuel resource. Moreover, Greece has significant deposits of clay, limestone, shale, gypsum, kaolin, mixed sulphide ores (lead, zinc, pyrite), olivine, pozzolan, quartz etc. Finally, there are significant mineral deposits which have not yet been exploited, or where exploitation has temporarily ceased (such as manganese, chromite, uranium , gold, oil, emery, salt etc.), as well as major geothermal energy potential, suitable either for power generation or for various thermal applications.
The Greek mining industry constitutes a major sector of the economic activity of our country (it constitutes 4-5% of the GDP, with the inclusion of interrelated enterprises such as quarrying, processing and production of intermediate and final products) and supplies essential raw materials for primary industries such as cement, production of energy, non-ferrous metals (aluminum, nickel, etc), the industry of stainless steel etc. Moreover, the industry provides a major source of employment in the country, and because, as a rule, the processing of these raw materials takes place in the region in which they are excavated, the industry also contribute considerably to coveted regional growth.
For any sustainability policy to be complete it must address the issues of “where” and “when” it is appropriate to mine, and then apply the best-available technology to not only the processing of minerals, but also to the safety and environmental concerns that constitute such critical issues in this era. By carefully examining the relative advantages and disadvantages, as well as the particularities of the mining industry, we should address the challenges of the era by promoting policies and practices which combine social and economic growth with the environmental protection, and employ new materials, new technologies and new processes that are friendlier to the citizens and the environment. This can only occur by the inclusion of environmental costs as an essential component of investment, further focus on the subject of recycling of raw material, re-use of products and by-products of excavation, and regulations of these procedures, and the development and pursuit of suitable legislative and economic tools toward this end. This must, of course, include open processes, public participation, dissemination of accurate information, and democratic dialogue in every sense.
Quality, safety and environmental protection, constitute significant challenges but also the most pressing needs of this era – deeply influencing not only the development of the mining industry, but also its traditional character of many centuries and finally its very existence.
In this framework, the issues of acceptance from local populations, corporate social responsibility, systems of quality control, and systems that allow collection and disclosure of full and accurate information (Databases, GIS, etc.) are all of particular importance.
[by Tzeferis Peter]