Will Mining For Rare Earth Metals Destroy Greenland?

To stop China’s stranglehold on the minerals necessary for our digital economy, mining companies are looking to the icy expanse of Greenland. But with no regulation, no light, and no oversight, what will those mines do to this pristine Arctic landscape?

Without rare earth metals, we can’t have a digitally driven, cleantech-powered economy. Up until recently, that has put the world at the mercy of China, which is responsible for 97% of global output of these 17 minerals, found in lithium-ion batteries, laser pointers, electric car motors, solar panels, wind turbines, and more. But that may be about to change. The U.S. is gearing up to start mining for rare earth metals, and now Greenland is as well. The only problem: Greenland may not be ready to handle the huge mining operations that are about to arrive.

Greenland is a wealth of rare earth metals, with enough of the minerals to supply a quarter of global demand–if mining companies can extract them. In many cases, the minerals lie below thick ice sheets. And even the ones that don’t are in such remote locations that any impact from accidents would be multiplied, much like the offshore drilling operations planned off the coast of Alaska.

There are currently four large-scale mining projects that are about to be initiated in Greenland, two of which are for rare earth metals. Over 120 mining sites are being explored, according to the Guardian. “If you look at mining in other places, it’s kind of similar problems but in Greenland the thing that makes it different is the lack of ability to control the companies. There are not enough people–there are 57,000 people in the whole country,” says Jon Burgwald of Greenpeace. And the Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum that’s supposed to oversee everything from finances to environmental impact? It’s made up of about 30 people.

Mix a tiny agency with mining behemoths and you have a recipe for bad behavior. With no natural light for huge chunks of the year, it’s difficult for companies to monitor waste water spills. Not that they would care–Greenland doesn’t have any facilities to process waste water in the first place.

The operations could potentially endanger fish stocks and marine mammals that are already under pressure from climate change. And while Greenland has a zero tolerance policy for uranium mining, Burgwald is concerned that might soon change. “From the time you take [uranium] out, there’s nuclear waste involved. There are no real examples of uranium mining where you don’t see quite serious discharge of nuclear hazardous waste into the local environment.” Uranium can be extracted as a byproduct from rare earth deposits.

So what’s the world to do? Without rare earths, we can’t ditch oil, coal mines, and other dirty sources of energy. Clearly, though, rare earths come with all sorts of hazards themselves (for more, check out this piece on the health hazards of rare earth mining in China).

There are ways to mine in “a decent manner,” according to Burgwald. That would involve an extreme scaling-up of the Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, strengthening best-practice terms for companies, and implementing a zero-discharge policy. “Right now the Greenland administration is going forward at such a high pace they’re losing themselves in the process,” says Burgwald. “The EU has a fairly good track record. Closer collaboration would help.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.