Strategic autonomy meets local democracy at the resource frontier while Europe pushes ahead with the green transition.
Achieving ‘strategic autonomy’ has become a key policy ambition for the European Union. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine spotlighted the EU’s fossil-energy dependence on autocratic regimes. Yet the planned green transition under the European Green Deal foregrounds similar challenges, given the critical role played by rare earths and other minerals—their supply dominated by China.
Rare earths are indispensable for tomorrow’s technologies, whether those be renewable energies, general electronics or advanced military applications. This has sparked an unprecedented resurgence of ‘domestic’ mining in Europe, which raises big questions about local democracy and the distribution of costs and benefits from extractive activities.
The experiences and struggles of the small village of Ulefoss in southern Norway will likely be emblematic of many communities across Europe. A former mining village with an ageing, declining population, Ulefoss sits on top of one of Europe’s largest and most promising deposits of rare-earth elements. Its inhabitants find themselves caught in the crossfire between urgent geopolitical demands and profit-maximising mining conglomerates, while trying to secure their local future on their terms.
The prospect of housing Europe’s largest rare-earths mine brings opportunities for local value creation, new jobs, new inhabitants and more tax income for schools, hospitals and other public services. As in many other places in rural Europe, Ulefoss has seen these decline over the decades. Yet there is no shortage of salutary tales from elsewhere of industrial ‘booms’ that never happened or community benefits that simply were not worth it.
One challenge faced by Ulefoss is a mismatch between its local expertise and workforce and the skills requirements of what the Norwegian government has described as ‘the world’s most sustainable mineral industry’. In the development plan, the 300 or so people needed to run the machinery of the fully automated underground mine would have to come from elsewhere.
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Whether these workers would be interested in living in, and contributing to, the community in Ulefoss remains uncertain. Workers in Norway pay taxes to the municipality in which they live, not where they work. If the municipality were unable to attract the mining-company employees to change their address, much of the local benefit would be lost.
Despite the lofty claims of the government, mining is also notoriously difficult to execute without negative environmental impacts. Automated underground technology notwithstanding, a large amount of waste and residue will have to be deposited somewhere, and there is always risk of poisonous run-off and other unintended impacts which could prove disastrous for local agriculture. Ulefoss is particularly challenging because admixed with the rare-earth elements are large amounts of radioactive thorium, which would also have to be mined and disposed of safely.
The more automated and technologically advanced a mine is, moreover, the higher its need for energy. Early estimates for Ulefoss suggest an annual consumption of at least two terawatt hours—almost 1 per cent of Norway’s total energy consumption. The ‘clean mine’, therefore, would depend on energy generation of this magnitude, via wind, solar or hydropower, which in turn would require large tracts of land.
There have already been considerable protests in Norway, as elsewhere in Europe, against extensive development of renewable-energy infrastructure at the expense of natural terrains. Ulefoss (and neighbouring communities) would have to host this production to power the mine.
A Europe under pressure
With increasing geopolitical tensions between democracies and autocratic regimes, achieving strategic autonomy is becoming increasingly urgent for a Europe under pressure. This has led to an emphasis on fast-tracking key mining projects, such as the one in Ulefoss, adding further complexity.
The degree to which the Ulefoss community can realise local benefits and avoid environmental and social costs associated with running the mine is in part dependent on a transparent and participatory process. The process should allow the community ample time and opportunity to provide input, engage in negotiations and identify collaborative solutions that ensure local agency, enjoy widespread support and secure positive impacts.
Amid the renewed emphasis on mineral extraction, and the associated urgency, many communities across Europe may soon find themselves at the resource frontier. There is a real risk of national and international pressures shortchanging them as Europe rushes to develop its mineral resources.
Experiences across the global south have repeatedly shown how the combination of large-scale extraction and modest administrative structures results in negative social and ecological impacts, often unjustly burdening localities. There is no guarantee that European rural communities have the administrative capacity and human resources necessary to avoid similar, unequal outcomes when negotiating with profit-maximising international mining conglomerates.
The commitment to undertake a ‘just transition’ sits at the heart of the European Green Deal. Whether and how Europe will respect this commitment remains unclear. What is certain is that just-transition claims must be bolder, applying beyond fossil-fuel closures to guide the development of new industrial frontiers—no matter how ‘strategic’ or urgent these might be.
The authors are all members of the Empowered Futures global research school, which focuses on the social and environmental controversies around low-carbon energy transitions.