The need to obtain huge quantities of critical raw materials for the climate transition and the serious problems associated with this should stimulate Europe to make a profound adjustment to its energy policy so that it becomes sustainable and multifaceted – this was the conclusion of the discussion at the ‘Critical raw materials’ panel, which took place on Tuesday 25 April 2023 as part of the ‘Green transformation of the economy’ discussion at the European Economic Congress in Katowice.
The Polish Mining Group S.A. was a partner of the event, and the discussion was moderated by Tomasz Niecia from the wnp.pl portal, Professor Magdalena Wdowin from the Institute of Mineral Raw Materials and Energy Management of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Professor Stanisław Prusek – Director of the Central Mining Institute, Tomasz Rogala – President of PGG S.A. and President of the Euracoal Association, Tomasz Ryba – Deputy Director of the Department of Geological Supervision and Raw Materials Policy of the Ministry of Climate and Environment were invited.
Strategic raw materials are, in national terms (according to the document ‘National raw materials policy until 2050’), minerals and elements of fundamental importance for the functioning of the economy and satisfying the living needs of citizens, as well as important for national security and the development of modern technologies. In Poland, these include hard coal and lignite. The European Union defines strategic raw materials according to their importance for specific industries, such as new technologies, the space industry, defence or processes such as climate, energy and digital transformation. Critical raw materials belong to strategic raw materials and are characterised by very limited or difficult access to them. In Poland, there are 47 strategic raw materials and 17 critical raw materials, while in the EU there are 16 and 34 respectively.
Securing supply as a condition for transformation
The energy transition is a process that has an enormous impact on the global economy. It is therefore particularly important to ensure the supply of critical raw materials needed for the transformation. Tomasz Rogala, head of PGG S.A. and Euracoal, recalled that the European Union’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons is changing to a 90-100 per cent dependence on supplies from Asia, primarily China and African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. China is one of the few global exporters, well ahead of Australia and the USA in terms of volume.
Unfortunately, the supply of critical raw materials involves high risks. There is a real danger that if hydrocarbon supplies from Russia are curtailed, energy commodity prices could rise dramatically. Prof. Magdalena Wdowin pointed out that a serious problem is not only the low labour protection standards in critical raw material mines and Third World industry but also the devastation of the environment. The occurrence of REE (Rare-Earth Elements -ed.) in the form of ores and the need to use acids for their extraction means that the solutions produced are highly radioactive.
In order to prevent such situations from recurring, Prof. Stanisław Prusek pointed out that new energy sources should be established first, and only then should our own coal be cut off. A book recommended by the director of the Central Mining Institute is the book by the French journalist Pitron Guillaume entitled. ‘The Rare Metals War’, in which the author analyses the effects of the global push for clean energy and digital technologies.
Do Poland and Europe have resources of critical raw materials or can they discover them?
For years, the Polish National Geological Institute has been actively working on an inventory of critical raw material resources in our country. Prof Stanisław Prusek explained that resource inventories are updated annually, which is a good practice noted by the European Union. In its draft regulation of March this year on securing the supply of critical raw materials, the EU postulates that within three years each Member State should be required to assess the raw material potential.
Among other things, scientists are working to search for critical raw materials in combustion products and post-mining waste, but not hard coal, but zinc and lead ore mines. Unfortunately, compared to China, European resources are considerably poorer. On a list of 51 particularly sought-after raw materials for transformation, 50 per cent are supplied to the EU by China and only five are European, including two Polish ones (copper and coking coal).
Tomasz Rogala, president of PGG S.A, stresses that the crux of the problem remains the burden of extraction on the environment and the difficulty of obtaining environmental permits, which are holding back British coking coal mine projects. In addition, COP climate summits have never before been held in countries with critical raw material industries and REE.
Poland, like other European countries, must remember to protect the environment and comply with the demands of the European Union. Admittedly, raw material resources are scarce, but the Polish Geological Institute is endeavouring to supply them in order to ensure the security of supply and support economic development.
Mining in Europe is dying out, we are losing invaluable expertise
The scarcity of critical raw materials could become a serious problem for European resource mining. In order to avoid the extinction of mining competencies in Europe, it is important to make new deposits of critical raw materials available in due time. To achieve this, Poland is developing international cooperation with countries such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. The State Geological Survey is carrying out important projects on strategic raw materials, as well as developing strategies for the processing of slag heaps and post-mining settlements and preparing legislative solutions. At the same time, the EU is facing a record trade deficit with China, a major supplier of critical raw materials. It is therefore important to source these raw materials promptly to avoid supply disruptions and secure the future of European mining.
“In the mining of critical raw materials, you need miners, geomechanics, and certain technical competencies. But in France, for example, where there would be deposits of raw materials, such specialists are no longer available. If new deposits of critical raw materials are not made available quickly enough, mining competence in Europe will die out. In addition, the lack of public acceptance of mining is increasing. Therefore, if the process of moving away from coal is to be successful, we need to bring about a smooth transition from hydrocarbon mining to REE mining, so that we have a way of acquiring them at all,” warned Tomasz Rogala.
Energy policy needs to be balanced
Energy policy in the European Union is an important part of the transition to improve air quality in Europe. Overall, the aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of renewable energy sources.
However, as noted by Tomasz Rogala, a sustainable energy policy requires sustainability. One needs to be moderate in one’s ambitious plans and not rely on wild consumption and exploitation. To achieve this, it is necessary to analyse the effects of decarbonisation in Europe and beyond. It is also worth focusing on reducing wild consumption and returning to sustainability.
It is also necessary to use technologies that are environmentally friendly rather than based on exploitation. It is also worth paying attention to the sustainable use of other energy sources, including conventional ones such as coal and hydrocarbons.
It is also important to make the price of new technologies, such as electric cars, affordable for all. This will ensure that all citizens have access to sustainability.