European Geologist Journal 42

Future challenges in international cooperation for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources with high added value in Europe

By Rubén Esteban Pérez*

*Geologist. EurGeol. MSc. MBA. MDI., Delegate of ICOG (Spanish Official Professional Association of Geologists), Member of Panel of Experts on Resources and Reserves (European Federation of Geologists), Member of Expert Group on Resource Classification (UNFC-2009/UNECE)


For the last decade, mining has been experiencing the effects of a major change relating to the mining business itself and the conditions of the professionals involved in exploration and exploitation of geological deposits. The lack of a European mining policy and development constraints (including NIMBY) on the European continent have led to heavy reliance on third countries for supply of the metal ores needed for European manufacturing. The EU has defined a policy to explain to the European countries that mineral resources must be properly studied and exploited in an economically viable way. Therefore, the EU is developing an international cooperation plan with a geological basis to reduce dependence on imports from countries outside Europe.

Several challenges face the mining industry both now and in the decades to come. Important initiatives are underway that aim to address these challenges, such as creating systems for sharing geological knowledge and forming and implementing strategies to reduce dependence on mineral raw materials from non-European Union countries. Other areas also deserve attention; suggestions are given for more comprehensive EU mining legislation, for shared R&D and classification systems, and for greater standardisation of curricula in mining and geological education.

Creating a database of European and international cooperation in geological knowledge

Long gone are the days when the policies of individual countries in Europe were predominantly directed towards the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in their own territories alone. The implementation of major geological mapping campaigns (such as the MAGNA Plan in Spain) were encouraged, which laid down the foundations for the geological knowledge of the wider territory in many aspects such as mining and other geoscientific information.

Today we can say that at the European level, knowledge on the location and distribution of geological resources of the EU28 territory is well advanced. Two projects of the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (2007-2013) are good examples: ProMine (Jalovaara, 2013) and EuroGeoSource (Fortes et al., 2013).

After these projects and within the framework of the new European program of R&D Horizon 2020, the Minerals4EU project developed between 2013 and 2015 was designed to meet the recommendations of the European Raw Materials Initiative (RMI) (Solar, 2015).

In parallel to all these activities, international bodies based in Europe such as the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) have been developing the so-called UNFC-2009 (United Nations Framework Classification for Fossil Energy and Mineral Reserves and Resources) (UNECE, 2015). The document aims to become the single classification system for conducting inventories of mineral resources at the country level, using a unified set of definitions and intergovernmental comparable terms.

The UNFC is something that affects European geologists directly. The European Union (EU) has promoted the use of this classification system at least for evaluation by the member states. After the meeting of the Competitiveness Council of the EU in March 2011, the Council of the Union encouraged the European Commission to act as facilitator to promote the use of the system created by UNECE.

In this sense, one of the most important projects was EuroGeoSource, previously mentioned, which during the period of its execution promoted the use of the UNFC to harmonise data concerning energy and mineral resources (Blystad, 2012).

In relation to this, it is fundamental not to confuse the UNFC classification system with the classification system of PERC (Pan European Reserves and Resources Reporting Committee), developed in Europe by various international organisations within the CRIRSCO template (Committee for Mineral Reserves International Reporting Standards), which allows to generate reports (Reporting Code) on ​​research results and of mineral resources and reserves of economically viable deposits. The CRIRSCO template reporting codes such as PERC allow data on mineral resources and reserves data to be gathered, understood and compared by investors, investment advisers, Stock Exchanges or Global Financial Markets (PERC, 2013). In addition to the above, there are other classification systems included in the CRIRSCO template, such as the Australasian JORC, NI 43-101 for North America and more. These Reporting Codes generate positive synergies that allow  easy comparison and understanding by the various stakeholders involved in the mining process for the purpose of gaining relevant and reliable data, based on the principles of transparency and competition, when researching and exploiting of mineral resources had been done.

It is important that there is a worldwide system of inventory and classification of mineral resources and reserves at the country level, regardless of the viability of mining operations, but it is also necessary that this system coexist with others employed by enterprises for exploitable economically viable deposits. While international systems such as the UNFC are designed and developed to facilitate communication between Member States and the exchange of information relating to exploration and exploitation of mineral resources among many stakeholders (governmental, academic and industrial), the Reporting Code has a strictly business purpose, valuing in detail the technical and economic viability of the exploitation of the deposit in order to secure funding to undertake the different phases of the mining project. We must keep in mind that today shared or coexisting systems are still lacking, and while some countries have adopted the UNFC as a classification system for their mineral resources, others use their own system or even none at all.

The European Strategy for Raw Materials (RMI) and dependence on third countries in metal and strategic mining

Mineral raw materials, and especially the so-called critical minerals or Critical Raw Materials (CRM), are vital to the economy of the EU and are equally necessary and, for now, irreplaceable for the development of modern technologies friendly to the environment.

Today, the mining industry is part of a globalised market.  Decisions on studying new mineral deposits and whether or not to open or reopen a mine depend on the global prices of raw materials.

Other aspects are the cost differences due to geographical and geological conditions, the standards of employability for different professionals involved in the mining work, and the regulations on environmental impact, disposal of waste generated from the extractive activity, increased pollution, and potential geological risk in soil and/or changes in local water quality.

The high-value-added global metallic and non-metallic mining industry sector is characterised by a relatively small number of international industrial groups operating across continents. Many of the products resulting from the activity of this sector are traded globally and prices are set in global financial markets.

While the EU is self-sufficient in the production of construction materials, it has high levels of net imports of metal ores, and mainly of CRM, the strategic and technological minerals.

However, minerals and metals global financial markets are increasingly distorted due to excessively protectionist policies, increasingly meagre market output quotas from producing countries, great price variability, lack of exploration for  new deposits, and price controls for the global markets. These factors ultimately produce insecurity in the supply chain of these minerals to European manufacturing companies.

Minerals such as antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, platinum, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten are considered strategic by the EU. The supply of rare earth, niobium and indium is from third countries, with up to 90% from countries like China or Brazil (Rachovides, 2015).

Besides the above, it must take into account that there are supplies such as tantalum and niobium (also called coltan) from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a risk of influence by war and on guerrilla factions. This has led the EU to restrict the market of so-called “conflict minerals” and replace these export routes with other alternatives, but always outside European borders.

The sharp increase in commodity prices up to 2008 has led the European Commission to adopt a new strategy to address the challenges for raw materials supplies to the European markets, named the Raw Materials Initiative or RMI, with the following key points and time limit until 2020 (EC, 2008) :

  • Definition of a national policy for every European State to ensure that mineral resources are exploited in an economically viable way in harmony with other national policies.
  • Establishment of a territorial planning mining policy that includes an important basis of geological knowledge as result of exploration for new mineral deposits and transparent and comprehensive methodology inventory of mineral resources.
  • Setting up an authorisation process for exploration and extraction of minerals that is clear, understandable and provides certainty to the citizen that complies with environmental protocols.

However, even fully implementing the above points will not ensure change in the current situation of exploration and exploitation of mineral deposits in Europe.

From a minerals resources point of view, Europe has remained a highly decentralised and fragmented continent. The policies developed in the Member States in order to give the regions increasingly important legislative and executive independence have led Europe to be a continent of regions where policies emanating from the European Directives are transposed the legislative acquis of the countries with multiple changes. These changes are often influenced by the political colour of the party holding the majority or by the needs of certain parties to achieve approval of legislation. Subsequently, these laws, which are generally not basic or primary laws, almost always lead to more restrictive regional laws for the mining sector. These laws are nothing more than the legislative achievement of a NIMBY (not in my back yard) trend that has come to stay in Europe.

No politician, regardless of political colour, in a 4- or 5-year legislative timeframe wants to get involved in mining projects with life cycles of decades, when society in general is demanding the establishment of other industries in their territory. Almost nobody stops to think about where the minerals that allow manufacturing in their welfare state come from, or under what conditions they arrive.

In addition to this, each country now has very different legislation and there is no mining regulation at European level that is of direct and mandatory application in the territory of the EU-28 that can replace obsolete mining laws not very consistent with the globalisation of raw materials currently existing on the planet. Without this common regulatory framework for all countries of the EU-28 it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to implement national policies that comply with the principles of the RMI.

Similarly, in the order of administrative competences, there are still cases of national mining laws which reserve different activities for certain professionals to the detriment of others. One example is the Mining Law of Spain, in force since its adoption in the bygone era of the dictatorship. A unified European criterion regarding the professional activity does not exist. Although professional titles, such as EurGeol, are valid at the European level for various tasks, to practice as a geologist in a foreign country as a resident, you still need to have the academic title of geologist achieved in the country of origin recognised through some bureaucratic process. This is usually complex and not always rewarding in many European countries.

The answer to these problems requires a global response and cooperative sense among the member countries of the Union. There are also notable differences between the European countries’ classifications of mineral resources, laws on ownership of subsurface resources, types of licenses for exploration and exploitation, and many other aspects.

Vision for the future

That is why, in conclusion, we can say that in order to provide Europe with a genuine common policy on research and sustainable exploitation of our geological resources it is necessary to create a common legislative framework for the countries of the EU-28, with important intergovernmental and intersectoral collaboration in the development of a European raw materials policy.

Thus, the creation of a European Regulation that brings together all aspects that make up the mining process and creates a single and direct legislative framework and of full implementation at the European level is essential. A regulation that promotes a new legal framework at European level and the adequacy of national mining laws and development decrees would ensure that mining in Europe started from common rules for the entire EU territory.

This would cover not only the administrative issue of permits and licenses, but also would include the process of preliminary investigation, investment in exploitation, environmental control during operation and decommissioning and closure once the deposit has been fully exploited. It would also facilitate the creation of a truly European geological service (similar to the USGS) that would boost the exchange of competences and specialisation throughout the European countries.

Previous research could be based in a research and development program created to elaborate a map of mineral resources in Europe using a global classification system, comparable and of easy information exchange between the stakeholders involved. This classification system could be the UNFC-2009 or even the PERC code if additional categories for mineralisations beyond inferred resources were created.

From there, once the probable and proven mineral reserves are defined at country level, as well as the potential economic resources (with the help of the National Geological Services or “ad hoc” working groups), there could be open tenders for the detailed investigation of the known mineral resources where information could be shared and understood by all stakeholders through a mining Reporting Code, such as PERC.

For certain strategic minerals it may be worthwhile to map, assess and measure the mineral resources for an economically viable deposit and then to set up public tenders for exploitation as a useful tool for mining companies that could participate on equal terms. If the resources of the European subsoil were all in public ownership, even though the surface land could be private property, this would facilitate this process, as undesirable attitudes that sometimes occur if ownership of subsoil mineral resource is in private hands would then be avoided in mining project management.

Another point of importance which is currently not implemented in Europe is the homogenisation of curricula for training professionals involved in the mining process, so that a true free movement of professionals across borders of the different European countries and third countries would be generated, treating all on an equal footing, eliminating existing barriers – similar to those existing the 19th century – to the freedom to provide professional services and reserves of activity. The Bologna Process has created the framework for an engineer, geologist or technician of any country in Europe to carry out his/her activity in another country on equal footing with their nationals, but there is still much work to ensure that competence is given to the competent professional in mining operations. In this issue, international collaboration within the territory of the EU-28 is essential, both at the level of governments and of the professional associations of the different sectors involved in the research and extraction of mineral raw materials.

A possible solution would be for the EurGeol title to serve as a passport to freedom to provide services across Europe to all geologists who possess it. This would eliminate the need to validate the academic title in the administration of another country in order to work there as a geologist.

Finally, the NIMBY trend on the European continent for everything related to mining is a problem that can destroy environmentally safe and viable projects before they start. This trend is fed by certain political sectors, by certain social actors who reject outright any mining activities, and by some economic sectors that move at the bidding of global financial markets. This situation is a handicap for mining activity in Europe and worldwide. Nor has it helped that some accidents in mines in operation draw national and international media attention, which can make the population more likely to reject the extraction of the resources needed for the future development of their own societies.

Mining Professionals must give guarantees to society that mining projects, like any economic activity of an industrial nature, comply with the highest technical and environmental requirements before starting extraction, throughout the whole useful life cycle and during the closure and restoration time. The Environmental Impact Assessment should be completed with geological studies, supervised by a Competent Person. They should be mandatory for all mining projects regardless of its magnitude or its characteristics.

A European Regulation for mining with an inventory of best practices could be a tool to improve technical exploitation, pushing the industry towards adopting the highest safety standards. Then, pedagogy and information should do the rest to convert mining into an option for many communities without a strong economy, despite having sufficient geological resources to face their future.

Only by developing all of the above aspects, expending work and time and working towards consensus, can we talk of a real European policy on raw materials. This would lead to rationalisation in the exploitation of our geological resources in an environmentally sustainable manner, drastically reducing Europe’s import dependence on third countries in CRM, and a clear rejection of “conflict minerals” or minerals from countries where international standards on environment and human rights are not respected.


I would like to thank Manuel Regueiro, President of the Spanish Association Professional Geologists, for his help in the translation of this article into English. I would also like to thank Pim Demecheleer, Geology Director at Sibelco Europe, for his revision of the article and professional comments.


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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 42 – International cooperation on raw materials.