European Geologist Journal 56

Policymaking and geosciences: the case of Critical Raw Materials in Italy


by Mauro Lucarini1, *, Fiorenzo Fumanti1 Lucio Martarelli1 and Monica Serra1

1 ISPRA, Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale



The geoscience knowledge has improved our ability to access clean water, cultivate food, mitigate natural hazards and enhance the economy. It also plays a significant role in policymaking, often supported by an interdisciplinary approach. The sustainable energy transition requires a larger supply of raw materials within the framework of a circular economy. In Italy, despite a rich history of mining, a decision was made to import the majority of mineral resources from abroad, as it was more economically sustainable. However, over the past decade, there has been increased awareness, particularly after the introduction of the EU Green Deal. The Italian Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale (ISPRA) is actively supporting the mining sector, by coordinating technical panels and discussions on eco-friendly raw material perspectives at the national level. Additionally, ISPRA is developing a Geodatabase as a tool to promote the sustainable production of both primary and secondary mineral resources, while also contributing national and regional policies.

Cite as: Lucarini, M., Fiorenzo, F., Martarelli, L., & Serra, M. (2023). Policymaking and geosciences: the case of Critical Raw Materials in Italy. European Geologist, 56.

1. Introduction

The water, energy, and raw materials supply should be based on assessments and methodologies for reducing environmental impacts and risks. This is essential to support a deeper understanding and more effective management of the “subsurface layer”. To support policymakers, industry stakeholders, and decision-makers, a geological knowledge base, complete with objective and seamlessly accessible data, information, and expertise, is a necessity.

The role of geological knowledge lies in the transformation of acquired data into valuable data, which is then shared with the aim to support policymakers and various sectors of society, including academia and research, industry, stakeholders, investors, non-governmental organisations-NGOs, and the public. Presently, there is an increasing demand for information within society, as European citizens increasingly seek immediate access to the information essential for gaining a better understanding of the environment, hazards, and the imperative of sustainable natural resource management.

The development of an integrated and multidisciplinary approach to applied Earth Sciences is necessary to support European policies, that pertain to the understanding, utilisation, and management of the Earth’s subsurface resources. Furthermore, this approach is vital in addressing threats generated by anthropogenic activities. It plays a significant role in fostering national and regional policies that address natural resources and geological hazards.

Geosciences play a pivotal role in enabling the increasingly urgent energy transition and can serve as a catalyst for innovation and business, ultimately facilitating a sustainable and socially viable shift towards clean energy. This energy transition will further increase the reliance on new technologies and low-carbon energy systems, all of which are intrinsically linked to geoscientific knowledge, supplies and solutions [1].

Academia, industry, and government should identify high-priority and short-duration objectives concerning the energy-transition strategy and government policies. As a mid-term priority, it is crucial to enhance social awareness regarding the significant role of geosciences in advancing the goal of achieving net zero emissions across the EU.

Geoscientists recognise their responsibility in contributing to an effective and fair energy transition. This includes providing relevant education and training, collaborating for efficient and professional deployment of expertise, offering evidence-based information for both public understanding and policy formulation, developing community trust by actively listening, understanding and being receptive and responsive to concerns [1].

Finally, policy tools such as strategic planning, the enforcement of social and environmental best practices, and the recognition of the importance of mineral resources in land use planning should be implemented by EU Member States. This is especially critical in areas with limited geological knowledge regarding mineral deposits.

2. Global mining context and policymaking in Italy

The development of renewable energy sources and other high technology applications will require new infrastructure that will consume a varied assortment of minerals compared to current applications. This does not only include the ‘critical’ metals like rare earths, but also vast quantities of common commodities such as copper, steel, and cement.

International programmes have assembled data on resource demand and governance of natural resources, such as the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme. They have conducted significant research on mineral availability and governance but, so far, their primary emphasis has been on knowledge exchange, with limited regard to the development of policies addressing resource scarcity [2].

A strategic medium to long term vision regarding Critical Raw Materials (CRM) is also essential for industrial policy. The availability of CRMs, given the global demand, can pose challenges due to their variable geomineralogical concentrations, dependence on technological factors, and the economic policies of producing nations. Furthermore, unpredictable factors, ranging from conflicts to pandemics, can disrupt production and impact the supply chain, as currently observed by the challenges in sourcing raw materials and semi-finished products for national and European industries.

To address these issues, major mining companies must confront the related challenges by adopting new approaches and ideas that are inherently centred on sustainability. The era of critical minerals has dawned and it is regarded as the most momentous transformation the industry has witnessed in recent decades, with national governments assuming an ever-increasing role. Given the current surge in demand and elevated risk in supply chains, larger companies have formed alliances, instituted new policies and mobilised funding to secure access to critical minerals [3].

Decarbonisation also plays a crucial role, in fact mining companies must increase production to meet the rising demand for critical minerals and other products essential for the energy transition, all while reducing their carbon emissions. The drive to decarbonise the economy, as mandated by climate policies, hinges on the transformation of our energy system from fossil fuels to an electrification-based architecture. In addition, this shift necessitates a reconstruction of the mining supply chain. It is essential to recognise that depending on third countries, as illustrated by the challenges in reducing reliance on Russian gas, poses significant risks.

The energy transition will result in an increased demand for critical metals including copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, graphite, molybdenum, zinc, rare earths, and silicon. It is important to note that, China predominantly controls the aforementioned metals and holds a significant portion of their refining sectors. Without sufficient extraction and refining capacity, Europe will remain highly dependent on countries that might impose restrictions at their discretion. The presence of a monopoly has already led to restrictions on the export of rare earths, crucial for various strategic technological products, including wind turbines, electric vehicles, smartphones, and weapons, as well as components for solar panels. Furthermore, it is essential to understand that the countries where the mineral supply for key battery materials, such as Australia (50%), Chile (20%), and Argentina (10%) presently dominate the production of lithium mines. It is uncertain whether the increase in production will proceed as planned.

Geopolitical uncertainty has complicated the picture, sowing doubts about the provenance of critical minerals. In response, governments around the world have taken swift action to form alliances, developing policies and legislation, and financing initiatives that will stabilise the supply of critical minerals. These actions include, forging strategic partnerships between governments or trade agreements focused on collaborative efforts in critical minerals (alliances and agreements), enacting laws, policies or regulations to safeguard and guide the development of critical minerals and supply chains (policy and legislation), and offering direct government funding or government-backed funds to support critical minerals and supply chain initiatives (forms of funding).

As mentioned earlier, the mining sector plays a crucial role in the energy transition by providing raw materials for renewable energy and climate technologies. Meeting the global emissions reduction targets, as outlined by the International Energy Agency (IEA), will require an increased production of mining products. This includes a greater demand on steel for wind turbines, additional copper for transmission lines and electrical components, a higher volume of lithium for batteries, as well as a growing need for rare earths in electronics (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Analysis conducted by PWC based on IEA data, highlighting the potential for decarbonisation through reduced consumption of iron, zinc, lithium carbonate, and aluminium, particularly in energy production. Source: IEA, International Energy Agency.

The production and supply of mineral raw materials from mines and quarries are of strategic importance for the economy, both within the European Union and at a national level. While the EU is a significant player in the production of construction and industrial minerals, the European industry relies heavily on imports for many raw materials, even from countries where mining and sourcing practises may not always be sustainable. Hence, Europe must improve the management of its untapped mineral resources, including the adoption of more efficient recovery and recycling strategies. In this context, we are progressing towards the challenging task of combining economic competitiveness in production with environmentally and socially acceptable impacts through the concept of “sustainable mining” [4, 5].

EU member states are actively assessing their future requirements for critical minerals, motivated partly by the implementation of the CRM Act. In fact, as part of the recent CRM Act [6], the EU has announced its intent to establish a central agency for critical minerals. The Act outlines preliminary plans to “aggregate demand” and establish a procurement system for end-users of CRM within the EU. The objective is to domestically source at least 10% of the annual demand by 2030. Given consumption forecasts and considering the current state of global supply, most of the metals used in the energy transition process will face a structural shortage in the next years.

In this context, the Italian strategy must place significant attention on establishing joint ventures with foreign mining groups, to facilitate national and international mining ventures. This approach is essential because, apart from addressing the extraction and refining shortfall, Italy will also need to bridge the gap in terms of access to the required financial resources and expertise. Such an effort should not only encourage the development of existing Italian industrial entities, but also foster the emergence of new ones through public-private collaborations.

In Italy, despite a decrease in production recorded since 2008, the extractive industry for non-energy mineral resources remains an important economic sector (Figure 2), particularly for industrial and construction minerals. Thus, Italy should take on the task of launching a shared strategy between the government and regional authorities, in line with their respective competencies. This aims to maintain and strengthen the competitiveness of country’s mining industry, with a focus on sustainable management and development. This involves establishing resource-efficient value chains and increasing the capacity for reuse and recycling (Figure 3) [7, 8].

Figure 2: Salt mine in Realmonte, Agrigento, Sicily. Source: Fabrizio Giraldi.

Figure 3: Distribution of Italian mines operating between 1870 and 2018 (left) and current mining concessions (right). Source: ISPRA [8].

Abandoned mining waste has the potential to serve as a significant source of secondary raw materials. However, Italy must accelerate the process of revising its existing legislation. The primary focus should be on updating the regulations pertaining to abandoned mining waste. This is crucial because the Italian Legislative Decree 117/2008, which addresses mine waste management in alignment with the European Directive 2006/21/CE, does not specifically cater to waste for the purpose of mineral supply.

3. The “old-fashioned” legislative framework in Italy and the main proposals for regulatory changes

The mining legislation in Italy still dates back to the Royal Decree of July 29, 1927, No. 1443, which classifies (art. 2) the extractive industries into two categories: those involving strategic minerals (first category), such as mines and those related to minerals with a lesser economic impact (second category), such as quarries and peat bogs [9].

Therefore, the main distinction lies between the deposits subject to mining (excluding peat), which fall under the public law and are state-owned, subject to a concession procedure, and the quarry reservoirs which are under the private law, subject to an authorisation process and belong to the land owner.

Since the 70’s Italy has initiated a transfer of powers from the Central State to the Regional Governments regarding the governance of the extractive activities sector. This shift in responsibility occurred through the Presidential Decrees 2/1972 and 616/1977, which facilitated the transfer of functions and competencies to the Regions concerning the management of quarries.

Regarding mining activities, research concessions and exploration permits have been governed by Presidential Decree No. 382 of April 18, 1994. Later, Constitutional Law No. 3/2001 restructured the sector granting primary authority to the Regions and assigning orientation and coordination activities to the central government. Consequently, post-2001, Regions began enacting local mining laws that reflected the Royal Decree. Prospecting and exploration of mineral deposits requires a license according to the Title II (Mines) – Chapter I (Mining explorations) of Royal Decree 1443/1927, Presidential Decree 620/1955 (decentralised competencies for concessions on mineral oils and liquefied petroleum gases), and Presidential Decree 382/1994 (permits and concessions). Therefore, by holding only a permit, research and extraction operations can be performed. The exploration permits are subject to EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) legislation, which is administered by the Ministry of Environment and Energy Security (MASE). If exploration yields positive results, the permit holder, can request a mining license for ore extraction.

The production concession is regulated by the articles 14 to 44 of the Royal Decree 1443/1927. This concession is always a temporary concession and is ordained by a deliberation of the competent authority including:

  1. The concessionaire’s data and address information;
  2. Duration of the concession;
  3. The type and extension of the mine and of its borders;
  4. The concession fees (royalties).

The concession is conducted through deliberation at the local government level in each individual Region (Royal Decree 1443/1927; Legislative Decree 112/1998).

Eventually, for each extraction activity an EIA is required: a national level EIA for prospecting, researching and producing offshore oil; a regional level EIA for inshore quarries and peat bogs, producing more than 500.000 m3/yr or covering an area greater than 20 hectares. For inshore mineral deposits, a Regional Screening Procedure is employed (art. 2 Royal Decree 1443/1927).

As previously mentioned, administrative and technical skills relating to the extraction of non-energy minerals have been delegated to the Regions at various points in time (quarries: Presidential Decree July 24th, 1977, No. 616; mines: Legislative Decree March 31, 1998, No. 112 and Legislative Decree June 22, 2012, No. 83). Additionally, all regions have legislated on the matter at different times. The absence of national guidelines has generated diversified regional planning approaches and heterogeneous databases in terms of data quality and completeness.

The existing situation requires the collection and harmonisation of available data to establish a coherent national framework. It is important to note that Italy currently lacks a national inventory of ceased, active or operative non-energy mining activities.

Given the mentioned Italian legislation, dating back to almost a century, a strong innovative push is required for legal reassessment of abandoned waste (Figure 4). This, in turn, would allow the reuse and recovery of materials in storage facilities, which are currently posing ecological, health, and structural challenges.

Figure 4: The “Monteponi red mud heaps”, composed of mineralogical and metallurgical processed waste (left), Sardinia – Italy. The “fine basin of Masua” comprised of tailing ponds (right), Sardinia – Italy. Source: EU Network IMPEL, Management of Mining Waste Project, 2020-2022.

Given the current decentralisation of mining sector regulations in Italy, it is advisable that the competent ministries and public authorities, collaborate in a coordinated manner, taking into account the national, regional, and provincial dimensions. They should provide clear guidelines and strategic programmes for a future reactivation of mining activities.

ISPRA (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale) is currently working with the competent ministries and with local stakeholders to develop regulatory solutions that allow the sustainable management of mining activities, with regard to the management and recovery of mining waste. This effort aligns with the requirements outlined in European Directive 2006/21/EC and Italian Legislative Decree No. 117/2008.

4. Mining strategy, informative database, and mining mapping in Italy

In addition to the possibility of improving the current regulatory framework, it is essential to be able to recover, all the information linked to solid mineral extraction activities. This is crucial for quantifying geo-mineral resources, ensuring environmental protection and protecting cultural heritage. With this regard, the Geological Survey of Italy at ISPRA is actively developing the National Geological, Mining, Museum and Environmental Geodatabase (GeMMA Project) [10]. This effort includes specific projects collaborating with the competent regional bodies and will be closely linked to the planned creation and updating of the Mining Map of Italy (currently originating from 1973) [11].

This database (Figure 5) will contain all relevant information related to Italian geological mapping projects (e.g., CARG Project-Italian Geological and Geothematic Cartography project), historical geological maps, national census of active mines and quarries, data from regional and provincial databases and mining plans, inventory of historical mining sites, network of mine national parks and museums, etc. The main purpose of the GeMMA project is to define the national situation of mineral resources from mines and quarries including the geological, environmental, cultural, and economic aspects, with particular attention to the environmental impact of mining practices and the potential exploitation of the decommissioned mining assets and the extracted waste that has piled up over time.

Figure 5: Prototype of the GeMMA Database. Source: ISPRA [10].

The general objective of data harmonisation is to facilitate the evaluation of national resources with the following objectives in mind:

  1. Supporting the development of a new integrated national mining strategy;
  2. Re-establishing the foundation for nurturing skills that will allow Italy to sustainably manage its own resources;
  3. Ensuring a substantial presence in international projects, contributing to a responsible supply of solid mineral resources.

The ultimate goal is the identification of areas considered suitable, for the issuance of operational research permits. These areas are determined through the intersection of mining potential and anticipated social and environmental impacts. This integration is part of a procurement plan that centres on the principles of a circular economy and environmental protection.

The first step involves a geological mapping of the country, under the leadership of the National Table for Critical Raw Materials shared between MIMIT and MASE. Simultaneously, it is necessary to update regulations regarding mining activities, which are still rooted in the Royal Decree No. 1443 of 1927. The government will have to recognise the importance of mining, in the protection of the national interest and actively intervene in the supply strategy. Consequently, at sites where raw material deposits are identified as underutilised by the national economy, it is imperative to leverage this availability as a bargaining tool to secure essential raw materials of immediate national interest from other countries [7].

Similarly to other European countries, the objective is to achieve a new national ore deposits vision, represented by a new and innovative Mining Map of Italy, which also includes abandoned waste, by the associated GeMMA Database (both, the new Mining Map and the Database are still prototypes, not published on the ISPRA website) and by a Catalogue of Conceptual Models, which describes groups of similar deposits in Italy. This initiative is situated within the context of environmental sustainability and forms a vital component of a broader procurement strategy for mineral raw materials. It is worth noting that the latest version of the Mining Map of Italy [1] was created within a completely different social-economic context compared to the present day.

To date, all the active quarries and mines across the national territory have been identified and georeferenced within the GeMMA prototype. Approximately 90% of the mines that have been operational since 1870 have been successfully located. Each coded mining site is linked to data sources such as mining site type, activity state, extracted ore type, management type and the environmental condition of the site. The estimation of resources and reserves poses greater challenges, primarily due to the division of responsibilities attributed to the regional authorities under Italian legislation. Therefore, for the successful execution of this project, ISPRA is coordinating a Thematic Table of the Italian Geological Services Network, involving the participation of the Regional Offices for Mining and collaborating with the Italian Institute for Statistics (ISTAT), MIMIT and MASE. Through these efforts, the Geological Survey of Italy aims to transform the GeMMA Database into a valuable tool for the development of national and regional policies oriented towards the sustainable extraction and efficient use of primary and secondary mineral resources within the framework of a circular economy [12].

5. Conclusions and future perspectives

The notion that Italy lacks sufficient mineral raw materials must be dispelled through a new national sustainable procurement strategy that integrates mining within the principles of the circular economy. Assigning ISPRA the coordinating role for creating the new National Mining Map and developing sustainability criteria for mining activities will facilitate the application of best available practices, minimising environmental impacts. This will be achieved through the establishment of a monitoring and control programme that covers the entire life cycle of mining activities. Numerous scenarios developed by international institutions concur that, in the future, solid minerals will replace conventional fuels.

Clearly, certain specific measures should be taken into consideration to ensure efficient mining [2], particularly by policymakers:

  1. CRM extraction must be socially and environmentally acceptable;
  2. The promotion of a system for tracking mineral usage throughout the entire value chain, from source to the end of life;
  3. Encouraging private-public collaboration to develop new techniques for mineral exploration in new locations, fostering data sharing between industry and geological surveys;
  4. Support for investments and research in new mineral extraction technologies;
  5. Enhanced coordination between industry and governments to achieve good environmental practices, proactive and effective stakeholder engagement, and the coexistence of mining with other land uses;
  6. The development of maps and inventories that illustrate the availability of recyclable metals, while establishing internationally recognised standards for recyclability.

To achieve these goals, it is important to stress some focal points, ranging from the educational sector to the streamlining of bureaucratic practices, and extending to the attainment of social acceptance in the mining sector.

In fact, in addition to the issues, the shortage of talent is becoming an almost existential challenge for mining companies, particularly those operating at remote sites. Therefore, it is considered essential to collaborate with governments and with local communities to effectively communicate the role of the extractive industry in the energy transition. Furthermore, investments in the education and training of specialists in the sector are vital, potentially retraining staff to align with the concept of sustainable mining. Economic and training investments should be closely integrated to guarantee that the system can effectively support a sustainable energy transition [3]. Furthermore, it is essential to highlight that the continuous decline of the mining sector could potentially lead to a loss of expertise in the sector, as well as a higher risk of disinvestment in research and education. This is because young, well-educated scientists may relocate to other regions. To mitigate these impacts, the European Union has invested heavily in research and innovation activities through the Framework Programme Horizon 2020, for the period 2014 to 2020, and plans to continue investments in Horizon Europe, for the period 2021–2027. As for Italy, it is actively participating in such projects in order to try to align itself with the EU mining strategy. Moreover, mining serves the essential purpose of supplying raw materials to meet the needs of the global population. Nevertheless, mining is often perceived negatively, possibly due to past instances that have left lasting marks on former mining regions, particularly in Italy. Consequently, companies in the sector encounter challenges when attempting to effectively and promptly communicate with the public to achieve a positive response (Figure 6). The ‘Social License to Operate’ (SLO) is the key for integrating sustainability into the mining sector [13]. It extends the operator’s liability or operating license throughout the entire lifecycle of the mining business. The company acquires this license from the main stakeholders, through permits, environmental impact studies, geomonitoring and risk management systems. Additionally, it is supported by building a relationship of trust and transparency with local communities and governments, actively engaging them in the planning process right from the outset. Achieving prior consent for the initiation or reactivation of a mining operation requires substantial credibility on the part of the mining stakeholders, particularly in Italy.

Figure 6: Flowchart illustrating the primary stakeholders involved in acquiring a social license to operate (SLO) and their key advantages. Source: [13].

All these factors may be taken into consideration in the future when it comes to investments in extractive industries and could influence the decision to grant a SLO at the European level [13].

In summary, a mining process can only be considered sustainable when the utilisation of deposits is also sustainable, necessitating equal consideration of economic, ecological and social dimensions [14].

Eventually, mining companies bear the costs of operational research, often supported by state contributions. However, the subsequent assignment of permits should be simplified for mining companies with a proven track record and in areas previously identified as promising by relevant authorities. In this context, geological documentation is important for achieving accuracy in mining. The new National Mining Map of Italy will serve as a fundamental tool in the strategy, fostering the alignment of environmental, social, and economic conditions in the regions. One of the primary objectives is to delineate areas suitable for the issuance of operational research permits within our territory.

This underlines the fundamental principle that all EU members, particularly Italy, must invest in research and training to bridge the gap with the dominant mining economies in the supply of raw materials. Italian governance stands to gain a new perspective on policymaking by promoting research and innovation investments, starting from its robust geological knowledge base.


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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 56 – Geoscience in policy making: Past experience, current practice and future opportunities

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