Reasons for scepticism over Swedish rare earths find

It is not often that Swedes get carried away. But the announcement this month of a large deposit of rare earths — used in everything from mobile phones and windmills to batteries and electric vehicles — deep in the Swedish Arctic has many in the country very excited.

Stung by their smaller and once poorer neighbour Norway overtaking them in the wealth stakes when they found oil in the late 1960s, some in Stockholm are asking if this find by state-owned miner LKAB could be their equivalent?

“Potentially yes,” says Ebba Busch, deputy prime minister and minister for energy, business and industry. “It’s not very often that Swedes get enthusiastic and ecstatic in that way . . . Sweden is literally a gold mine.”

The inconvenient truth about European industry’s massive green transition is that it is almost entirely dependent on China for rare earths and mineral processing. So the prospect of abundant minerals under European soil was immensely cheering for the group of EU commissioners who visited LKAB’s current iron ore mine in Kiruna earlier this month.

But there are equally grounds to be sceptical about just how important the Swedish find really is. There are questions over how long it could take to develop, how big it is, the impact on the local environment and how realistic it will be for Europe to wean itself off Chinese supplies.

“There’s a spin here,” says Per Kalvig, one of the pre-eminent experts on rare earths. He adds that the deposit, known as Per Geijer, has been known about for decades and that LKAB gave few details to help geologists determine the quality of the find.

The researcher emeritus at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland is almost bemused by the attention the story received: “I can’t remember a mineral project with so much interest. This has attracted so much interest, but the core of the story is very slight.”

LKAB is predominantly known as an iron ore miner, as well as for its remarkable feat of moving the entire Arctic town of Kiruna several kilometres to allow it to keep digging for the minerals. The Per Geijer deposits have long been known about, but it is still not clear what they contain.

With much fanfare, LKAB announced what it called “Europe’s largest deposit of rare earths”. It said there were more than 1mn tonnes of rare earth oxides near to Kiruna, and that they could be a crucial tool in helping Europe in the green transition.

Northern Sweden is currently at the forefront of that transition with Europe’s first homegrown gigafactory producing batteries for Northvolt since 2021, and two separate large projects for green steel. Busch says the projects could increase Sweden’s importance in geopolitics, and help reduce Europe’s dependence on China.

People involved in some of these projects say the move by LKAB, chaired by former Swedish prime minister Göran Persson, could also be seen as an attempt to lock the government into making the green industrialisation of northern Sweden a success.

To do that, the government will need to defuse conflicts arising from the green transition. Sami reindeer herders have complained repeatedly that their land is being sacrificed to mines and windmills, both in Sweden and Norway. There is a similar issue at a Norwegian rare earths deposit — the Fen complex, which some claim is larger than Per Geijer. It is underneath farmland and villages, prompting scepticism on whether it can be developed. Kalvig also underscores how, even if Europe mines rare earth elements, it would lack the capacity to process them.

The companies involved in the green transition in turn complain about the time taken to grant permits, a common complaint across Europe for wind and solar projects. And such is the demand from LKAB for energy to make its iron ore free from carbon — estimated to require at least a third of Sweden’s entire current production — there are worries about whether there will be enough power even with planned wind and nuclear projects.

For Busch and others, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine offers a stark warning for all in Europe. “The dependence that the EU has had on Russian gas will seem like a nice summer breeze compared with the lock-ins on the green transition,” she adds. But ending that dependence on China requires more than a few headlines.

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Twitter: @rmilneNordic

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