Greenland's Ice Melt Ignites Race for Rare Earth Metals
By Paul E McGinniss
I watched the astounding film about global warming and the world's melting glaciers, Chasing Ice, at the Woodstock Film Festival last month. Part of the jaw-dropping documentary about National Geographic explorer and environmental advocate, James Balog, was filmed in breathtaking Greenland—the largest island in the world, and a self-ruling overseas territory of Denmark.
Greenland's vast, pristine, virtually-untouched terrain is becoming a hotbed for resource extraction. The Arctic is melting at an unprecedented rate, making Greenland's natural resources, including high demand commodities such as oil, gas, gold, iron, copper and rare earth metals, more accessible. Insatiable international oil, gas and mining conglomerates are now aggressively vying to control access to the riches glaciers once denied.
"This is not just a region of ice and polar bears," Prime Minister of Greenland, Kuupik Kleist, told Reuters in the capital Nuuk, formerly known by its Danish name Godthab. "Developing countries are interested in a more political role in opening up of the Arctic. Greenland could serve as a stepping stone."
Greenland has less than 60,000 people living in an 836,109 square mile area. Comparatively, Greenland is almost a quarter the size of the continental U.S. Until recently, the country was regarded by strategists as barren wasteland with little political or economic import. But now this once overlooked arctic island is being targeted by government and politically connected entities, anxious to extract what lies beneath the glacier ice sheet. The powerful and deep-pocketed interests include China, the U.S., Russia and the European Union.
Many in Greenland are excited about the attention the remote island nation is attracting and are happy to have world powers courting Greenland looking to strike it rich. Greenlanders are hoping they too will get rich along with the foreign investors.
Henrik Stendal, head of the geology department at Greenland's Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, a Dane who has worked in Greenland since 1970, told the U.K. Guardian in July:
"We have shown that we have huge potential—it has been an eye-opener for the mining industry. The EU has shown a lot of interest and that's been very good—we believe this could be very valuable for Greenland. There could be benefits for everyone—at present most of our income is from fishing and a little bit of tourism, so the government really wants another income."
In addition to oil and gas, and perhaps even more attractive to industry, are rare earth metals that lie beneath the ground in Greenland that are essential components in new technologies, including computer hard drives, cell phones and flat screen devices. The world is consuming these rare earth metals at a voracious rate. For instance, in the first weekend of sales, the 4G iPad mini sold four million units. Our appetite for these devices and the rare metals required seems unending.
Rare earth metals are also essential elements to military guidance systems and other defense related technology. Most of the rare earth metals are currently sourced in China. Now, the world's nations are considering Greenland's resources not just from an economic point of view, but, perhaps more importantly, a strategic perspective. There is a national security imperative when looking at availability of these resources and who controls them.
The New York Times reported in September:
"Western nations have been particularly anxious about Chinese overtures to this poor and sparsely populated island, a self-governing state within the Kingdom of Denmark, because the retreat of its ice cap has unveiled coveted mineral deposits, including rare earth metals that are crucial for new technologies like cellphones and military guidance systems. A European Union vice president, Antonio Tajani, rushed here to Greenland’s capital in June, offering hundreds of millions in development aid in exchange for guarantees that Greenland would not give China exclusive access to its rare earth metals, calling his trip 'raw mineral diplomacy.'"
"In the past 18 months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea have made debut visits here, and Greenland’s prime minister, Kuupik Kleist, was welcomed by President José Manuel Barroso of the European Commission in Brussels."
Yet another extremely important and complicated aspect to the race for riches in the Arctic is that the rare earth metals buried under the ice are also a vital component in green technologies. For example, neodymium is necessary to fabricate the super efficient magnets essential to electric cars and wind turbines. Clearly, access to rare earth minerals is key to manifesting a clean energy future.
It's maddening to think that corporate leaders and world government officials are more in a frenzy to protect their self interests and exploit natural resources as opposed to slowing global warming.
The race for natural resources in the Arctic highlights the importance of energy conservation and recycling.
In the article, Peak Minerals: Shortage of Rare Earth Metals Threatens Renewable Energy, Professor Chris Rodes said:
"In the face of resource depletion, recycling looks increasingly attractive. In this stage of development of the throw-away society, now might be the time to begin 'mining' its refuse. While recycling of base-metals from scrap is a mature part of an industry worth $160 billion per year, current efforts to recover and recycle rare-metals are far less well advanced. Ultimately, recycling needs to be deliberately designed into an integrated paradigm of extraction, use and reuse, rather than treating it as an unplanned consequence."
For more information watch the New York Times video Race is On as Ice Melt Reveals Arctic Treasures.
Paul E McGinniss is The New York Green Advocate. He is a green building consultant and real estate broker in New York. He is pretty much obsessed with all things environment and has lately become a resiliency addict.