Metals & Minerals
Did you know that you will use about 800 metric tons of minerals and metals in your life? Almost everything you see around you in your home is directly connected to the bedrock beneath us—from the toothpaste you use and the jewelry you wear to plumbing fixtures, batteries, windows, and technical equipment such as mobile phones and computers. And when you step outside, those metals continue to play an essential role—we have mining to thank for our buses, cars, trains, bridges, lampposts, sculptures, signs, and much, much more.
Sweden has some of the strictest environmental regulations in the world. We think that’s a good thing. Because so many of the building blocks for a green transition and our shared future come from the mining and mineral industry, naturally we want our business to be absolutely as sustainable as possible as we extract the metals and minerals we need for the future. And that’s what it is. But we’re not satisfied with the way things are; we’re working relentlessly to be even better.
Questions & Answers
No, there aren’t enough metals already. It’s not just about us in the Western world. The millions of people that are on the verge of rising up out of poverty right now have no chance at developing toward the standard of living we take for granted unless more metals are added into the circular resource system. But we should remember that metals are base elements and can therefore be recycled again and again, making them perfectly suited to a sustainable society and a circular economy. We also need more metals—and more kinds of metal—to meet the demands of new technological advancements, often in response to climate change. These require new kinds of metals that have not been used previously but must now be extracted extensively. One example are the rare-earth metals that are needed for things like batteries, screens, photovoltaics, circuit boards, and lots of other electronic equipment.
We are good at recycling metals in Sweden. In 2013, what was then the largest plant in the world for recycling electronic waste was opened in Skellefteå. But we can do even better. However, we must remember that recycling can only satisfy a portion of the increasing demand for the metals that are needed around the world. Iron, copper, and other metals are basic chemical elements, which can be recycled an infinite number of times without losing their properties. Mining operations will continue to be needed to supply the critical minerals we need to produce the products and the technologies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions—even if we dramatically increase the amount of recycling in the future.
The mining industry is energy-intensive, particularly the smelting process. But in recent decades, some enormously successful investments have been made to reduce emissions. For example, LKAB has invested 1.5 billion SEK (145 million euros) in three flue gas purification plants in Malmberget and Svappavaara. These plants clean the air emitted from iron ore pelletizing to remove acidifying substances, reducing the emissions of sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, and dust particles by 90 percent. To reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Boliden captures the excess heat generated by its smelting plants, and far-reaching energy efficiency programs are underway at all of its mines. LKAB, SSAB, and Vattenfall have together initiated a pilot project called Hybrit to develop the technology for reducing hydrogen gas emissions. Some day that could make it possible for steel to be produced with dramatically reduced emissions.
The short answer is no, mines cannot be opened just anywhere. First of all, a mine can only be opened in places where there is a sufficiently high concentration of mineral for it to be technically possible and economically profitable to extract the mineral (see the answer above under “What is ore?”
Other things that influence where a mine may be opened include the land-use regulations in the Minerals Act and the Environmental Code, since there are often competing interests making claims to the same land, which means that a determination must be made as to which interest should take priority. Certain natural conservation areas are protected from all forms of impact, while others are more open to striking a balance between competing interests, including meeting society’s need for metals.
The permit that is required to be able to exploit a mineral deposit (that is, to operate a mine) is called an exploitation concession, and it is the Mining Inspectorate of Sweden that determines if a concession should be granted. If the Inspectorate and the county administrative board are not in agreement, the matter of the exploitation concession may be referred to the government to make a determination.
In addition to the Minerals Act, mines and prospecting must conform to other legislation, including the Environmental Code. All of the mines in operation in Sweden must have an “environmental permit” in accordance with the Environmental Code that regulates how the mine may be operated. For the environmental permit, it is the Swedish Land and Environmental Courts that determine the conditions that will apply, and typically multiple different authorities are involved in the evaluation of a permit application.
Permission to start a mine requires extensive testing according to various laws that govern how the intended activity can and must be planned.
The transition to a fossil-free future will require large amounts of minerals, since new, climate-smart technologies require more of these elements than fossil-based technologies do. The demand for minerals will therefore increase dramatically. These materials are often referred to as critical metals—the minerals and metals that are used in the manufacturing of things like wind power plants, batteries, solar panels, electrical appliances and vehicles, screens, and other electronics. Minerals and metals are needed everywhere in the electrified society that we want to—and must—move toward. And it is the journey to get there that is often referred to as the green transition.
The soundest explanation for why we’re not mining critical materials in Sweden today apart from tellurium is the lengthy and inefficient permitting process. Nevertheless, there are a number of promising projects that have made progress before getting stuck in the system. The situation is so grave that the challenges of today’s permitting processes is a contributing factor to Sweden’s drop in the international rankings of attractiveness for prospecting—even though we are one of the only countries in Europe where the geological conditions make it possible to contribute to reducing our dependence on imports.
In other words, increased prospecting is a precondition for developing the knowledge needed to exploit Sweden’s potential in a fossil-free future. If we don’t do it, we’re going to have to continue building our green economy transition on metals and minerals imported from undemocratic countries with non-existent environmental regulations. Therefore, it should be in the government’s interest to make haste in clearing out the obstacles to increased prospecting.
Ore is an economic term and, strangely enough, what is defined as ore can vary from one day to the next. Because what determines if a mineral is considered ore is whether or not it would be profitable to extract—if so, it is considered ore. In other words, it depends on the price in the global marketplace for the metal that is contained in the mineral and the cost of extracting it and getting it out onto the market. In short, ore is a geologically formed concentration of one or more metal-containing minerals in sufficiently high concentration and appropriate form found in a sufficiently convenient location to make mining it profitable.
In Sweden, it has long been the case that anyone who has the capacity to explore or extract a mineral deposit can be granted the rights to it, regardless of who owns the land. Because society’s need for metals and minerals is a critical public interest that must be satisfied, the legal regulations regarding mining access to land result in some curtailing of constitutionally protected property rights. In practice, however, when mining operations are undertaken, the mining company and landowner are usually the same legal person, and the right to use the land against the owner’s will is seldom exercised.
If a mine is opened to extract minerals that are enumerated in the Minerals Act, a certain portion of the revenue goes to the landowner and the government through the so-called “mineral compensation” clause.
Thus, the answer to the question of who has the right to explore or extract a mineral from the land is anyone who has the required permit to explore and extract the mineral. In addition, as we’ve seen, both the government and the landowner benefit economically from an active mine, so the right to minerals can in a way be said to be shared between the mining company, the landowner, and the government.
Sweden’s Environmental Code requires physical and financial planning for the aftertreatment of the area around the mine. A company may not open a mine without setting aside money for remediation and reclamation of the area when the mine closes. These funds are held for the company by the authorities until the closure of the mine. This is in accordance with the Environmental Code’s principle that the polluter pays.
In addition to the fact that Sweden’s mining and metal companies run businesses that are subject to strict permitting requirements, their work with sustainability surpasses the legislative demands with their own far-reaching environmental objectives, implementation of environmental management systems, and technological development efforts. The Swedish mining sector and Sweden’s suppliers are world leaders and international models, which benefits the environment and the development of society globally. What’s more, growth in production from Sweden’s climate-smart businesses leads to a reduction in emissions globally.
All human activity impacts the environment. Mining is no exception. When metals and minerals are extracted, the local environment around the mine is impacted. How much the environment may be impacted is determined by the Environmental Code, which is intended to protect nature, people, and ecosystems. For the mining and mineral industry, sustainability means working actively on behalf of the environment and the climate and taking social responsibility for employees as well as for those who live and work in the vicinity of the mine. Sweden has some of the world’s most demanding and strict environmental laws, and the mining industry conforms to them. But the climate and environmental aspirations of mining companies extend beyond mere compliance. Multiple projects are underway now that have been undertaken by companies on their own initiative that aim to further enhance the industry’s sustainability through climate-smart processes that benefit people, the environment, and the future.
The mining and mineral industry is unique in that deposits are where they are: the location where a mineral is found cannot be changed. That requires consideration on multiple dimensions. Furthermore, metals are basic elements that do not disappear and are not consumed, unlike oil and gas, for example, which are broken down when they’re used. Metals can be used, re-shaped, and recycled. Thus, rather than being destroyed by our use of them, metals are transferred from nature to the resource loops of a circular economy through extraction and refinement.
In a sustainable society, the goal is to close those resource loops so that our consumption of raw materials over time will be sustainable, and so that essentially everything we consume can be either re-used or recycled. In this way, as long as production, re-use, and recycling are done efficiently, our generation can create the conditions for future generations to use and benefit from metallic raw materials in the most effective way possible.
It’s not easy. Mining activity is restricted by extensive legislation and ordinances that must be satisfied before, during, and after production. Because it’s necessary for society to have access to metals, we have a Minerals Act that is intended to make it possible to conduct mining operations in the best possible way. It is important that all activities that run the risk of impacting the environment are thoroughly evaluated in accordance with the Swedish Environmental Code. But the current system needs to be improved. Permit processing must become more efficient and predictable—for everyone involved.
Read more about how the current system for processing permits could become more efficient and fair.
Den Svenska Gruvan (The Swedish Mine) is an initiative to spread knowledge about the Swedish mining industry and the Swedish mining cluster. The mining industry is Sweden's oldest industry and has laid the foundation for the welfare we today call our everyday life. In most cases, the mining industry is far from the big cities and with this initiative we want to remind and inform about not only how important the mining industry has been and is for Sweden purely economically, but also remind of all the products that originate from beneath the surface. Without the mining industry, our modern lives would simply not be possible. Behind the initiative is the Swedish mining cluster through Boliden, LKAB, Zinkgruvan Mining, ABB, Epiroc, Sandvik och Svemin.