Greenlanders are engaging in a fierce ongoing debate about whether to develop the country’s onshore mineral resources into a robust mining industry.
Since gaining political autonomy from Kingdom of Denmark in 2009, the government of the world’s largest non-continental island has long been brainstorming how to solve its increasing financial woes. When a 2008 US Geological Survey documented the potential for more than 50 billion BOE (barrel of oil equivalent) in the Greenland region, rapid political support emerged for the development of a national mining industry.
Indeed, with the rise of temperatures and subsequent melt of icecaps and glaciers, the available surfaces for extraction in Greenland are rapidly increasing, and are being trailed by the arrival of small scale mining companies and exploration wells.
Greenland’s particular mining and extraction of fossil fuels would have noticeable ramifications on encouraging the country’s long-term use of carbon-emitting energy sources, ensuring and reinforcing an energy dependence that the 2009 European Commission’s Market Observatory for Energy study predicts to last for quite some time. However, climatologists warn that fossil fuel extraction will further contribute to rising Arctic temperatures, which are causing the melting of the ice caps and glaciers in the first place.
Companies are exploring the mining potential of a long list of minerals in Greenland, including iron ore, copper, oil, zinc, lead, uranium, fluoride, gold, rubies, and rare-earth minerals, which are commonly used in the manufacturing of mobile phones, solar panels, and wind turbines.
Greenland’s major political parties, all unanimous in support for the development of the mining industry, hope to capture the rich benefits of oil taxes, royalties, employment opportunities, and financial independence, and therefore perhaps increased political independence, from Denmark.
However, elections have proceeded with caution as politicians battle over the pace at which to attract foreign investors to the market and over the employment of uranium mining, which was recently relieved of a decades-old ban on the practice.
Greenland citizens, however, are deeply divided over the ambitious plans to develop the mining industry.
Some believe a robust mining industry development could solve Greenland’s struggling economy. The country’s locals, historically sustaining themselves through hunting and fishing, have faced a faltering economy and a declining population, particularly in the town of Narsaq. When the its largest employer, a shrimp processing plant, closed a few years ago after the shrimp population fled to cooler northern waters, the town lost over 80 jobs.
Town slaughterhouse manager Henning Sonderup told BBC, “Many people are unemployed,” he says. “Lots of families from Narsaq have moved out to other cities, so we have to do something.”
Local Susanne Lynge sees mining as a potential solution to the government’s financial woes.
“Our local government needs money,” she says. “I wish they would open the mining,” she told BBC News as she led a protest calling for the local council to speed up the construction of a new school.
Sonderup added that a stable industry could bring economic prosperity and development back to Greenland.
“New school, bigger hospital, better airport, new harbor, new roads, everything. Greenland will be on the map again,” he said.
Other citizens in Narsaq, however, deeply oppose the mining industry’s encroaching presence, concerned about environmental impacts such as pollution, radioactivity, and threats to biodiversity.
One resident, Agathe Devisme, remarked, “People coming to Greenland are looking for something pure,” she says. “It’s the last corner of the world not touched by pollution. If there is any kind of radioactivity in the area, they will not like it.”
In addition to these environmental threats, Greenland’s extraction industry poses major geopolitical and economic implications onto the hazy future of Arctic oil extraction. A 2015 study estimated there to be 100 billion barrels of oil and natural gas reserves in Arctic, but concluded that Arctic reserves could not be exploited if global temperature increases were to be kept under the generally agreed “safety limit” of 2ºC. With the approach of December’s UN negotiations and international climate deal, environmental policymakers will be watching Greenland’s move.
Greenland Minerals and Energy’s operations manager Ib Laursen believes that a mining industry can still adhere to sustainability goals.
“Other countries like Canada and France have uranium mining,” he says. “If they can do it, we can do it in Greenland, we can take best environmental standards and put them to work here.”
Several recent studies and working papers, most recently a paper on developing energy sectors in the Arctic in the soon-to-be-published Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic, seek to predict the unknown future of Greenland’s mining industry and environmental policy. The Energy Security Institute at Brookings offers its own interpretation of the future in a 2014 report, as does MaRS Discovery District in this blog post.
For many, the debate over the development of Greenland’s mining industry hinges not on whether to capitalize on the economic benefits of a mining industry, but on whether the industry can balance tense sociopolitical tensions in the Arctic and extract resources in a sustainable and environmentally-safe manner.