Rare Earth Race: How China And Russia (And EVs) Are Pushing France Back Into Mining
The government is launching a "major inventory of French mining resources", to prepare for the relaunch of mining in France of the minerals needed for the ecological transition. A concern for sovereignty in the face of Chinese domination of the sector.
PARIS — The world of mining holds an important place in the imagination of France's past, from writer Emile Zola's "Germinal" in the 19th century to the many films about the "black faces" in the 20th. Perhaps, mining is about to also become its future.
Not only are mining projects under development in France, but the war for rare metals, which has taken on a strategic dimension in today's world, is giving new relevance to the French subsoil. Passed largely unnoticed in French President Emmanuel Macron's announcements this week for a major new ecological transition plan, was the launch of what he called a "major inventory of French mining resources."
The aim is not, of course, to go back to mining coal — the last coal mine closed in 2004 — but to seek out the metals essential to the ecological transition, and to reduce French and European dependence on Chinese domination of the sector. The latest studies date back more than four decades, and technology has made great strides since then.
The issue is less economic than one of national sovereignty, and France is not alone in rethinking the development of mines — the whole of Europe is now mobilized.
Which minerals will be mined?
The first mineral concerned is lithium, an essential component of batteries for electric vehicles. A first mine is already under development in the Allier region (central France), and is due to go into production in 2028. Other deposits could follow, in Brittany (western France) and other regions in eastern France.
But this is not the only mineral. We know, for example, that there are traces of tungsten and rare earths, for which demand is exploding. All the minerals needed for the energy transition are on the inventory list, the question is whether they exist in sufficient, exploitable quantities.
The war in Ukraine and dependence on Russian gas have served as an alarm
The stakes are first and foremost strategic. Europe is waking up after decades of neglecting the mining sector in favor of the developing world, for reasons of cost and pollution. The war in Ukraine and dependence on Russian gas have served as an alarm, and the world has now realized that China has a big head start in the minerals race.
The Bully-les-Mines coal mine in northern Franceen.m.wikipedia.org
European countries have set targets for the supply of strategic minerals. The plan calls for 10% of European supply to come from extraction on the continent by 2030. A further 20% must come from recycling; and Europeans must not be more than 65% dependent on a single country outside the EU.
It may not sound like much, but it's actually very ambitious. Developing a mine in Europe will take years, and it will first be necessary to gain the environmental and social acceptance of public opinion. This is far from a foregone conclusion, as mining today does not have a positive image at all.
But Europe has little choice. It would be paradoxical to make these massive investments in electric battery factories in Dunkerque (northern France), without reducing our dependence on minerals whose supply is so tightly controlled by China.
This will require a major national debate — but taking inventory is the first step, so at least we know what we're talking about.
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