LKAB has initiated the journey towards production of carbon-dioxide-free sponge iron, cadmium-free phosphorus and rare earth metals. At the same time, the company has also submitted an environmental permit application for increased mining and processing of iron ore in Gällivare. A new permit for the existing mine may pave the way for extraction of strategic and critical raw materials, for the first time in the EU, before 2030. However, there is a risk that long-drawn permitting processes will delay the planned production start.
“The climate and energy transition begins in the mine and we have been very thorough in the preparation of our application. Now we can only wait and see whether our laws and decision-making processes can hasten the transition,” says Jan Moström, President and CEO of LKAB.
The application is an important initial step towards expansion of the existing mining operation, production of sponge iron with hydrogen via the HYBRIT technology and construction of a facility for extraction of apatite concentrate from residual material that is currently landfilled. The apatite plant will supply LKAB’s planned industrial site in Luleå with a concentrate from which phosphorus and rare earth metals will be separated. Within the EU, phosphorus is considered a critical raw material and rare earth metals are viewed as strategic raw materials. These raw materials are vital for realising society’s climate transition, while access to them is not assured.
There is a great imbalance between society’s ambition to slow climate change and to ensure a reliable supply of the critical raw materials that are needed for the technology that will enable the green transition. Several critical and strategic raw materials have been designated by the EU as essential for achieving the latter. The EU is heavily dependent on imports of these materials from countries from which supply cannot be guaranteed. Countries such as China and Russia are the dominating producers. The rare earth metals are needed for future green technologies and are used, for example, in wind turbines and electric vehicles, as well as in defence materiel.
“We have done everything in our power to present an application that is as complete and comprehensive as possible. Now the public administrations and courts that are tasked with managing the complex permitting processes must be given the necessary resources and legal means. Various societal interests must be weighed against each other in the permit application process. What these interests are is not always clear. Society has no time to lose in realising the climate transition. Seeing the big picture and managing this will be crucial,” says Jan Moström.
Permits for the planned operation in Malmberget are a prerequisite for LKAB’s future plans for transition. The permitting process and planning and construction of new facilities are all time consuming. The permitting process that has now begun is just one of several that are necessary for enabling the value chain LKAB wishes to create in order to bring critical raw materials to the market. Demand for these raw materials is already strong and it is important for European industry to be able to plan and secure its value chains in good time together with the raw-material suppliers. Paradoxically, the greatest threat to the mining and processing of materials that are indispensable for society is administrative in nature. LKAB sees a risk of the coming permit processes taking too long and thereby jeopardising continued and increased raw-material production in the EU.
“Ultimately, it has to do with where and by what means society will source the raw materials that are essential for making the green transition. Sweden has unique possibilities for contributing in a sustainable way. Experience has shown that permitting often takes too long and considerable focus is sometimes placed on formalities, and that the underlying purpose of the planned operation takes second place to details in the permit application. An example in point is the rejection, by the Land and Environment Court of Appeal, of LKAB’s application for operations in Kiruna, four years after the application was submitted, due to a formality with respect to public consultation,” says Jan Moström.
LKAB announced in January that Europe’s largest known deposit of rare earth metals is in Kiruna. LKAB will submit an application for a processing concession this year. In other words, the deposit is not included in the current environmental permit application for Gällivare; however, this deposit is expected to heavily augment the extraction of phosphorus and rare earth metals for which LKAB is planning. Work is also under way towards the preparation of an application for a permit, in accordance with the Environment Code, for the planned industrial site in Luleå, where LKAB will separate phosphorus and rare earth metals, a preliminary step in the value chain for producing these critical raw materials.
Europe is dependent on imports of critical raw materials:
90 percent of which is imported – phosphorus is used in mineral fertiliser that is essential for half of the world’s agricultural production.
Rare earth metals
98 percent of which are imported from China – these are used in green technology, e.g., in the permanent magnets that are vital for electric vehicles and wind turbines.
LKAB can increase Europe’s self-sufficiency and security with circular and climate-effective processes:
With permit-pending extraction in Gällivare and processing in Luleå:
- Phosphorus corresponding to five times Sweden’s demand
- Rare earth metals – operations in Malmberget, for which application has been made, cannot ensure Europe’s self-sufficiency, but can enable a significant and strategic supplement for meeting European demand.
- Gypsum corresponding to Sweden’s entire current demand
LKAB also hopes to be able to develop the Per Geijer mineral deposit, where, thanks to significantly higher grades, it may be possible to extract up to seven times more strategic and critical raw materials per tonne of iron ore, as compared to Malmberget. During the year LKAB will submit a concession application for Per Geijer, but it is expected that it will take a long time to receive all of the necessary permits. Therefore, extraction from the existing mine in Malmberget is an important initial step for securing Europe’s raw-material supply.