The new Greenland government (Naalakkersuisut) is preparing to outlaw uranium mining, reinstating and strengthening a ban that the national assembly had overturned in 2013, local media reported on 12 July. A month-long public consultation period began on 2 July for a proposed bill that would prohibit uranium mining as well as the feasibility studies and exploration activities that must be completed before a mining project can be considered for a licence to begin operation.
The new government, is hoping for a reinstatement of what was known as the zero-tolerance policy, to ensure that “Greenland neither produces nor exports uranium”. When the original ban was lifted, Australian firm Greenland Minerals launched efforts to establish a rare-earths mine at Kuannersuit (also known as Kvanefjeld), in southern Greenland, which is currently in the final stage of the approval process. However, the mine is located in an area that is high in uranium, and residents of nearby Narsaq fear that activity there would release radioactive dust that would settle on the town.
“There is widespread popular resistance to mining projects involving uranium,” the government said in its proposal. “The people of Greenland have also expressed their support for mining — as long as it does not involve uranium and the associated risks.” Similar statements made by the government shortly after coming to power in April led a French company Orano to announce an end to its Greenlandic exploration programme. However, Greenland Minerals has said it expects the authorities to respect the current approval process for its project.
In May, shortly after taking office, mining minister Naaja Nathanielsen, the, sought to allay concerns that opposition to uranium mining would not extend to other mining and that it would ensure that Greenland Minerals got a fair review during the Kuannersuit approval process. At the same time, she made it clear that Naalakkersuisut would be working to find legal ways to ensure that uranium mining never takes place. ““We welcome the many promising projects throughout the country that do not involve radioactive elements,” she noted.
On 5 July, Greenland’s Ministry of Mineral Resources released a draft bill banning uranium mining and exploration and limiting the amount of uranium present as a by-product in any mining operations to 100 parts per million, which would prevent the Kvanefjeld operation going ahead. The bill is out for public consultation until 13 September.
The project, being developed by Greenland Minerals with Chinese partner Shenghe Resources, seeks to exploit one of the world’s largest deposits of rare earth metals and uranium near the small township of Narsaq. Greenland Minerals has been working to develop the Kvanefjeld mine since it acquired an exploration licence for the area in 2007, and it achieved a significant milestone in December last year when its environmental impact assessment for the project was finally accepted for public consultation.
However, the advancement of the mine triggered a breakdown of Greenland’s governing coalition resulting in a snap election that effectively served as a referendum on the issue. The Danish-language newspaper Sermitsiaq referred to the outcome as a “decision to give Greenland Minerals the red card,” 37% of voters backed the pro-independence, green-leaning Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community for the People) party, which had adopted an explicit policy to stop the mine and reinstate a uranium mining ban in Greenland.
Greenland has had autonomy within the Kingdom of Denmark since 1979, but only gained more significant political control, including over its rich mineral resources, in 2009 following a referendum on self-rule. With limited economic opportunities on the largely ice-covered island and a declining population, Greenland’s leadership has in recent years been keen to explore the mining potential.
Meanwhile, Greenland’s 56,000 residents, around 90% of whom are Inuit, enjoy a largely pristine natural environment, where hunting and fishing are key forms of traditional culture, and increasing Western influence is seen as a cause of social problems, including a very high suicide rate. Opponents of the Kvanefjeld mine dispute its promised benefits and point to the potential for contamination of the local environment through dust, leaks and spills.
While reactions to the project were initially mixed, Mongabay reported that the results of one study suggested that dissatisfaction with Greenland Minerals’ consultation process and lack of transparency had increased opposition to the mine. Also an expert report published by Greenlandic and Danish NGOs in 2017 concluded that Kvanefjeld, the first open-pit uranium mine to be located on an Arctic mountain top, was not environmentally sustainable and threatened the health of the local population.
In March 2021, an opinion poll commissioned by government agency Innovation South Greenland found that while 52% of people surveyed across Greenland favoured mining in general, 71% opposed the Kvanefjeld mine. Opposition in southern Greenland, where the project is located, stood at 86%. The mine was a key issue in the April election and the victory of Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), replacing the long-time ruling party, Siumut, which had given preliminary approval for Kvanefjeld.
However, Greenland Minerals has hinted at legal action against the new government if its project is stopped. At the company’s annual general meeting (AGM) in Perth, Australia, in May, managing director John Mair suggested that international NGOs and local media were responsible for politicising uranium and turning public opinion against the mine. He told shareholders the company would “engage” the new government “to understand what the specific issue points are, from their perspective”.
Danish Friends of the Earth (NOAH) campaigner Niels Henrik Hooge, who has been following Kvanefjeld developments for more than a decade, told Mongabay that Greenland Minerals had a huge influence on Greenland politics. “They have been a very divisive factor, for sure,” he said. According to Hooge, Greenland’s failure to sign up to international transparency and anti-corruption agreements enabled the “problematic” GML board appointments of former Greenland prime minister Lars-Emil Johansen and former Mineral Resources Authority heads Hans Kristian Schønwandt and Jørn Skov Nielsen. Nielsen, who was considered to be Greenland’s most senior civil servant, took up the role of general manager of GML’s Greenland subsidiary in July 2020 just a month after leaving his decade-long role with the government and was rewarded with a large share package.