Greenland Rejects Huge Rare-Earth Mine in National Elections

The Arctic island is a battleground of the future as companies and nations vie to extract its massive deposits of the stuff needed to make F-35 fighter jets, electric cars and smartphones. In a crucial election, Greenlanders voted for a party opposed to the construction of a massive rare-earth mine.

People queue Tuesday outside the Inussivik arena in Nuuk, Greenlands, to vote. (Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

(CN) — Favoring tradition and the environment over industry, voters in Greenland backed a left-wing party opposed to the construction of what could become one of the world’s largest rare earth mines.

On Wednesday, election results showed Inuit Ataqatigiit, a left-wing environmental party, winning Tuesday’s snap election with about 37% of the vote. The election for Greenland’s tiny 31-seat parliament garnered international attention because it carried geopolitical implications.

Greenland is seen as a potential major source for rare earth elements, a market now dominated by China, which accounts for two-thirds of rare earth mining and about 90% of global production. Rare earth elements are a set of 17 soft heavy metals, such as neodymium and scandium, that go into the making of smartphones, lasers, electric cars, wind turbines and military hardware such as the F-35 fighter jet.

The United States and its allies are seeking to develop alternative sources from China and are eying Greenland as a potential trove. In 2019, former U.S. President Donald Trump even proposed buying Greenland, but his offer was rejected. Greenland is an autonomous and unspoiled massive Arctic island three times the size of Texas. It is part of Denmark with about 56,000 inhabitants.

An autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland held an election Tuesday for its 31-member Parliament. (Emil Helms/Ritzau via AP)

The election served as a referendum on a 15-year-long effort by Greenland Minerals, an Australian company, to develop a mining complex at Kuannersuit, one of the world’s largest deposits of rare earth metals and uranium. The project became more controversial after a Chinese firm partly owned by the Chinese government, rare-earth giant Shenghe Resources, became the main investor.

Kuannersuit (known also by its Danish name Kvanefjeld) is located next to a fishing town in southern Greenland, where contamination fears have driven opposition to the mine. Locals worry the mine would transform the tranquil town of Narsaq into an industrial hub contaminated by radioactive dust.

Greenland’s government, led by the social democratic Siumut party, supported the project and argued it would become a windfall allowing Greenland to cut ties with Denmark and become independent. Denmark, which does not oppose Greenland’s independence, sends about $625 million in subsidies to the island, accounting for up to half of its budget.

Tuesday’s snap election was brought about by disagreements between Greenland’s politicians over the mine and accusations that it was being fast tracked without public hearings.

By backing the opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit, the mine seems doomed. The left-green Inuit Ataqatigiit campaigned against it and backs a moratorium on uranium mining. It also has pledged to join the Paris climate agreement, a move that could preclude Greenland from developing rare earth mines.

An election candidate’s advertising poster in Nuuk, Greenland, ahead of Tuesday’s election to Greenland parliament. (Emil Helms/Ritzau via AP)

“Now it will be distinctly uphill for the large and controversial mining projects,” said Carl Bildt, the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Swedish prime minsiter, on Twitter.

Instead of mining, Inuit Ataqatigiit advocates fishing and tourism as the best fit for Greenland’s future development. About 90% of Greenland’s population is made up of Inuits, many of whom fish for a living.

However, Inuit Ataqatigiit has not ruled out mining in other locations. It is expected to form a coalition government with smaller parties.

Siumut won about 29% of the vote, marking a turning point in Greenland’s politics. Siumut has ruled the island almost without interruption since 1979 when Greenland’s parliament — known as the Inatsisartut — was established as part of the Danish territory’s autonomy.

In recent years, Greenland has approved numerous mining exploration licenses. Scientists say many more precious deposits are likely to become accessible as Greenland’s ice sheets recede due to global warming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the island has the world’s largest undeveloped deposits of rare earth metals.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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