European commission chairman, Jose Manuel Barroso, (right) and Greenland prime minister, Kuupik Kleist. The EU sees potential in a massive opening up of mining operations across the world’s biggest island. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Melting of icy surface opens up possibility of extracting rare earth metals and gemstones, but many fear it could destroy the Arctic
Europe is looking to open a new frontier in the ever more urgent quest for new natural resources – the pristine icy wastes of Greenland.
Oil and gas have been the focus of exploitation so far – but the EU sees just as much potential in a massive opening up of mining operations across the world’s biggest island, according to Antonio Tajani, the European commission’s vice-president and one of the most powerful politicians in the union. He called the move “raw material diplomacy”.
Latest satellite data reveal that 97% of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet underwent surface melting over four exceptionally warm days in July, indicating natural resources will become more available for extraction in the coming decades.
The potential gold rush is being welcomed by some in Greenland, but has raised fears of environmental damage, pollution and despoliation across the Arctic that could destroy one of the world’s last wildernesses.
Tajani said: “Greenland is hugely important in terms of natural resources, it has vast opportunities. We are currently working very hard with the prime minister of Greenland on this – we are working on our own agreement with Greenland on raw materials.”
He said: “This is raw material diplomacy. We have allies working on this worldwide.”
Greenland’s government is keen to exploit the island’s natural wealth in order to alleviate some of the serious poverty and social problems that blight the indigenous population.
Henrik Stendal, of the Greenland government’s mineral extraction department, told the Guardian: “The government would like to have another source of income – currently there is just fishing, and a little from tourism, so this is a big opportunity for us. These explorations can be done sensitively, we believe.”
Only one company is currently operating a productive mine in Greenland, producing gold. But at least five are in the advanced stages of setting up new mines, and more than 120 sites are being explored. Greenland is thought to contain vast mineral wealth, including rare earth metals, gemstones and iron ore.