Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Greece needs sustainable and competitive 

mineral exploration and mining investments

by Nikolaos Arvanitidis
Nikolaos Arvanitidis

(Chairman of Mineral Resources Expert Group at EuroGeoSurveys, email: Nikolaos.Arvanitidis@gmail com)

The Greek government-debt crisis is part of the ongoing European debt crisis, being triggered and directly caused locally in Greece by a combination of structural weaknesses of the Greek economy along with a decade long pre-existence of overly high structural deficits and debt-to-GDP levels on public accounts. 

In late 2009, fears of a sovereign debt crisis developed among investors concerning Greece's ability to meet its debt obligations, due to a reported strong increase in government debt levels along with continued existence of high structural deficits. This led to a crisis of confidence, indicated by a widening of bond yield spreads and the cost of risk insurance on credit default swaps compared to the other countries in the Eurozone. The Eurozone countries, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), later nicknamed the Troika, responded by launching bailout loans to rescue Greece based conditionally on implementation of austerity measures, structural reforms and privatization of government assets. The final review of the entire bailout programme was expected to be published by the Troika in February 2015. 

Following the rejection of the government's candidate for president in parliamentary votes during December 2014, a snap parliamentary election was held on 25 January 2015. The Syriza Party won the election and formed a new government, which declared the old bailout agreement was now cancelled, while requesting acceptance of an extended deadline from 28 February to 31 May 2015 for the process to negotiate a new replacing creditor agreement with the Eurogroup. Eurogroup ministers and other creditors agree to extend Greece's bailout program for another four months, after accepting reform plan by Greek government. Markets have grown more optimistic that the country's immediate future in the Eurozone will be secure until the summer, but with the government rapidly running out of options, even the negotiation of any reforms would still not ensure Greece's financial future after June.

This difficult and economically unstable time was not attractive for any investments. Few investment projects were initiated challenging some few opportunities for growth and jobs. The most prominent investment, among the largest ever taking place in Greece, is the large-scale gold mining and metallurgy project going currently on in northern Greece. The business and operational plan in place anticipates mining of three world-class ore deposits, followed up by mineral processing and metallurgy. The commercially marketable commodities being produced are zinc and lead concentrates, and those about to be produced are copper and gold metals. The permitting procedures, including the Environmental Impact Study and the technical plan have been approved by the government authorities in charge.
Since the project started operating 10 years ago, it enabled progressive production figures, year after year, facilitated new job opportunities and contributed to growing local economies. Today more than 2.000 full-time employees are directly supported in the three mining and exploration areas, while additional 2500-3000 persons are supported indirectly as a result of multiplier impacts throughout the economy.

Miners, workers and supporters of an
important gold mine project in northern
Greece demonstrate in Athens
The mining activities have for some years now facing the reactions and opposition from mainly one local community, and activist groups coming along from other parts of the country. They state environmental and ecological awareness issues, but the main reasons are local economy and political interests. These groups received also strong political support by the parties recently elected in the government, since the time they were in opposition. Upon this fact, the Minister in charge decided recently to redraw some of the permits making clear that his government will stop the investment and close the mine operations sending 2000 workers to unemployment and converting productive economy employment to social-dependent misery.

In the Juncker’s EU investment plan,

- Through Raw Materials Initiative (RMI) mineral resources are placed in the top of EU’s growth agenda and 2020 industrial strategy, having competitiveness, sustainable development and jobs in focus.

- The overall objective of the RMI is to contribute to achieving the Europe 2020 goal of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth via helping to realize a green economy, i.e. a circular economy in sync with the natural environment. Environmental and resource pressures are increasingly threatening economic growth, EU competitiveness and prosperity. In future, sustained prosperity and ecological and social welfare will depend on increasing resource productivity, underpinned by R&I. This objective supports the Europe 2020 Innovation Union and Resource Efficiency Flagship initiatives.

- The strategic implementation plan of European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials has in place 94 R&I actions to be financed by Horizon 2020, and other funding schemes, aiming at new technology and production developments across the minerals value chain to promote resource efficiency and secure raw materials supply in Europe.

- Most of the EU countries, such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Ireland, go along this line and take actions in favor of new mining investments, turning out to become important global miners.

- Environmental and public awareness issues received growing attention by the EU policy makers, putting into implementation new legislations and directives addressing re-use and recycling as part of an efficient waste management approach and as input to circular economy practices.
Map of Greece

- The fact that reforms in Greece should include and be relied on ongoing investments, such as the gold mining and metallurgy project in Halkidiki, which already contributes to jobs and creates new working opportunities, social wellbeing and growing economies.

There should be clear messages to the Greek government that,

- Economic contribution of the mining industry, in terms of estimated economy-wide expenditure impact, is supporting directly and indirectly more than 5.000 regional jobs.

- The economic value-added contribution of the minerals mining and exploration industry to the Greek economy is expected  to be considerable and far-reaching.

- Greece needs strong, competitive industries that punch above their weight in the international arena. The Greek Mining industry could become a significant global player in terms of zinc, lead, copper, gold, silver output.

- The existing figures indicate that this highly-paid employment within the mining and exploration sector takes place in the regional economy making it all the more valuable at a local level, especially in the context of the high unemployment rates prevailing across many sectors of the economy at this time. This feature may help address the regional challenge for Government in job creation.

- The Minister however stated that it isn't Government policy to support this investment, and that might also affect search for, and responsible development of, further mineral resources so that these positive impacts can continue to be enjoyed in the future.

- At EU scale, exploitation of the world-class Greek mineral resources could certainly contribute to secure raw materials supply and place Europe in the technological forefront towards a competitive and sustainable mining industry.