From the WSJ: Race for Resources: Warm to Investors, Greenland Opens Up
Warm to Investors, Greenland Opens Up
Prospectors Develop Projects to Mine Potential Bounty in Minerals
|James T. Areddy/The Wall Street Journal|
|Geologists say Greenland potentially holds stores of iron, copper, nickel, zinc, rare-earth minerals, rubies, oil and gas. Above, the capital Nuuk.|
ILULIALIK FIORD, Greenland—Geologists have long known that deep beneath the forbidding ice of this Arctic island lay buried treasure.
Below hundreds of feet of frozen water and ground, iron, copper, nickel, zinc, rare-earth minerals and rubies beckon. Oil and gas may sit offshore.
Fortune hunters taste opportunity. Prospectors from various countries, encouraged by Greenland’s investment-friendly policies, have spent over $1.7 billion developing potential projects. A British company is going for iron ore. Scots are testing for undersea oil. Australians are pursuing rare earths. Canadians are digging for rubies, while giant Chinese mining and engineering concerns are jockeying for position.
In Greenland, the Arctic is in play.
Recent annual thaws make it possible for the Danish territory to contemplate exploiting these riches, even though the 56,000 people who live on the world’s biggest island lack the means to build the ports, roads and power plants required to transform the fishing-based economy into a mining one.
Greenland’s geologists had found many resources on the largely pristine island but never much pursued mining. Then, in 2009 Denmark freed the island to largely govern itself, permitting locals to decide how best to use the land. Greenland’s ethnic Inuit welcomed mineral and petroleum investors as new patrons.
The islanders say they desire full independence but that it won’t be possible until they achieve economic self-sufficiency from Denmark, which still provides hundreds of millions of dollars in annual support and basic services like policing.
One mine could fundamentally alter Greenland’s $2 billion economy. Locals shudder at the alternative: continued dependence on seafood for almost 90% of the island’s export earnings and handouts from Denmark worth over a third of the annual budget.
“It’s quite a dynamic point in Greenland’s history, politically, economically and culturally,” says John Mair, executive director of a rare earth and uranium exploration company, Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd.
|New construction in Nuuk|
|Photos: James T. Areddy/The Wall Street Journal|
|London Mining’s base camp|
Led mainly by small Australian and Canadian companies, mining groups are currently exploring more than 100 projects. Small-time prospectors typically pave the way into untested markets like Greenland, documenting what is in the ground and forecasting the costs of removing it, in hopes of attracting deep-pocketed backers.
“Mining will come to Greenland,” newly elected Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond declared in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Because China is the biggest importer of many natural resources, its companies factor into plans for many Greenland proposals, including as customers, according to interviews with dozens of executives and government officials.
In fact, this icy frontier’s future may depend significantly on China’s bankers, engineers, builders and buyers—and their government’s determination to win influence at the top of the world.
Asked about China’s role, Mrs. Hammond said “it’s important Greenland allies with countries that have an interest in funding projects,” and which ones don’t matter. “We will not only be needing funds from outside,” she said, “we will also be needing hands from outside.”
Thus far, a fair share of deals-in-the-making hinge on China as a catalyst. One ore project, run by Britain’s London Mining PLC, envisages taking advantage of new Greenland regulations designed to permit large-scale foreign employment by bringing in Chinese workers. In mid-July, Australia’s Ironbark Zinc PLC said it is working with a Chinese company that might finance, build and patronize a $485 million base metals mine it proposes in northern Greenland. A week earlier, a delegation of Chinese miners and bankers visited Greenland’s president and local prospectors. Officials at Canadian firm True North Gems Inc. say the group was enthusiastic about potential investment in its plan to excavate rubies, red stones that are especially popular in China and India.
|James T. Areddy/The Wall Street Journal|
|Arent Heilmann of Greenland Mining Services advises projects.|
Evidence of the mining ambition—and China’s importance—is visible four hours by speedboat into Ilulialik Fiord. Here, house-size icebergs crash off a glacier into the ocean, tinting green the deep waters that teem with whales and seals.
On an incline above a bay still frozen in late spring, shipping containers break the vista—the unlikely staging-point for an iron ore mine, and possible Arctic foothold for China.
The shipping containers on the hilltop are the prep-station for a proposed $2.35 billion iron ore mine that Greenlandic officials indicate they will license by autumn. The project is owned by Britain’s London Mining but was designed by an international team with prominent roles for Chinese government-run companies.
Mining iron ore above the fiord is a potential budget-buster, starting with plans to dynamite a plaster of ice 550-feet thick. Up to 3,000 Chinese laborers will endure raging winds and subzero temperatures to construct power and processing plants. A pipeline will snake 64 miles down the mountain to a new port. Ships loaded with ore would navigate to China, possibly on an increasingly viable summertime voyage that cuts near the North Pole and reduces Europe-China travel time by 40%.
“We recognize that it is a door-opening project for Greenland,” says Graeme Hossie, chief executive officer of London Mining. “One needs to put together a lot of aligned interests to make it work.”
Few “mineral hypermarkets,” enthusiasts say, can rival Greenland in good governance—its Danish-standard political stability, predictable legal system and minimal corruption.
But bonanzas on frozen islands—”Ice Cold Gold,” as one television show calls Greenland—also pose extraordinary risks.
“Opportunities are many but you also have to be realistic,” says Arent Heilmann, a partner in Greenland Mining Services A/S, an adviser and supplier to several exploration projects. “The challenge here in Greenland is there is no infrastructure outside the towns.”
Greenland is triple the size of Texas. But its population wouldn’t fill Cowboys Stadium.
No roads link Greenland’s isolated coastal hamlets. The airstrip in the capital Nuuk is too short to land Air Greenland’s single jetliner. The Internet fails when icebergs snag its undersea cables.
Almost 30% of Greenlanders reside in compact Nuuk. Folks dress in bristly sealskin jackets, snack on rubbery whale fat seasoned with allspice and rush to the dance floor when accordionists strike up polka-sounding Greenland hits. A favorite is “Hvalen Hvalborg,” a Danish ode to a whale.
Inuit often live in modern apartments featuring triple-paned windows and pastel exteriors. It is pricy to live here: a six-pack of beer is $18; five minutes of YouTube cost $1; a 45-minute domestic flight often tops $500.
Professionals are in short supply, including translators of Greenlandic, a language of multisyllabic words that can encapsulate an entire sentence in other tongues. To punctuate, you gasp.
Out where Greenland’s resources are, challenges multiply so fast some doubt mining will ever be worth the risk. Miners pay $3,200 an hour for helicopters, ride boats in waters so cold that few bother with life jackets and haul equipment by dog sled. To keep equipment from freezing, drillers pour cocktails of salt and hot water into deep bore holes and never turn off their machines. On the ore site, huge sandbags anchor the containers against gales.
And yet tough jobs are increasingly getting done in the Arctic. For a new $180 million hydropower plant distant from the Greenland fishing town Ilulissat, 150 workers built a supply port and roads, tunneled almost 9 miles below a frozen lake and stretched transmission lines 30 miles. “Over mountains, over fiords, over lakes, over everything,” says Henrik Estrup, chief executive officer of the utility, Nukissiorfiit.
New York-based Alcoa Inc. has made preliminary investments toward an aluminum smelter that would rely on Greenlandic lakes for hydroelectricity and be built by Chinese workers. More immediately, 46 cargo vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route during the annual thaw in 2012, and Norway’s Centre for High North Logistics counts more this season preparing to make the shortest voyage between Europe and Asia.
A new era looks apparent to Johannes Heilmann, a grizzled 65-year-old nicknamed Akappiaq. He hunts birds in the winter, harvests lumpfish roe in spring, catches cod and seal through the summer and harpoons fin whales until December. He suspects few after him will carve out a living with a rifle and a skiff. Greenland, he says, is “changing from a fishing nation to a mining nation.”
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