Energy and minerals: Does the EU’s strategy to resource security need to change?

Competition, collaboration and conflict have characterised the oil, gas and mineral industries since the 19th century. The early conclusions of the POLINARES research project are that the availability of resources in Europe up to 2040 will depend on a new regime of economic, political and technological factors that are hard to predict, requiring a broader and more flexible policy approach from the EU.

Natural resources, such as minerals and fossil fuels, play a central role in many sectors, including industry, energy provision, trade, technology and the economy. However, since Europe has few natural resources of its own compared to other parts of the world, concern over access is very high in the political consciousness, especially given recent political instability and resource nationalism in resource-rich nations.

The aim of the ongoing POLINARES project is to investigate the factors that are likely to influence resource supply in Europe up to 2040 and in doing so, to identify opportunities, risks, priorities and potential policy approaches to ensure sustainable economic development in Europe.

The preliminary recommendations from the initial part of the research are:

  • Europe does not need to be concerned about exhausting geological resources of non fossil-fuel minerals, despite previous studies indicating ‘high criticality’ status of some minerals, i.e. rare earth metals.
  • Political and environmental (i.e. non-geological) concerns mean that the production of some minerals, such as oil, is likely to reach a peak in the next 20 years.
  • Governments need to be prepared for uncertainty in both the short and long term, and to take a more forward-looking, long-term approach to assessing supply risk.

Four future scenarios for resource availability

The EU is at the start of a new regime in terms of the relationship between economics, politics and how resources are governed. The project argues that compared to the period 1980-2000, in which ‘liberal capitalism’ allowed large private companies to flourish, the early years of this century are characterised by greater state involvement, triggered by the recognition that closer regulation of financial markets is needed to ensure economic stability.

To understand how resource availability in Europe could evolve in the next 30 years, the POLINARES researchers explored four potential regimes. The scenarios represent different extremes in terms of whether governance is mainly by the state or fragmented among private companies, and whether national interests are the priority or the approach is geared more towards multilateral collaboration.

The researchers produced a set of risk factors that may influence the direction of a potential regime shift towards one of the four scenarios. These are:

  • The value of the resource, especially related to accidental supply disruption (i.e. natural disasters) and price hikes.
  • The geographic location of the mineral reserve (i.e. how concentrated the supply is in unstable parts of the world).
  • Relations between the owners of the resources (mainly states) and operators (mainly oil and mineral companies).
  • Relations between resource-exporting and importing states, especially related to intentional supply cuts and using exports or pricing as a political weapon.
  • The capacity of resource-producing states to govern their resource sectors.
  • Geopolitics, i.e. the distribution of power, particularly between the West/United States and the East/China.

Combining expertise from the fields of international relations, economics, political science, geology, resource evaluation and technology, the researchers are working on translating the opportunities and risks associated with each of the four regimes into quantitative, economic parameters that can be used to assess the security of resource supply in each case.

If supply risks do become a reality in any of the scenarios, for example if one country is allowed to monopolise a particular supply chain, policy approaches could include promoting domestic production, creating strategic stockpiles, diversifying supplies, investing in research and development (R&D) for new technologies, and promoting resource efficiency and recycling. However, some of these approaches can be quite disruptive to the markets and should be applied cautiously, say the researchers.

The POLINARES research is intended to be exploratory and informative to policy makers in terms of how the EU’s policy towards resource availability may shape, or be shaped, by evolving world factors.

What is unique about POLINARES?

Past studies into raw material availability have focused primarily on the economic consequences of supply shortages of specific minerals, and have generally produced a list of ‘critical minerals’ as a result. POLINARES argues that these past estimates tend to overestimate or misrepresent supply risks, opening the door to overreaction and increased geopolitical tensions. This occurs mainly as a result of taking a very short-term and specific perspective, whereas a more useful approach is to identify more long-term, generic factors that can cause supply restrictions and price fluctuations, as listed above.

Additional factors to consider are the evolving role of technology, which can lead to a sudden increase in demand for a given material (i.e. silicon in the electronics industry), and the willingness of states to voluntarily reduce consumption of some materials, for example under Kyoto commitments to reduce GHG emissions from fossil-based fuels.

The project has so far produced a policy brief on the historical analysis of regimes and resource availability, and briefing papers on ‘criticality’ and likely risk factors.

POLINARES – EU policy on natural resources (duration: 1/1/2010 – 31/12/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 4 “Europe and the world”, Research area 4.1 “Interactions and interdependences between world regions and their implications”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.polinares.eu/

Contact: Philip Andrews-Speed (Scientific Coordinator), cpandrewspeed@hotmail.com; Peter Cameron, p.d.cameron@dundee.ac.uk; Francesco Sindico, f.sindico@dundee.ac.uk