Editorial | Mineral envy

Denmark is wringing its hands over losing control of Greenland’s mineral wealth at a time when it should be busy digging


Pity poor Denmark. So close to unlimited natural resource wealth – first in the North Sea and now Greenland – yet so far away. 

Were it a simple matter of geology, the unequal distribution of natural wealth would be easier to take. According to popular lore, Denmark lost the Ekofisk oil field to Norway because the Norwegians managed to get the Danish prime minister at the time drunk during negotiations. Whether it was due to alcohol or not, the negotiating gaffe is one that has earned Norway billions of dollars a year for the past four decades.

But the loss of Ekofisk could pale in comparison to what Denmark stands to lose by crying sour grapes over the loss of control of Greenland’s natural resources 

Companies in the US, Scotland, Norway, China and more are making serious efforts to find natural resources ranging from iron and gold to uranium and oil. Danish businesses, meanwhile, have only been present on the fringes of this search. Given the two countries’ linguistic and historical connection, as well as a personal invitation by the island’s premier, Denmark had a head-start on Greenland that is now all but squandered. 

Part of Denmark’s reluctance may be a feeling of being jilted by its former colony after the island’s government stated Danish companies would not be given special consideration. 

Such messages underscore that Copenhagen no longer calls the shots in Greenland. The sooner Danish lawmakers and investors accept this, the sooner they can begin deciding whether their money should be spent on extracting rare earths or rubies.

The involvement of China is especially hard for some in Denmark to swallow. With the country being accused of everything from sending over hordes of slave labourers to using Greenland as a western beachhead, the rhetoric is more reminiscent of the Cold War than 21st century business dealings. 

However, focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of Chinese involvement does little to help Danish businesses see the opportunities in Greenland’s recently passed law relaxing regulations for foreign companies establishing large mines. In the Danish press, this law is consistently discussed in terms of how it would benefit Chinese companies. Yet, it could just as well be taken advantage of by other countries – including Denmark.

Critics are correct to point to China’s poor mining track record in Africa as a warning about what could happen in Greenland. There is also uncertainty about whether Greenland’s fledgling public administration is capable of dealing with companies that have more employees than the island has residents. 

Given that they managed to convince Copenhagen to sign away its mineral rights, maybe this last concern is overstated. 

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