Looking back - mineral resources in the 1900s
The development of mineral resources has been on the agenda since Hans Egede came to Greenland as a missionary in 1721. In addition to his missionary work, one of his tasks was to find natural resources that could be utilised. Shortly after his arrival, European mining experts who had been brought to Greenland reported occurrences of graphite. Exploration continued in the 1700s and 1800s, but on a very modest scale compared with today. Mining for cryolite was started in 1854 and continued until 1987 at Ivittuut. The most important mine in recent times was the Maarmorilik mine, which produced zinc, lead and silver during the period from 1973 to 1990. In total more than 20 different mining operations are known from the last 150 years.
The period since 1990 has been the first for many years with no active mines operating in Greenland. This was one of the reasons why the Mineral Resources Act was changed in 1991 in an attempt to attract investment for renewed mineral exploration. The legal and administrative aspects of mineral development were from the early days handled by Danish authorities, and revenue from mining was under Danish control. Mining was an area freed from the state monopoly as long ago as around 1900, and there were a number of private ventures in the field of mining and mineral exploration - in the period before the Second World War.
Major mines in the 1900s
Cryolite mining at Ivittuut. A total of 3.7 million tons of ore were mined from an open pit. The average grade of the ore was 58% cryolite
Coal mining at Qullissat on the east coast of Disko. A total of 570,000 tons of coal were mined underground
Lead-zinc mining at Mestersvig in East Greenland. A total of 545,000 tons of ore were mined underground. The average grade of the ore was 9% lead and 10% zinc
Zinc-lead-silver mining at Maarmorilik. A total of 11.3 million tons of ore were mined underground. The average grade of the ore was 12% zinc, 4% lead and 29 grams/ton of silver
The role of the government
Danish government interest in mineral resources was renewed in the 1930s and resulted in support for regional mineral exploration. The geologist Lauge Koch was employed by the Greenland Department to organise surveys of North and East Greenland. In 1936, the Swiss geologist Eugen Wegmann was sent by the Department to carry out an extensive mapping expedition in South-West Greenland. Both of these initiatives had the aim of surveying mineral resources. In 1940, the government became a 50% shareholder in the restructured Cryolite Company Øresund A/S. This policy continued in 1948, when the government invested in 27.5% of the shares in the newly-started Northern Mining company which mined lead at Mestersvig. In 1946, the governmental Geological Survey of Greenland (GGU) was established, and the government was the sole shareholder in the coal mining on Disko.
In 1985, a government financed petroleum company, Nunaoil A/S, was formed in order to ensure government involvement in petroleum activities. Later, however, the company also became active in exploration for minerals. In 1998, the governmental part was taken over by the new company, Nunaminerals A/S. During the 1990s, the Greenland Government financed airborne and marine geophysical surveys over large parts of Greenland as support and incitement for private companies' exploration. All in all, government support for the development of mineral resources in Greenland has been very considerable.
The Greenland Mineral Law Commission was set up in 1960 because the Ministry for Greenland recognised that a legal basis for the administration of mineral resources was necessary. Previously, guidelines from Danish mining law had been used, although taking into account the considerable geological differences between Greenland and Denmark. The first mining law for Greenland was introduced in 1965. In 1973 this provided the framework for a rather modern exploitation licence for the 'Black Angel'; lead-zinc deposit at Maarmorilik. The period prior to the introduction of Home Rule saw considerable exploration activity over the whole of Greenland. From 1979, gradual adjustments to the administrative guidelines brought Greenland to the stage of being a modern mineral resources region by global standards. The changes to the laws introduced in 1991 resulted in greatly increased interest from the established mining world. In 1998, the administration of mineral resources was transferred to the Government of Greenland.