Lithium, rare earths, cobalt or nickel are names that sound more and more in full ecological transition. They are no longer just those elements of the periodic table that were heard in the classroom, now they are key in the world. “The cars have minerals and the telephone with which we speak also,” says Manuel Regueiro. This geologist reaches the halfway point of his second term at the head of the Illustrious Official College of Geologists (ICOG). A stage that seeks to bring geology closer to educational centers: “We have disappeared from the study plans,” he denounces. Along with this challenge, Regueiro also wants to forget the bad image of mining “there is a conception of the 50s, but now it is not like that.” Ecology versus mining, a dichotomy that can be conjugated, defends Regueiro.
– Geology is the science that studies the Earth, you who lead a life practically dedicated to it, how has the planet changed or evolved?
– (Laughter) It is very interesting that someone who is irrelevant as the human being is on Earth wants to analyze how he is. Man, like all species, will disappear and the planet will follow its course. We think we are super important, but it is a bit presumptuous to want to assess the state of the Earth from the point of view of man.
– I reformulate the question, how are we treating our environment?
– If we do it from the prism of a geologist, man does what he is designed to do: colonize, urbanize and adapt to improve his quality of life. Right now there is an apparent relationship between the existence of humans and the increase in global temperature, at least in civilized countries, and that could be considered mistreatment of the Earth. But, if the human being were not there, the same thing could happen, but the responsibility of man is that we know what we do. I am sure that most citizens want to live in a house or have a mobile, but to build this environment the planet has had to be affected. It is my vision as a geologist, which is different from that of a citizen.
«Man is doing what he is designed to do on Earth: colonize, urbanize and adapt to improve his quality of life»
– And what encouraged you to have that different vision, that of a geologist?
– I used to go out into the fields and pick up stones. I read a very illustrative book about what geology was, because one might think that they are rocks and minerals, but, really, it is looking at the environment with those different eyes and seeing that underneath there is an immensity of things. Also, it has a lot of practical things, because without geologists you couldn’t be talking on a mobile phone, because you need minerals. But this profession is very old-fashioned and does not attract.
– Is there a generational change?
– Thanks to the La Palma volcano, there was an upturn in vocations, but people look at the careers where they earn more money. Currently, there are 6,000 geologists since the career was created and what there may be in the world will be around half a million of the 7,700 million on the planet. There are not many people doing this job. The generational change has a lot to do with the vocation, but the world moves in other dynamics.
– And how can you attract young people?
– We do lots of things. We have a project to encourage girls, then there is what we call ‘The educational suitcase’ to teach what things are made with minerals. We try to encourage, but the Government has changed the study plans and we have been relegated as Philosophy. We have written to the Ministry of Education so that they know that this is fundamental, but we have the scope that we have. We have recently been with the Popular Parliamentary Group in the Congress of Deputies, but until they pay attention to you, we will see what happens. They have to understand that even being a minority race, this is important.
– The importance of geologists has been highlighted, such as, for example, the eruption of La Palma…
– Yes, and with more everyday things, because a volcano is something very exceptional. But, every day there are earthquakes or floods that are more frequent. We have spent years trying to convince the Administrations to comply with the Law, because we know where, for example, the floods are going to occur and measures can be taken. We ask that a risk map be made and every time a city council wants to build something, make a map that shows what could happen, not only because of floods, which are the most expensive geological risk in the country and millions are spent on fixing it so that it happens the same, but by landslides or subsidence. There are many geological risks and if it can’t be built, it shouldn’t be incorporated.
– You are a specialist in industrial rocks and minerals. In recent months and years they have been very important in the strategic situation of the country. What is the situation? Does that treasure really exist under the Peninsula?
– Obviously it exists, that’s why companies spend billions to investigate why that treasure is there. Until now, there has been talk of lithium from Cáceres and Galicia, because it is known that it is there and all that remains is for them to allow these exploitations to open. But, there is a very dark future for the green transition if there is no copper. For the next 25 years there will be no green transition, because the copper deficit will reach 25%. It will be the future gold, because there will be none on the market. If mines are not opened, we will not have it.
– If its need is known, why is it not extracted?
– By ecological opposition, fundamentally. The authorities have a law that establishes that an environmental impact study must be carried out and then the Administration makes the decision. If the applicant has received the approval of the environmental impact, the mine should be opened, but it is not done due to environmental pressure. It has been put into the brain of society that a mine is a destruction of the environment and if you look out the window, what do you see? A city. What is more destructive than a city? There is nothing left of the land, it is total destruction and for all life. A mine, you open it, you exploit it and then it is restored as required by law. There is a conception that mining has been quite destructive and predatory of the environment, because it has been destroyed, but that is no longer the case.
– Isn’t it working on that image cleanup?
– That is why the Fundación Minería y Vida has been created to fight against this bad image and educate because, for example, if in the high school book you say that mining destroys the environment, you stay with that. The key is that if you want to make a building you need bricks that are made from clay and where does it come from? From the quarry. The problem is that it is ignored and unknown. We try to fight that, but we have the influence that we have. I do not deny that mining is a hole in the earth, we are not going to discuss it, but mining today is not what it was 50 years ago and it can be restored.
«Africa is an unknown continent and its geology is promising»
– Now there is a lot of talk about underwater mining, is that also an option for Spain?
– The Mining Law is very curious, because it says that the continental territory and the shelf can be exploited, but the Coastal Law prohibits the exploitation of mineral resources on the coast. So it can only be used for beach restoration or port construction, that’s what the Coastal Law says. What is being done in the world is the exploitation of soils at the international level and the International Seabed Authority is in charge of granting permits. It will take years to extract the manganese, but if it is already difficult to do it on dry land, imagine at the bottom of the sea. It’s like the theory of capturing a gold asteroid and mining it. One day they can be done, but it is in the long term. There are still resources on the planet and they are not known. There are many unexplored areas, Africa is an unknown continent and its geology is promising. We will have to go look at them and let them do it.
– But, it is necessary to combine both interests, exploitation and protection.
– Yes, but I find it very funny, because you don’t want minerals to be exploited but then you like to have a mobile phone, a car, a house. If you don’t want to do it in Spain, they will bring it from another place and the laws in Cameroon, for example, are not as strict as in Spain and there they will do what they want with the mine, the land and the workers. In Spain a hole is made, the ore is extracted and restored, that, I believe, is what should be done throughout the planet.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.