Greenland will seek minerals until 'last stone' turned: PM

NUUK, Greenland (Reuters) - Greenland will work to develop its mineral wealth until the “last stone” is turned, despite low prices for everything from oil to iron ore that have discouraged some foreign investors, Prime Minister Kim Kielsen said.

Greenland’s Prime Minister Kim Kielsen holds an oil-bearing rock from Greenland in Nuke, Greenland, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

Fisheries will remain the mainstay of the North Atlantic island’s economy for many years, he told Reuters in his office in the capital, Nuuk. Shrimp, halibut and other species account for almost 90 percent of exports.

“Changes will not happen overnight,” Kielsen said of government efforts to promote mining, tourism and industry for the island’s 56,000 people to diversify from fisheries.

“As yet we’re not aware of the mineral potential, how extensive it is. We will not find this out until we have turned the last stone,” he said, vowing to keep up exploration and to send experts abroad to explain investment opportunities.

Kielsen, who is 49, heads Greenland’s biggest political party, Siumut. He predicted that existing policies to encourage investment would work in the long term, twinned with efforts to improve infrastructure along remote coasts.

Greenland, whose capital Nuuk is closer to New York than Copenhagen, became a Danish colony in the early 19th century but has been gaining its own powers since World War Two, introducing a parliament in 1979 and self-governance in 2009.

It still relies heavily on funding by Denmark and needs a stronger economic base to realize a long-term goal of full independence.

Oil companies including Norway’s Statoil and Denmark’s DONG Energy have returned exploration licenses because of low oil prices, now around $50 a barrel. Britain’s Cairn Energy was the biggest explorer in Greenland but a $1.2 billion campaign in 2010 and 2011 yielded no commercial finds.

And hopes that General Nice, one of China’s top coal and iron ore importers, would develop iron ore in Greenland have been put on hold by low prices. Officials say no Chinese mining delegation has visited Kielsen since he took office in 2014.

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Kielsen dismissed suggestions that Greenland had suffered setbacks, saying swings in prices were inevitable and that exploration was always risky.

“Out of 100 possibilities three become a reality,” he said. “There’s still interest in projects ... I think things are going as planned”.

Among new projects, the Aappaluttoq ruby and pink sapphire mine, majority owned by Canada’s True North Gems, plans to start production this year about 250 km (150 miles) south of the capital Nuuk.

Among others, Greenland is also looking at the long-term possibility of mining rare earths and uranium in the south.

A ranking by the Canadian Fraser Institute of the attractiveness of more than 100 nations or territories worldwide placed Greenland 25th in 2015, up from 28th the year before.

Greenland’s mineral promise is offset by remoteness, lack of ports and roads, as well as winter darkness and ice. The iceberg that sank the Titanic sank in 1912 was probably from Greenland.

Still, global warming, with record-breaking temperatures in Greenland this year, is also melting ice and could make more minerals more easily accessible.

It may also be helping fisheries - Greenland is getting new species such as mackerel and tuna because of changing currents and a warming of sea temperatures, Kielsen said.

Asked about independence, he struck his chest over his heart with a clenched fist and said: “It’s in here.”

Still, he said that it would have to await “future generations” to improve education, infrastructure and diversify the economy. If still alive when a referendum is held, “I will vote in favor of independence,” he said.

Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Ruth Pitchford