Greece’s mining industry
Greece possesses substantial mineral wealth, consisting of a variety of minerals and ores with a large industrial interest. The high quality and the many specialized uses of minerals available in Greece, provide significant comparative advantages to the country’s economy. The mining industry (with the exception of aggregates) has strong outward-looking features, since exports account for more than 65% of sales, and for some minerals Greece holds a leading position in the global market.
The mining and extractive metallurgy sector has been traditionally one of the most important and dynamic segments of the Greek industry. Today, mining companies are well organized and hold significant market shares in products such as bauxite, alumina, aluminium, nickel, caustic calcined magnesia, dead burned magnesia, raw magnesite, pumice, silica and ornamental stones (primarily marble). Greece is a major global supplier of several key industrial minerals, notably bentonite, magnesite, and perlite. The country’s position as a leading producer of these minerals is well established. Greece is the only country producing huntite, the leading global supplier of perlite, the second in the production of pumice and bentonite, and the first in the export of magnesium compounds within the EU.
Greece was also the second largest producer in the EU, and the fifth largest worldwide, of lignite (brown coal). The mines in the West Macedonia Lignite Centre supplied twenty one power plants with an installed capacity of 5287 MW, which corresponded to 50% of the total installed capacity of the country. Lignite exploitation is still based on the continuous method of excavation – transportation – deposition. The mining procedure of a lignite deposit includes extraction, transportation and deposition of materials (lignite and co-excavated waste materials). The co-excavated waste materials are transported and put back mainly in the excavation voids in an effort to minimize the impact on the landscape.
Moreover, Greece has significant deposits of clay, limestone, slate, gypsum, kaolin, mixed sulphide ores (lead, zinc), olivine, pozzolan, quartz etc. Finally, there are significant mineral deposits which have not yet been exploited, or where exploitation has temporarily ceased (such as manganese, chromite, uranium, gold, oil, emery, salt etc.), as well as major geothermal energy potential, suitable either for power generation or for various thermal applications. The annual land uptake by mines, quarries and waste dump sites is estimated at 1984 ha/y.
The Greek mining/metallurgical industry constitutes an important sector of the country’s economic activity (it constitutes 3 – 5% of the GDP, with the inclusion of interrelated enterprises such as quarrying, processing and production of intermediate and final products) and supplies essential raw materials for primary industries such as cement, production of energy, non-ferrous metals (aluminium, nickel, etc.), the industry of stainless steel etc. Estimated sales of the country’s mineral industry and basic metallurgies, totals almost EUR 2,5 billion. Moreover, the industry provides a major source of employment in the country: approximately 20 – 23 thousand employees are employed in the sector and more than 90 thousand are employed in jobs dependent upon or associated with mining. Furthermore, since – as a rule – the processing of these raw materials takes place in the region in which they are excavated, the industry contributes considerably to coveted regional growth.
A characteristic of the domestic mining industry is its openness, which is not limited to the high share of exports in sales. The internationalisation of the mining industry is also revealed by the fact that some domestic enterprises are subsidiaries of multinational corporations, while others have joint ventures, mining activities and export trade networks in many foreign destinations. The sales in the global markets take up a significant share of the turnover of the companies in the mining industry. The value of exports reached EUR 1,1 billion in 2013, exceeding 50% of the total turnover in the sector. The export orientation is particularly strong in products, such as marbles, industrial minerals and metals, where the export value has exceeded 70% of the turnover. At the product level, each of the three products with the largest share of exports (cement, aluminium and nickel) take up about 1/5 of the total value of exports.
Marbles and alumina come next with about 10% each while the magnesium products (refractories, dead-burned magnesia and caustic calcined magnesia) also have a significant share in exports. The export orientation of the domestic mining industry draws on its significant competitive advantages, particularly with relation to the easy access to ports and thus to water transport (due to the extensive coastline of Greece), but also from the pivotal geographical position of the country. However, there is still a significant lack of basic infrastructure (mainly in terms of rail transport). The upgrade of the rail links between the production facilities of the mining industry on one hand and the domestic ports, but also the industry centres in Central and Eastern Europe, on the other, is anticipated to contribute significantly to further internationalisation and stronger presence of the sector on the global trade map.
Taking into account that most of the mining activities in Greece concern aggregates, industrial minerals, energy minerals and metallic minerals without sulphurous elements, the main environmental issue that the mining industry faces concerns the rehabilitation of the natural environment after the end of the deposit exploitation period. The list of current and past rehabilitation projects in Greece includes the creation of woodlands, ponds, wetlands, arable land, museums and places for cultural events and entertainment. About 65 620 acres have been restored since the entry in force of Law No. 998/1979, with the share of restored land over totally utilised plots varying in the range of 35 – 40%. The mining and processing of mixed sulphide ores and the burning of lignite for electricity generation create additional environmental challenges. In this regard, the environmental impact study for the exploitation of the mixed sulphide metallic minerals in northeast Chalkidiki envisages the application of best available techniques for the management of acid mine drainage and the establishment of a programme that would monitor the characteristics of the groundwater in the broader area of the installations.
Regarding the use of lignite in electricity generation, a programme for replacement, upgrade and modernisation of the fleet of lignite power plants is under implementation. As part of the plan, six old lignite plans have already been withdrawn, while other two plants have stopped operating since 2014 due to malfunctioning after a fire and are expected to be scrapped. As the development of mining activities brings about significant changes in the local ecosystems, a significant number of domestic mining enterprises apply integrated environmental management systems and make extensive efforts to improve their environmental performance, both as an obligation to comply with the legislation and as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes. Nevertheless, despite the actions of many mining enterprises, the degree of distrust in the compliance with the environmental regulations and generally in the proper functioning of the institutions remains high in Greece. The ineffective state control mechanisms further erode the level of social trust.
The first mining of lignite in Greece began in Aliveri (Euboea) in 1873, but its intensive exploitation, in order to cover energy needs, took place only after 1950. All kinds of coal (turf – lignite – sub-bitumenous coal) that can be found in Greece are of Cenozoic age and have been deposited in inland or coastal basins. 84% of the lignite-bearing basins are of Neogenic age, 9% of Quaternary age and 7% of Eocene/Oligocene age. The most important basins are the ones of the area of Ptolemaida (Ptolemaida, Komnina, Aghios Christoforos, Perdika), which are of Pliocene age, of Megalopoli and Drama (Pleistocene age) and of Florina (Miocene age). Lignite can be distinguished in peaty lignite (25% of the deposits of Greece), lignite (64%) and sub-bitumenous lingite (11%). Sub-bitumenous coal, of Eocene/Oligocene age, can be found in Alexandroupolis, Kozani, Grevena; its quality is very good, but has a minor economic importance. The turf deposit in Philippi, with reserves of 4,3x109 tonnes, is of Pleistocene age.
The total reserves of Greece in lignite are estimated to approximately 10x109 tonnes, of which the measured reserves are 6,8x109 tonnes, indicated reserves are 0,31x109 tonnes, inferred reserves are 1,95x109 tonnes, and hypothetical reserves are 0,86x109 tonnes. Of the 6,8x109 measured reserves, 3,26x109 tonnes can be found in Ptolemaida, 0,4x109 tons in Megalopoli, 1,55x109 tonnes in Drama, 1,15x109 tons in Elassona and 0,47x109 tons in Florina. The exploitation is opencast, and the main exploitation basins are the ones of Ptolemaida and Amyndaio (annual production of 43,6 million tonnes) and Megalopoli (8,9 million tonnes).
The lower calorific value (LCV) of lignites that can be found in Greece ranges from 840 kcal/kg (Ioannina) to 7000 kcal/kg (Kotyli, in the prefecture of Xanthi). In most cases the LCV ranges from 1800 to 2600 kcal/kg for the Miocene age lingites, 1000 – 1800 kcal/kg, for the Pliocene age ones and 2600 kcal/kg are quite few (<0,4% of the reserves). In the wider area of Ptolemaida the calorific value ranges from 1400 kcal/kg to 2300 kcal/kg, while in Megalopoli it amounts to 950 kcal/kg.
The highest moisture content can be found in the lignites of Megalopoli (approximately 62%,), Ioannina (61%) and Ptolemaida (60%), while the lowest one can be found in the sub-bitumenous coal of Alexandroupolis (8,9%).
In general, the more the age of lignite increases, the more its calorific value and its volatile compounds content increase, and, on the contrary, the more its moisture content decreases. The peat content of lignites varies, even in the same deposit, given the fact that it depends on the percentage of argillic-marly-psammitic sediments the examined sample contains. However, the value usually ranges between 15 – 20%.
The use of lignite in the production of electricity resulted in the saving of high amounts of foreign exchange (approximately USD 1 billion per year). Lignite was a strategic fuel, since it has a very low mining cost, a stable and directly controllable price, and it can offer stability and safety in the fuel supply. At the same time, it created thousands of jobs in the Greek provinces, particularly in areas that have a high unemployment percentage.
In April 2022 Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that the country will ramp up coal mining in the next two years as a “temporary” measure to help reduce a dependence on gas that has soared since last year and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Certainly for the next two years, it would make sense increasing coal-fired energy generation by ramping up its mining by 50% so that we cut reliance from gas in the short-term,” Mitsotakis said at the inauguration of a solar park in northern Greece.
Once the country’s main indigenous energy source, coal now accounts for a small part of power generation under Greece’s plan to fully wean off the fuel by 2028. The country, which covers about 40% of its annual energy needs with Russian gas, has been looking into boosting spare coal-fired capacity at Public Power Corp (PPC), its biggest power utility, and adding a floating tank at its sole LNG terminal off Athens to secure energy supplies.
According to a PPC official cited by Reuters the plan is to extract 10 million tonnes of lignite in 2022, and this will be increased to 15 million tonnes. PPC had planned to shut down all but one of its coal-fired plants by 2023 and switch a new, more efficient coal-fired unit due to open later this year to a cleaner fuel by 2025. Signalling a shift in this plan, Mitsotakis said the new plant in northern Greece will probably use coal for longer, until 2028, while the lifetime for other, older plants might also be extended, depending on gas prices and availability.
Apart from lignite, Greece has a large deposit of turf in the region of Philippi (Eastern Macedonia). The exploitable reserves in this deposit are estimated to 4 billion cubic meters and are equivalent to approximately 125 million tonnes of oil.
The Greek marbles are among the most famous ones in the world. Apart from the existing deposits and varieties, they have been fully associated with the masterpieces of sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece. Demand for Greek marble has always been important and the sector is strongly export-oriented, and thus Greece is ranked among the major producers and exporters of marble at a global level.
In the last years the national annual production of marble products has exceeded 1 400 000 tonnes. The exports that take place mainly regard marble blocks with a total value that exceeds EUR 90 000 000.
Today, 75 – 80% of the total production of marble products, with a value of EUR 226 million, is exported. Of the exported products, more than 30 – 35% is exported to China and the rest is exported to the Middle East, to the USA, and, to a lesser degree, to the European market. The reserves of marble deposits in Greece are huge, and there are many that consider them as practically inexhaustible. There is a great variety of marbles in various colorations and types, but there are mainly white marbles, some of which are among the best in the world. It is for this that Greece is considered as the country with the widest variety of white and light coloured marbles.
The principal modern quarries in Greece, can be found in the rich in marble regions of Drama, Kavala-Thasos (Eastern Macedonia), which is the most important quarry centre of the country, of Kozani-Veria, Ioannina, Volos, Dionysos-Penteli, Livadia-Helicon, as well as in other regions (Argolida, Euboea, Skyros, Naxos, Paros, Tinos, etc.)
The exploitation of marbles takes place, principally, in the form of opencast exploitation, in which marbles are cut off with the use of steel wire ropes or special equipment, with the eventual production of the rectangular marble blocks. Underground exploitations exist today in Greece only in the area of Dionysos in Attica.
The bauxite deposits in Greece are of karst type. The largest deposits of bauxite in Greece can be found in the area of Parnassus-Ghiona. The colour of bauxites depends on their composition and particularly on the presence of iron oxides or hydroxides. There are: red or brown-red bauxites (with the presence of hematite); yellow bauxites (with the presence of goethite); grey bauxites with a small percentage of iron oxides; white bauxites (with the absence of iron oxides).
Their Al2O3 content ranges between 49 – 65%, the Fe2O3 content between 18 – 24%, the CaO content between 0 – 5%, the SiO2 content between 2 – 10%, the TiO2 content between 0,5 – 3%, and their Cr and Нi content can amount up to 2000 ppm.
Bauxite constitutes the only raw material for the production of alumina and aluminium and is particularly important for Greece. Bauxite can be also used in cement plants, in the production of cast iron as a flux and as a component of rockwool and of abrasive materials. Greece holds a very important place, not only in the EU, but also at a global level, as it is one of the major bauxite producing countries. 90% of the mining of bauxite in the country takes place in underground exploitations and 10% in opencast ones.
The measured amounts of bauxite in Greece amount to approximately 130 million tonnes and the annual production is over 2 million tonnes. The corporations S&B Industrial Minerals S.A., Delphi-Distomon Mining S.A. and ELMIN S.A. are active in the field of bauxite exploitation.
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