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The Spanish mining industry.

The XV World Mining Congress is to be held in Madrid in the last week of May, 1992. It will present an opportunity to hear about mining activities worldwide. However, some visitors will be particularly interested in mining in the Iberian Peninsula so, with this in mind, the authors present a short overview of Spanish mining.

The Iberian Peninsula has a rich and diversified geological makeup, which explains its importance in historical mining, dating back originally to biblical times, then through the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs (Moors) to the present day, with the mining of a variety of metals including gold, copper and mercury, plus stone products and many industrial minerals.

Geological background

Old formations of Cambrian and Silurian age constitute the fringe of the northwest, west and southwest sides of Spain, as well as the axis which crosses the Iberian Peninsula from east to west through its centre. These formations host most of the metallic deposits, in addition to the granites, slates and marbles which have represented the most flourishing sector of mining activity in recent years.

Hard coal is mainly in the northern region, while brown coal is mainly in the northwest and central eastern parts. Industrial minerals are scattered widely throughout the country.

At the beginning of the present century, Spain was the world's leading producer of lead and its output of copper and iron were also important, while the mercury deposits at Almaden are world-famous. Nowadays, zinc is the most active remaining sector of the non-ferrous metal mining industry.

The current situation

The estimated value of Spanish mineral production in 1989 (the most recent year for which full data are available) rose to some Pta422,800 million (about $4,178 million), which represented over 1% of the country's Gross National Product. Almost 50% of this value corresponded to the energy minerals and, of the remainder, metallic ores amounted to 15.7% while industrial minerals and stone products accounted for 34.4%.

In general, when compared to the national needs, the Spanish mining industry is deficient in energy, metallic and some industrial minerals. Even though Spain is the EC country with the highest level of self-sufficiency with respect to mineral raw materials, its level of dependence on other countries is more than 35% of its needs. Spain's foreign trade deficit in mineral raw materials in 1989 was around $1,098 million, a significant increase of more than 39% compared to the previous year. Of the subsectors mentioned, the only one to register a positive trade balance was that of industrial minerals and natural stone (about Pta9,053 million, equivalent to about $90 million).

Principal mineral products exported in 1989 were: slate, $173 million; granite, $101 million; marble, $99 million; potash, $73 million; sepiolites, $65 million; zinc, $60 million; gypsum, $27 million; iron, $20 million. These eight substances accounted for 71% of the value of Spanish mineral exports in that year.

The industry employed some 76,400 workers in 1989, of whom 62.4% were in energy mining. The overall number had fallen some 20% in the preceding ten years. The number of operations was around 3,570, of which 213 were in energy minerals (with an average of 224 persons per working), 37 in metallics (average workforce 158) and over 3,300 in industrial minerals and natural stone (average workforce 7 persons).

Energy minerals: coal

Spain is the third largest coal producer in the EC with a domestic output of 19.6 Mt in 1990, which covers only about 64% of the country's needs. Some 97% of the coal produced is burned in thermoelectric plants.

Coal resources are large, but of poor quality. The seams are steep and/or thin, very badly faulted, and with high ash and sulphur contents. In addition, the number of seams tends to be few over most of the coalfields, resulting in considerable dispersion of mining activity. As a result, costs are high.

At present, disputes about redundancy frequently occur. The constraints imposed by EC directives, together with the availability of natural gas and cheap imported coal, are putting big pressures on marginal pits and coal mining companies. It is easy to predict that there will be a dramatic reduction in Spanish coal output over the next few years. Only the Plan Energetico Nacional (the Spanish energy programme) could set targets and possibly prevent excessive closures, but it is mainly a political document.

Energy minerals: uranium

The picture is just the reverse for uranium mining. Proven resources are equivalent to 46,000 t of yellow-cake concentrates and the future of this mining sector looks good. Domestic output of [U.sub.3] [O.sub.8] in 1990 amounted to 269 t. At present the electronuclear industry has to import 85% of its needs but it is planned to reduce this dependence to only 27% in the future through an increase in Spain's national output by a factor of three.

Metallic minerals

In the base metals lead and zinc (59,000 t and 258,000 t respectively in 1990), Spain is the largest producer in the EC, while it is the EC's only producer of mercury (20,735 flasks, each of 34.50 kg net, in 1990). Other metals produced in 1990 included 11,000 t of copper, 49 t of tin and 34 t of wolfram. There are a number of important large openpit or underground mines such as Rio Tinto/Cerro Colorado (copper), Almaden (mercury), Aznalcollar (zinc, silver, copper, lead and pyrite -- MM January 1990, pp. 20-25), Reocin (zinc and lead -- MM, August 1989, pp. 102-116), and Rubiales (zinc and lead -- MM, March 1989, pp. 180-189).

Industrial minerals

Spain has a very wide range of industrial minerals, producing over 50 different types, the raw materials for the ceramic and glass industries being the most important.

In some minerals, such as fluorite, sulphur, potash, calcined magnesite, sepiolite and slate, Spain is self-sufficient and even contributes to the EC's overall trade balance in these commodities. The country is also the EC's major producer of pyrites.

Natural stone

Spain is the world's largest producer of slate and, along with Italy, Greece and Portugal, provides a significant volume of the world supply of marble and granite. The Spanish production of natural stone was estimated to be 11.85 million [m. sup. 3] in 1990.

Aggregates are acquiring a growing importance in Spain due to the large programme of infrastructure construction, now attracting foreign capital.

Spanish mining in the EC

The opening up of the Spanish economy has taken place at the same time as the globalization and homogenization of the mineral markets around the world. Concurrence -- with EC rules and regulations -- is now the name of the game tempered by the requirements of the security of supply, as well as the impact on the balance of payments and employment.

In its Resolutions of July 1989 the Council of the EC decided to integrate the mining sector within the framework of the single EC Market in 1993. Regarding coal, the CECA Treaty expires in the year 2002 and, meanwhile, the EC Commission is pressing to reduce the subsidies received by the mining companies.

In response, Spain has taken a number of actions including the restructuring of the whole sector to allow for the phasing out of subsidies, and a programme of conversion of power stations to meet the more stringent environmental constraints.

With regard to non-energy minerals, the EC has initiated work to define a mining policy but no clear statement has yet been made. Spain, as with other countries with mineral output, is very much interested in this European mineral policy: one of the Round Tables in the forthcoming XV World Mining Congress in Madrid will deal with this important issue.

Mining law

New rules and regulations concerning mining activities in Spain are soon to be published. The new decentralized situation of the Spanish administration will be taken into account: the seventeen "Communidades Autonomas" or Regional Governments will see their competence on mineral policy confirmed. In addition, new technical and tax aspects will apply.

Spanish mining projects have to contend with interest rates on the capital needed for investment which are amongst the highest in the EC, coupled with manpower costs which are moving ever nearer to those of the more well-to-do countries. Not to be forgotten either are the ever-mounting pressures of public opinion against the impact of mining sites on the quality of the environment.


Despite the problems, progress is being made and amongst the stated objectives of the Spanish mineral policy are further exploration with a view to enlarging the reserve base, together with efforts in research and development to improve the market value of the minerals produced. [Tabular Data 1 Omitted]

(*)Prof. Manana is Chairman of AITEMIN (Asociacion de Investigacion Technologica de Equipos Mineros) and also a Professor at the UPM (Polytechnic University, Madrid); Prof. Carrasco is a Director of AITEMIN and also a Professor at the UPM; Ing. Obis is Head of the Industrial Development Department, AITEMIN.
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Author:Manana, R.; Carrasco, J.; Obis, J.
Publication:Mining Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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