There’s a lot of hype about batteries right now. And rightly so, as the world struggles with how to fuel the green transition. But for Jørgen Stenvold – Norge Mineraler’s new Project Director – phosphate’s potential to feed the world (while protecting soil quality) is a great motivator in his new role. As he goes on to describe, he’s now accountable for the deliverables of Norge Mining’s Egersund deposits in southwest Norway – where the quality of phosphate is ‘exceptional’.
Q. Has economic geology always been your vocation?
Jørgen Stenvold:I wrote my Master’s thesis about the tectonics of a new state-owned coal mine that was to be opened next to the world’s northernmost mine in Spitsbergen. And then I went on to work there as a mine geologist, helping miners discover the coal seam. I was then asked to set up an exploration department from scratch for projects in the Arctic. While the project began with coal, gold was then discovered, too. It wasn’t my first trip to the Arctic. At the age of just six, my father accepted a telecoms engineer job there. What’s fascinating is there’s no vegetation there; the rocks are so exposed, they’re constantly in front of you. This is when I first became fascinated by geology and that feeling never went away.
Q. Deep within mountains and isolated in the Arctic – you’ve certainly been up close to nature and in extreme environments…
Jørgen Stenvold: When I’m standing deep inside a mine, I find it very calming. In the Arctic, at times there were lots of people and helicopters involved in exploration, but often I would be alone with my snowmobile and rifle in polar bear territory. I enjoyed the feeling of independence in the wilderness, even though I was just in my twenties. Don’t forget, we Norwegians have Viking blood! But I really enjoy to take on the elements as it creates a sense of intimacy with nature; it makes me understand nature more. I then immersed myself in metropolitan life, at MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School – a course paid for by the company. It was a culture shock coming from the middle of nowhere to Boston. But it helped me realise I was adept at digesting large amounts of data and theory and competing on an intellectual playing field. These first ten years of my career were my most formative.
Q. Your work has also taken you to Ethiopia?
Jørgen Stenvold: When I joined Yara International they began to move into mining – and due to my experience, I was asked to join as a Mining Development Director. That meant a lot of travel, among other things, to Ethiopia – where the sedimentary geology is similar to Spitsbergen, interestingly. My work there taught me a lot about proper governance, systems and structures.
Q. Why is creating value from rocks so important to you?
Jørgen Stenvold: Everything is based on minerals in one way or another. I often tell young people who say they don’t believe in mining, ‘where do you think the components of that iPhone you’re holding come from?’ Minerals play such an important role in our society. During my twelve years at Yara, I learnt a lot about phosphate. And I’ve only seen one deposit with phosphate quality similar to Norge Mining’s and that’s in the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Europe needs this and we have to protect the strategic value of this phosphate in the best way possible. This is a key motivator for me.
Q. What is it about phosphate that excites you so much?
Jørgen Stenvold: It’s all nice and good to have LFP batteries (Lithium Iron Phosphate) for Electric Vehicles. And that is an important market. But what’s even more important than batteries is food – for that we need fertilisers and we must protect the soil quality. If you use a bad phosphate source for fertilisers, they can contain heavy metals that accumulate and become poisonous. We also need to create a carbon neutral food value chain. For me, that’s more important than driving robotic cars. We must strip back to the fundamentals to achieve that.
Q. Do you see a paradox with your love of nature and protecting the environment versus working in the mining industry?
Jørgen Stenvold: I want to protect the planet, vehemently. But I am also a realist and believe in industry. We cannot simple say ‘we shall not mine’, because society needs what’s under the ground. Just think of what goes into a Tesla battery. In my job, I can really make a difference, by applying deep care for nature while trying to secure the sustainable supply of the CRMs (vanadium, titanium and phosphate) we need to protect our way of living. This needs to be translated into our decisions, design and actions. Has mining managed this balance in the past? No, it has not. But I am confident it can – and it will – in the future. This is an interesting moment in time with both the green and geopolitical shifts colliding. It’s fascinating to be in economic geology and mining right now. And I am excited to be Project Director at Norge Mineraler, where I am responsible for developing the asset in the most effective, sustainable way – from the nitty gritty technical stuff to the necessary infrastructure.