Mining law

The extraction of lignite from opencast mines is also subject to mining lawClick to enlarge
The extraction of lignite from opencast mines is also subject to mining law
Source: bibi / Fotolia.com

Every industrialised economy is dependent on a secure supply of raw materials. Manufacturing industry and the energy sector in particular require immense amounts of such materials. It is for this reason that Germany extracts its own deposits and also imports significant amounts of those raw materials which are not available domestically.

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Development and challenges from the perspective of environmental protection and resource conservation

In 1982 the German federal legislative body replaced the confusing mass of state mining regulations with a single unified, albeit not definitive, regulatory regime in the form of the Federal Mining Act (BBergG). This serves mainly to underpin the secure supply of raw materials with more efficient licensing and approval procedures and prioritises the extraction of raw materials over other overriding interests of the common good. This is particularly evident in what is known as the raw material safeguarding clause. According to this clause, regulations under public law that stand opposed to the exploration for and extraction of raw materials should be applied only to the extent that any deleterious impact on exploration and extraction can be kept to an absolute minimum.

From the environmental perspective, the BBergG still has deficiencies. The inevitable disruption to nature and landscapes caused by mining activities and the associated burden on the people living in the mining regions (caused, for example, by particulate pollution from mines, the formation of cracks in houses, ruptures and resettlement measures) have still not been satisfactorily resolved. Managing the consequences is also a major challenge: examples include the long-term depletion of aquifers, the permanent loss of natural soil fertility even after completed renaturation, impacts on the usability of water bodies due to acidification or of tracts of land caused by the lack of stability of the soils used to fill in the old mining works. From the German Environment Agency's point of view, best available mining technology and the legal framework for mining must therefore be examined and improved in order to further reduce its negative impacts on local residents and the environment and, in particular, to improve and financially secure the management of longterm consequences after the end of mining activities.

 

Legal system and connecting links for environmental protection and resource conservation

A special feature of federal mining law is the fundamental distinction between so-called “bergfreie” and “grundeigene” mineral resources. The BBergG specifies in a conclusive catalogue which mineral resource falls under which category, whereby the economically more interesting mineral resources are classified as “bergfrei”. The consequence is that “bergfreie” mineral resources are not added to land ownership, but the right to appropriate them must be transferred in an independent administrative procedure (authorisation procedure) before operating licences can be granted. The advantage of this legal construct, however, is that the state has linked the granting and utilisation of concessions to tax obligations which, provided with a corresponding legislative steering function, could also promote more environmentally friendly and resource-conserving exploration and extraction activities. For example, the levy obligation can already be reduced or even waived today so that a deposit being exploited can be fully extracted, which would otherwise be uneconomical for the operator.

The mining authorisation regime works on a first come, first served basis. The mining companies stake their claims and, after the granting of exploration permits, can in principle access the deposits safe in the knowledge of the irrevocability of the consent. In other words, with the granting of the exploration licence a temporary preliminary decision in favour of a certain use has already been made. Public participation is not envisaged by the BBergG in this respect. In this way, the conflict between the interests of local residents and the profit-making interests of the companies is in most cases resolved in favour of the latter at this early stage of the project.

This is because the granting of authorisations for the exploration and extraction of so-called “bergfreie” mineral resources also further strengthens the legal position of mining companies. In addition to their freedom to engage in mining activities, which is protected by Article 12 (1) of the Basic Law (German Constitution), the granting of mining licences confers on them the right of ownership on the “bergfreie” mineral resource, which is protected by Article 14 (1) of the Basic Law, with the effect that the exercise of this right must not be improbable or even impossible from the outset. If it turns out that the extraction of the mineral resource is not possible without access to third-party land, the extraction permit also grants the right to demand the subsequent assignment of the land (expropriation under mining law).

The early transfer of the right to appropriate the “bergfreie” mineral resource is not matched by a corresponding early possibility of legal protection for the possibly affected property owner. The landowner is largely restricted to using legal means to substantially defend himself against the threat of expropriation only in the subsequent land transfer procedure, by which time mining operations have usually been going on for many years. But also for mining-related damage to surface property, legal protection under mining law is historically characterised by the principle of "tolerate and liquidate" and thus, from the point of view of the affected property owners, definitely needs improvement. A strengthening of legal protection was not brought about by the legislator, but by the Federal Administrative Court with its decision (Ref: 7 C 11.05) in 2006, which has since been confirmed by the Federal Constitutional Court in its “Garzweiler” decision of 2013 (Ref: 1 BvR 3139/08; Ref: 1 BvR 3386/08). In the opinion of the court, protected owner interests can already be objected to when a general operating plan is approved and must therefore already be determined by the mining authority at this stage of the procedure and included in the weighing of interests. However, this does not change the fact that the de facto decision on the "whether" of mining has often been made at an earlier point in time and that legal remedies, for example against the resettlement of affected persons against the background of an already ongoing mining operation, are regularly unlikely to have a realistic chance of success.

A more far-reaching advance shift of legal protection to the procedural stage of the granting of authorisation could be suitable for increasing the effectiveness of legal protection and legal certainty in mining law proceedings as a whole. This could not only benefit those potentially affected by mining, but also lead to more legal certainty and investment security for mining operators. Under the current legal situation, they have to fear that projects that have already been approved and, if necessary, have been in operation for many years with correspondingly considerable investment expenditure, could be amended or even stopped by the courts. From the point of view of environmental protection, the environmental and nature conservation associations recognised under § 3 of the Environmental Remedies Act (UmwRG) and equipped with rights of participation and legal action have an important control function. As professional advocates of environmental concerns, they can contribute environmental and nature-related opinions at an early stage in the staged authorisation procedure under mining law and thus contribute to improving the enforcement of environmental protection regulations in mining activities as a whole.
 
From the perspective of the affected property owners, the law governing damage caused by mining activities is incomplete. It privileges those residents whose properties lie within an area affected by deep mining insofar as, in the event of damage to property on the surface, the legal presumption is that the damage has been caused by the extracting companies. Opencast mining still lacks a system to reverse the burden of proof. The affected parties therefore bear the burden of proof that damage has been caused to their property by opencast mining activities. Such evidence is however likely to result in success only in rare cases and often leads to costly and protracted legal disputes.

 

Legal amendments

With the increasing use of the substrate (for example, as a storage medium, a natural sink, for deep geothermal energy, ⁠CCS⁠) or the use of unconventional - as yet untested or insufficiently tested - mining technologies (e.g. fracking, tertiary oil extraction) new conflicts with protected neighbourly interests and further risks to the environment can be expected, for which the BBergG in its current version is not sufficiently prepared. With regard to the use of fracking in the exploration and extraction of shale and coal seam gas, the federal legislature has responded and will selectively adapt the Federal Water Act (Wasserhaushaltsgesetz), the BBergG and other sub-legal regulations. The opportunity for a comprehensive reform of the BBergG as called for by representatives from science, the Länder, associations, and also by the German Environment Agency (see UBA position paper), is however yet to be exploited. The German Environment Agency also maintains that further action is needed to protect resources. For instance, research is needed into the establishment of a legal framework to manage the extraction and use of raw materials in Germany in such a way as to ensure that the needs of both present and future generations can be met, high environmental standards can be observed and, at the same time, the consumption of raw materials and environmental pollution do not simply shift abroad.

 

Research activities of the German Environment Agency

After decades of selective amendments to the law, increasingly confusing jurisprudence and changing framework conditions for mining due to the energy transition and climate protection policies of the Federal German Government, representatives from science, the Länder, associations and also the German Environment Agency (cf. UBA position papers) are calling for a more comprehensive reform of the BBergG, also under the aspect of more effective protection of finite abiotic resources. For example, in the opinion of the German Environment Agency, it should be investigated how the legal control of the extraction and use of raw materials in Germany can be further developed so that the needs of both present and future generations are met and high environmental and occupational health and safety standards are effectively observed. Due to Germany's high dependence on imports, the German Environment Agency is also working on measures and instruments to prevent and effectively reduce the environmental impacts and human rights violations often associated with the extraction of raw materials in developing and emerging countries.