Exposing Environmental Big Lies
This is chapter 5 of my book, A Natural Language, which exposes the environmental narrative as propaganda and puts bottom-up solutions in front of the actual problem.
The environmental impacts of mining are so colossal that they are hard to sketch out briefly. The mining sector’s water consumption rivals that of agriculture with the twist of being localized. Mining generates around 100 billion tons of waste per year, which compares with the sum total of all goods transported across the planet. A large part of that is fine particles related to pulverizing ore into grind. That waste occupies a volume far greater than the pressurized ore. This silicosis-inducing dust usually gets mixed with water, though not before enough of it flies off to plague nearby locals. The toxic sludge ends up in tailings dams, which are themselves hazardous. These issues are not localized in space. In 2015, the Fundão dam failure in Brazil polluted waterways in an area the size of Portugal. Antofagasta in Chile is hundreds of kilometers from the nearest copper mine, yet the dust from transporting copper ore through the city is behind an epidemic of respiratory diseases and cancers. These issues are not localized in time, either. Navajo Nation is still contending with piles of waste four decades after uranium mining operations have stopped. That is on top of a dam failure in 1979 that resulted in the largest radioactive release in US history
The mining sector’s human impacts extend far beyond its environmental problems, too. Child labor and slavery in DR Congo’s artisanal cobalt mines are well documented. It is quite a conundrum, too, given how cobalt goes into batteries and wind turbines, and DR Congo controls most of the world’s reserves. These are just the tip of an iceberg of abuses. Mining is unique among environmental issues in that you cannot try elsewhere in the face of local resistance. It stands out as a human rights offender as a result. Anti-mining activists who resist the land theft and the environmental destruction routinely get arrested, fined, beaten, maimed, or outright murdered. Locals sometimes get lucky, like the Dongria Kondh peoples in Orissa whose fight to save their sacred mountain coincided with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar movie. Another example would be the El Salvador activists who overcame threats, torture, and murder to get metal mining banned in the country. Much more often, the greater good of a fatter wallet prevails and front line communities lose mining conflicts. Militarized police and guards then move in to clear out the locals at gunpoint.
The ties between mining and militarism are very intimate. The London Mining Network, an indigenous rights and anti-mining outfit, brings up the enormous amounts of metals that go into satellite systems, ships, aircrafts, armored vehicles, missiles, and other military equipment in one of its reports. Military forces are mining’s best customer by far. The relationship between the two is mutually self-serving, too. Mining enables as much as it fuels corruption, wars, regime change operations, and imperialism. It also fueled and continues to fuel settler-colonialism. Outside of the Americas and Oceania, colonial powers usually stationed just enough staff to set up the infrastructure needed to move finished goods in (or through) and resources out. Especially mineral resources. After colonial independence, local elites enabled corporations to do more of the same under the auspice of international trade. Conservancies are now enabling yet more of the same under the auspice of environmentalism. Conservancies are even pushing to place half of our planet under their “protection" by 2030. That would make it the largest land theft in history, and further substantiate the military doctrine that our minds (and bodies) are the 21st century battlefield.
Green tech creates no shortage of land conflicts at the other end of the supply chain, too. The all-electric green tech future that climate experts are preaching about depends on sacrificing several percentage points of our planet’s surface on the altar of wind and solar. Impertinent mayors who refuse to erect totems and lock up hallowed grounds get rebuffed in court. Green tech projects sometimes harm communities with actually sustainable lifestyles, like the wind turbines that disrupt reindeer migration routes in Sámi territories. Green tech projects also get fast tracked in countries that want to decarbonize their economy quickly. India, for instance, exempts sizable green tech projects from environmental assessments and public hearings. Such is how a solar farm operator used doctored reports about cultivation and tenancy rights to take over farmland in Mikir Bamuni Grant, Assam. The 1,500 affected families protested and were met with ruthless police violence. The Inga 3 hydroelectric dam project in DR Congo is just as egregious. This is a country where over 90% of the population lives without access to the power grid. The dam is set to disrupt local ecosystems and displace around 37,000 people in order to produce green hydrogen for export markets.
Green tech has a huge list of environmental impacts that complete this egregious picture. Birds and bats get clobbered out of the skies by giant wind turbines, endangered species status be damned. Solar panels cause light and heat pollution that create heat islands near them. Wind turbines warm up downwind areas by slowing wind down. The noise of the pile drivers used to install offshore wind turbines in shallow seas stands out in the cacophony that we impose on aquatic animals. The list could go on. Green tech even has logging ramifications that go beyond using charcoal to smelt silicon: appetite for wooden wind turbine blades in China is fueling illegal balsa tree logging in the Amazon basin. The biggest problem is waste. A household solar panel will generate several flat screen televisions worth of electronic waste. In the best case scenario, an old solar panel will leach its lead and cadmium content in a landfill. In a worse one, it will do so from a home’s roof and lace water catchments. Decommissioning wind turbines results in hundreds of tons of landfill waste, tens of tons of incineration waste, and tons of electronic waste. Decommissioning lithium-ion batteries that flare up in explosive fires when punctured is hazardous. Glossing over these realities as a necessary evil to solve climate change might be tempting, but that doesn’t check out either.
Green tech’s ability to deliver on the all-electric carbonized future that our climate high priests tell us about faces thorny supply chain problems. Like other industrial activities that depend on mining, green tech requires that raw minerals be purified, cast, cut, machined, welded, coated, and so on, with packaging and transportation intertwined as needed. These steps require energy. At times, this means direct fossil fuel inputs for heat. At other times, this means indirect fossil fuel inputs like electricity or chemicals that depend on upstream use of fossil fuel. These green tech supply chains are not being decarbonized, nor can they be any time soon because of two key problems.
The first of these issues is mineral processing. Refining the silicon that goes into solar panels requires heat and a reducing agent. Coal is convenient for this because it packs carbon to deliver heat with carbon for the redox process. The steel that goes into wind turbines is more of the same, with the added plot twist that you want some carbon in the final alloy. Purifying the copper that goes into batteries and electrical wires depends on an electrochemical process, which typically depends on electricity produced using coal. Purifying minerals, more generally, depends on and is going to keep depending on fossil fuel for the foreseeable future. Coal power stations and coal powered facilities are getting built across poor countries, in fact, to deliver the green tech future that climate experts are calling for. Top this off with mass transportation, which is going to mean more coal to make steel, glass, cement, and electricity, and coal is set to have a bright future in our all-electric future.
The other issue is energy density. Electric vehicles with an economically useful payload are very situational. The energy needed to lift off the ground is such that electric aircraft concepts seldom make sense outside of zeppelins. At sea, electric boats make little sense except for short trips on rivers, in canals, and along coasts with ready access to charging stations. Electric trucks make no more sense on land, except in edge cases. One is deliveries in urban settings. Another is when regenerative braking is recharging the battery of a dump truck that is carting ore downhill before driving back up empty — that is, the opposite of what dump trucks do in an open pit mine. Factor in the use of petrochemical products like plastics in modern societies, and oil also seems set to have a bright future in our all-electric future.
Fully decarbonizing supply chains to solve these issues introduces other problems. In theory, metallurgy could use electrochemical processing or reductants like hydrogen. Applications that require a high energy density could use hydrogen or biofuels. The rest could use electricity. As a result of this, a commonly encountered vision of our green tech future pitches hydrogen where it beats electricity. That vision is being actively researched. In early 2021, the EU announced with fanfare that it will be using hydrogen to decarbonize its steel industry. It is not alone. All but the poorest countries in the world are looking into hydrogen energy. Aircraft and ship makers love it. Hydrogen’s most enthusiastic supporters are fossil fuel corporations. At issue is the problem that producing green hydrogen depends on green electricity to electrolyze (desalinated) water. Producing hydrogen using natural gas could help us transition into this future. This produces carbon emissions, but fossil fuel corporations would love to do their part to solve climate change and get paid to store that carbon while they fill in. Add gas power stations that compensate for the intermittent nature of wind and solar to this picture, and natural gas also seems set to have a bright future in our all-electric future.
Even green tech’s low carbon signature claims come with strings attached. The caveat there is that cleaning up pollutants and recycling seldom make economic sense. Life cycle analysis report authors usually lay this out in plain text. Their calculations tend to stop at the landfill. Pollution, meanwhile, is taking its toll on communities. Air pollutants cause health issues like respiratory diseases. Liquid and solid pollutants contaminate soils and water supplies, and can result in health issues like cancers because of vapor intrusion, laced water, and bioaccumulation in the food chain. The costs (financial and carbon) associated with these health issues are unknown for the most parts. They disproportionately burden those who live near waste streams, and these are rarely the same people as green tech end-users. More of the same applies for the clean-up and recycling costs. Green tech needs minerals, which rules out long-term sustainability. It cannot even deliver on its shorter term promises, in fact.
Adding the needed power generation capacity to our electric grids would be the first of many hurdles on the path to an all-electric future. The global population is growing and getting wealthier. This means that, unless events like a pandemic and a supply chain meltdown collapse the population and the economy, the global energy consumption is set to grow. If we make the unlikely assumption that efficiency gains compensate for the growing population and per capita consumption, decarbonizing our economies means producing as much electricity as we are producing energy today. About half of all fuel burnt goes into producing heat for direct use in homes, factories, or engines. We therefore need to at least double the current electrical production. We only have so much spare nuclear, hydro, or sensible thermal capacity, and new fossil fuel power stations would be missing the point, so this new electricity generation would fall on green tech. This means that, to deliver our all-electric future, green tech must go from under 5% of the global energy mix to 85% or so in the next few decades. It also means adding about as much new power generation capacity to the power grid in the next few decades as we’ve added during the entire 20th century. Most of it would be new green tech, so that would depend on preposterous amounts of mining.
That brings us to scaling this herculean project, which would be the next hurdle. We’d need to extract minerals at rates far beyond current capacities to make a difference for carbon emissions. This is not going to happen. Mines take a decade or more to set up in the best of times, and an extra decade or more to scale up. Mines depend on staff, infrastructure, equipment, energy, a cooperative administration, and reasonably docile locals that don’t resist land theft efforts. Decreasing ore quality further complicates this bleak outlook, because ever more mining is needed to yield the same amount of metal. Delivering our all-electric future is basically doomed to forever stay behind schedule to make a difference for carbon emissions. That is effectively guaranteed to fuel climate activist anger and frustration. The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, appears oblivious to these realities. It is raising the alarm that we’re not yet mining fast enough. That is so laughably out of touch with the realities of operating a mine or managing a project that it is hard to tell if it came from a serious technocrat or an amused troll.
The extra load on the electrical grid is our next hurdle. Green tech visions written by lawyers and economists rarely get into practical implementation details, but these can sometimes bubble up enough to matter. Basically, if buildings are all producing and storing their own electricity, then existing grids might survive an all-electric transition with minor adjustments. There would be some haggling over net metering rules, and not much else. If not, then electrical grids will be in for the mother of all upgrades to deal with the extra load. That would mean even more mining than we already need to produce all of that green tech. Especially for copper, at a time when electric vehicles and their charging points are already fueling off-the-charts copper demand.
Nexts comes the biggest hurdle to overcome, which is mineral reserves. It is not at all controversial among specialists that the planet doesn’t have the minerals needed to go all-electric. Mining companies would basically need to locate a few DR Congos worth of cobalt if the plan was to replace the world’s vehicle fleet with an all-electric one. All but the most common minerals have similar echoes. Some green tech visions use the home’s car battery as the home’s battery to save minerals. Other visions imagine us using shared car fleets to save even more minerals. As we’ve just brought up, the latter would introduce new mineral requirements to produce home batteries or upgrade the power grid. And there still wouldn’t be enough minerals for these scenarios. The need to reduce global energy consumption appears inescapable.
That problem is all the more pressing because of energy supply concerns. The climate change and green tech narratives have eclipsed the one about peak oil in recent years, but it too is alive and well. According to Simon P Michaux, a mining industry expert whose research the above draws on, oil corporations have been struggling to find new reserves to match rising oil demand since the 1980s. In addition, known deposits have needed ever more efforts to keep up with demand. To empty a glass with a straw, you need to sip the small drops one by one eventually. Oil corporations are currently doing their version of that. Aramco, for instance, has more than quadrupled the number of oil rigs that it operates in the past 20 years. Part of why is that Saudi Arabia increased its production to put the shale oil producers of its US ally out of business. An investment brochure surprised observers in 2020 by suggesting that Ghawar had little production capacity to spare. Oil production from deposits like tar sands have bottlenecks too, and mineral demand has exploded since the mid-2000s. In that sense, we’ve moved away from being an oil-based economy already.
Undaunted, mining corporations are turning to our oceans to overcome these hurdles. Deep sea mining is a looming environmental calamity that scientists have been warning about for decades. The lure is great because a few DR Congos worth of cobalt lies at the bottom of our oceans, alongside other minerals. Propagandists are manufacturing consent for this madness already. “Deep sea mining could save humanity from climate change,” preaches a media puff piece. “This is the most preparation that we’ve ever done for any industrial activity,” soothes the head of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). “I’m doing it for the planet and the planet’s children,” virtue signals the CEO of The Metals Company, a deep sea mining startup that insists its activities are harmless. We’ll know soon enough how harmless they actually are because Nauru, a Pacific island-nation that phosphate mining has turned into a barren moonscape, triggered the ISA’s two-year rule on its behalf in mid-2021. That puts the ISA on a two year deadline to wrap up its regulatory work. Deep sea mining will be able to begin at once if it doesn’t. This illustrates in passing how a few committed people can force the hand of humanity.
Summary | Next: Carbon Miscounting.