Mining Our Way to Clean Energy

The greener we try to be, the more mining it requires.

March 2021

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You’ve never met them, but the men in this mine in Inner Mongolia get you to work every day.

When you had to work from home during a global pandemic? It was only possible because of what happens in this mine in the Congo.

And these Brazilian workers...might just save your life.

Basically, if you live a modern lifestyle, it’s because of the resources these men provide.

Cobalt from the Congo powers your smartphone.

Rare earth minerals extracted from Mongolia go into batteries for electric cars.

And without places like Brazil supplying Niobium, we wouldn’t have functioning MRI machines.

Seriously...we didn’t make that one up. Niobium is a thing.

We might imagine our high-tech economy and modern lifestyle is easier on the planet than previous generations, but all that sophisticated technology requires minerals extracted from the Earth.

In fact, the greener we try to be, the more mining it requires.

A 2017 study from the World Banki makes it clear: clean energy requires far more minerals than the fuel sources it would replace.

For example, the amount of wind and solar power needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, would double the demand for the metals used in those technologies.

But that’s nothing compared to the batteries needed to store clean power—which, under the Paris goals, would require over 1,000 percent more metals than today.

And all those materials come at a price. Much of it comes from countries where labor and environmental standards are somewhere between weak—and non-existent.

Take cobalt, for example. It’s used in lithium-ion batteries which we rely on for laptops, cellphones, and many other smart technologies. Seventy percent of the world’s raw supply comes from the Congo.

Investigations from Amnesty International report that children as young as seven are at work in those mines and that the experience can leave them with chronic lung disease from exposure to cobalt dust. ii

Two thousand miles away, the West African country of Guinea is home to the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, the main source of aluminum used in many renewable energy technologies.

It’s also home to about half of the world’s population of the endangered western chimpanzee. And thousands of the great apes are projected to die because of the lack of environmental safeguards at the country’s mines.iii

And there’s a practical problem on top of the ethical ones. The U.S. is dependent on other countries for nearly 90 percent of the minerals that are critical to our national securityiv—components necessary for everything from night-vision goggles to the M4 Carbine, the Army’s standard issue rifle.v

For those supplies, we rely on countries like Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, and even Russia.

Now, not all of these dependencies are necessarily problematic. Relying on imports from a friendly country like Canada, the nation with which we have the second-largest dependency, is basically harmless. I mean, come on. It’s Canada!

But there’s no country we’re more dependent on than China.vi

And there? In 2019, The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, made clear that the Chinese government intends to use these resources as a weapon against the United States.vii

Now, we could just wait for China to get as chill as Canada, but...laid-back dictatorships aren’t really a thing.

There’s another option, though: America actually has its own vast mineral resources; it’s just that we’re not tapping them.

As recently as 1990, the U.S. was the world’s number one producer of minerals. Today, we’re the seventh.viii

What happened? A mountain of regulations at the federal, state, and local levels made the process for opening a mine almost impossible.

Take the Kensington gold mine in Alaska, for example. It opened in 1993. Wait, scratch that.

It was supposed to open in 1993. But because of the complicated regulatory process it wasn’t able to begin operations until 2010.

In the 17 years it took to navigate all those regulations, the cost of building the mine increased almost 50 percent. As a result, it had to cut its production by one-third.ix

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Other advanced nations like Australia and Canada open new mines in a fraction of the time—and they still manage to protect their workers and the environment.x

We have trillions of dollars' worth of untapped mineral resources in the United States. One site in Minnesota has the world’s second largest deposit of copper.xi

And just one hill in west Texas could make the U.S. almost entirely independent of the rare earth elements for which we currently rely on China.xii

The problem isn’t a lack of resources; the problem is that we don’t use the resources we already have.

Unless we want to abandon all of our sophisticated technology, our dreams of a cleaner energy future, or even our ability to protect our military, we have no choice but to depend on the people we send into mines.

They could be laborers working under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party and children pressed into servitude in the Congo, or they can be Americans working high-tech mines in places like Texas, Alaska, and Idaho.

But let’s not fool ourselves: unless we all want to live like we’re Amish, those are the only choices.

DISCLAIMER: Kite & Key does not receive money from mining interests, tech companies, military contractors, western chimpanzees, Congolese children, electric car manufacturers, environmental groups, angry Alaskans, or the people who make MRI machines.

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