‘Rare Earths’, Electrification Mandates, and Energy Security (Part II)

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From Master Resource.

By Mark Krebs 

“What we have is one-way bureaucratic command-and-control making poor decisions with funding derived from captive consumers and one-sided radical agendas. Accordingly, the environmental zealots demonize fossil fuels, while maintaining that only wind and solar are ‘green’ enough to ‘save the planet.’ This itself is greenwashing.”

Like Rob Bradley’s “Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not ‘Green’” (see Part I), my colleague Tom Tanton wrote a major piece about the over-regulation of the rare earth extraction industry in the U.S.: “Dig it!  If you want more information on the importance of rare earths within the U.S economy, this would be a good place to start.

The long-term feasibility of adequate supplies for this transition to renewables is whether sufficient raw materials exist for it at all. Professor Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) has studied these issues, probably more extensively than anyone else and thinks not. Professor Simon Michaux took on these issues via the following ground-breaking work:

It’s Time to Wake Up – The Currently Known Global Mineral Reserves Will Not Be Sufficient to Supply Enough Metals to Manufacture the Planned Non-fossil Fuel Industrial Systems

The upshot of Professor Michaux’s work is that “we need a new plan” as there are not enough raw materials to sustain this transition nor can recycling or reprocessing mining waste make up for the shortfall.  Since the success of free market economies is predicated upon informed citizens, I urge you to visit Professor Michaux’s website or, at a minimum, view the following YouTube:

Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels.

 There are also two PowerPoint presentations of Dr. Michaux that I highly recommend:

While Michaux’s information is invaluable, be warned that taking it all in is akin to drinking from a fire hose. But I guarantee, it will be worth it.

While it is likely that at least some technical process and raw materials discoveries will be made to improve the rare earth minerals required for all-renewables-all-the-time, there is at least one more category of problems to consider:  What are the environmental and social consequences of this transition to “clean energy” relative to traditional fuels.

There are many previous articles at MasterResource archives (Google a term followed by MasterResource) summarize the environmental and “social justice” problems of government renewables forcing, some of which I wrote or co-wrote with Tom Tanton. These articles referenced total economic costs (in the trillions of dollars in the U.S. alone); child/slave labor used to extract raw materials and then process/manufacture them into renewable energy systems; environmental aftermath, etc. The latter included the highly toxic waste streams associated with lithium extraction and processing on the typically poverty-stricken local communities where such operations are routinely conducted. “Environmental justice” for me but not for thee.”

Seabed Strip Mining

Getting back to seabed strip-mining; it seems the assumed GHG reductions of this transition to renewables are significantly undermined by their own unique forms of environmental aftermath. Not only does it take massive amounts of fossil fuels to produce renewable energy systems, but the harder it gets to secure raw materials, the more GHG’s will be emitted for this transition to “clean energy.” As Professor Michaux puts it, “minerals become the new oil.” Or as Daniel Yergin titled the energy transformation: “Big Oil to Big Shovels.”

One case-in-point: a Real Clear Wire article dated November 18th 2022 titled Seabed Mining Will Help Break China’s Grip on Critical Minerals by Tom LaTourrette, senior physical scientist and interim director of the Community Health and Environmental Policy program at the RAND Corporation (a government funded think tank).  

The article makes the case for developing new resources for raw materials needed for the “clean energy transition” from seabed mining independent from China. I do not discount that such resource potential exists and can lessen the dominance of China in these markets, I do question whether the cure is worse than the disease in terms of effectively mitigating a new kind of ostensible climatic apocalypse.

The GHG emissions related to seabed mining are a major penalty against the manufacturing of renewable energy systems and the subject requires further scientific research.  In addition to the GHG releases from the highly energy intensive nature of seabed mining and extraction, policy shouldn’t overlook the fact that seabed extraction requires acute disturbances of ocean sediments that represent the largest (by far) sequestration reservoir for carbon and methane on the planet. 

Such processes are akin to strip mining the ocean floor with largely unknown ecological impacts. Moreover, GHG emissions are but one form of environmental aftermath associated for seabed mining. A google search for the term “environmental impacts of seabed mining” indicates the extent of such issues.  The following lists a choice few of these references:

  1. Deep-sea Mining FAQ
  2. Understanding the impact of deep-sea mining
  3. Deep-Sea Mining Could Help Meet Demand for Critical Minerals, But Also Comes with Serious Obstacles
  4. A Climate Solution Lies Deep Under the Ocean—But Accessing It Could Have Huge Environmental Costs
  5. Is deep-sea mining a cure for the climate crisis or a curse?

To summarize, oceans are a vital carbon sink, absorbing up to a quarter of global carbon emissions a year in their deep sediments. Strip-mining the ocean floor will likely upset this balance and harm ocean ecosystems in general.

There is not enough scientific evidence to date to conclusively assess the risks associated with deep ocean strip mining. What is known is that sediments that can be miles in depth, must be sucked up and then filtered to screen out large solids that may contain valuable minerals. Then, the filtered sediments are simply dumped overboard. This will likely release significant amounts of carbon and possibly methane (hydrates) too. Silt plumes may disrupt food chains necessary for much of the world’s creatures.

Much Energy Required, Front Pollution

The energy required for powering the mining equipment and the resulting emissions are also significant. Assuming the operators of seabed mining equipment are required to pay for the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), the cost effectiveness of the process may be negative. All for what?  To reduce “global lukewarming?”

Betting the farm on “clean energy” increasingly appears to be a bad bet both economically and environmentally. Unless of course, you are the government and are betting with “other people’s money” and get to grow your empire.

Are avid environmentalists willing to accept the ecological risks associated with deep-sea strip mining to attain their “green energy” transition agenda? “Out of sight is out of mind,” right? Apparently, they are willing to take such risks, as evidenced by their ‘eyes shut’ regarding child slaves in mining. The following excerpt is from the fifth article in the above list. It further indicates the answer is yes:

We are living in a world where more and more people want to have the latest cellphones as well as electric vehicles and wind and solar power plants that will help in achieving net zero emissions. And these require metals like cobalt and manganese.

On its own, recycling these metals is unlikely to provide the ingredients we need for these devices, so mining is going to be important. On land it is associated with all sorts of problems and eventually there will be a push for deep-sea mining – and in the end it will happen.

Conclusion

I do not advocate that consumers should be deprived of material goods such as smart phones. Nor should they be deprived of affordable energy. I do advocate that since all forms of energy have negative impacts, and to make energy sustainable, decision-making should be well informed, transparent via sound (vs. politicized) science–and that consumers be well-informed about both the pro’s and the con’s of such alternatives. 

Conversely, what we have is one-way bureaucratic command-and-control making poor decisions with funding derived from captive consumers and one-sided radical agendas. Accordingly, the environmental zealots demonize fossil fuels, while maintaining that only wind and solar are “green” enough to “save the planet.” This itself is greenwashing. It’s back to Robert Bradley’s “Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not ‘Green’”.

This concludes a two-part post (Part I yesterday).

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Mark Krebs, a mechanical engineer and energy policy consultant, has been involved with energy efficiency design and program evaluation for more than thirty years. He has served as an expert witness in dozens of State energy efficiency proceedings, has been an advisor to DOE and has submitted scores of Federal energy-efficiency filings. His many MasterResource posts on natural gas vs. electricity and “Deep Decarbonization” federal policy can be found here. Mark’s first article was in Public Utilities Fortnightly, titled “It’s a War Out There: A Gas Man Questions Electric Efficiency” (December 1996). Recently retired from Spire Inc., Krebs has formed an energy policy consultancy (Gas Analytic & Advocacy Services) with other veteran energy analysts.