“Eco-consciousness” and “green living” are centrepieces of product branding for the Toyota Prius. But that feel-good packaging has rapidly worn thin for members of the Algonquin Nation and residents of Kipawa, Quebec, who are now fighting to protect traditional Algonquin territory from devastation in the name of hybrid car battery production.
In 2011, after nearly two years of negotiations, Matamec Explorations, a Quebec-based junior mining exploration company, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Toyotsu Rare Earth Canada (TRECan), a Canadian subsidiary of Japan-based Toyota Tsusho Corporation. The memorandum confirmed Matamec’s intention to become “one of the first heavy rare earths producers outside of China.” In pursuit of this role, the company plans to build an open-pit Heavy Rare Earth Elements (HREE) mine directly next to Kipawa Lake, the geographical, ecological, and cultural centre of Kipawa.
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements found in the earth’s crust. They are used to produce electronics for cell phones, wind turbines, and car batteries. Rare earths are notorious for their environmentally costly extraction process, with over 90 per cent of the mined raw materials classified as waste.
Toyota has guaranteed purchase of 100 per cent of rare earths extracted from the proposed Kipawa mine, for use in their hybrid car batteries, replacing a portion of Toyota’s supply currently sourced out of China.
Over the last seven years, China has reduced the scale of its rare earths exports via a series of annual tonnage export caps and taxes, allegedly out of concern for high cancer rates, contaminated water supply, and significant environmental degradation. Despite China’s stated intention to encourage manufacturers to reduce their rare earths consumption, the US, the EU and Japan have challenged China’s export caps through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and are seeking new deposits elsewhere for exploitation. Toyota and Matamec are seeking to make Kipawa part of this shift.
Kipawa is a municipality located on traditional Algonquin territory approximately 80 kilometres northeast of North Bay, Ontario, in what is now known as western Quebec. The primarily Indigenous municipality is home to approximately 500 people, including members of Eagle Village First Nation and Wolf Lake First Nation, of the Anishinaabeg Algonquin Nation. The town of Kipawa lies within the large Ottawa River Watershed, a wide-branching network of lakes, rivers and wetlands. Lake Kipawa is at the heart of the Kipawa region.
Lifelong Kipawa resident and Eagle Village First Nation member Jamie Lee McKenzie told The Dominion that the lake is of “huge” importance to the people of Kipawa. “We drink it, for one….Everyone has camps on the lake [and] we use it on basically a daily basis.” This water network nourishes the richly forested surroundings that make up the traditional hunting and trapping grounds of the local Algonquin peoples.
“Where the proposed mine site is, it’s my husband’s [ancestral] trapping grounds,” said Eagle Village organizer Mary McKenzie, in a phone interview with The Dominion. “This is where we hunt, we fish, I pick berries….We just want to keep our water.” Jamie Lee and Mary McKenzie also emphasized the role of lake-based tourism in Kipawa’s economy.
The Kipawa HREE project would blast out an open-pit mine 1.5 kilometres wide and 110 meters deep, from the summit of a large lakeside hill. It would also establish a nearby waste dump with a 13.3 megatonne capacity. Rock containing the heavy rare earth elements dysprosium and terbium would be extracted from the pit via drilling and explosives, processed at an on-site grinding and magnetic separation plant, and then transported by truck to a hydrometallurgical facility 50 kilometers away for refining.
Matamec confirmed in its Preliminary Economic Assessment Study that some effluence caused by evaporation and precipitation is inevitable, especially during the snowmelt period. A community-led presentation argued that this could create acid mine drainage, acidifying the lake and poisoning the fish.
“There’s going to be five [truckloads of sulfuric acid transported from pit to refinery] a day….[I]n a 15-year span, that’s 27,300 truckloads of sulfuric acid,” said Mary McKenzie. “We’re worried about spills and the environment….They’re talking about neutralizing [the acid], when a spill does occur, with lime. I have [sources that say] lime is also a danger to the environment.”
In a 2013 presentation in Kipawa, Matamec stated that while “some radioactivity [due to the presence of uranium and thorium in waste rock] will be present in the rare earth processing chain,” its effects will be negligible. Yet these reassurances ring hollow for some, who point to cancer spikes observed in communities near rare earths projects in China. In the project’s economic assessment, Matamec itself indicated that waste rock is too dangerous for use in concrete and dikes.
“Whatever goes up in the air [from blasting and evaporation] comes down….A lot of those particles are radioactive,” said Mary McKenzie. “Our animals eat this [plant matter potentially affected by the mine]….We depend on our moose, we depend on our fish, so that’s a scary situation.” The refining process also uses strong acids and bases.
While Matamec stated in the Assessment that “most” of the water used in processing will be recycled, a portion of the post-processing solution will be directed into the lake or tailings ponds. The mine is intended to be operational for 13 years, but tailings ponds would require maintenance for generations, and leaching is always possible. Adding to this risk, Matamec has “assumed that [certain] tailings will not be acid generating or leachable” and will therefore only use watertight geomembrane for a portion of the tailings ponds.
With the approval process being accelerated by both public and private factors, production could begin as early as 2015. Quebec’s regulations call for provincial environmental impact assessments only when projects have a daily metal ore production capacity that is considerably higher than the national standard—7,000 metric tons per day versus 3,000 in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. What’s more, by categorizing HREE in the same regulatory group as other metals, these tonnage minimums fail to reflect the higher toxicity and environmental costs of heavy rare earths extraction.
Because of this, the Kipawa project does not trigger a provincial-level assessment. It only requires clearance from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and a certificate of authorization granted by the provincial Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks.
On the private side, the assessment process has been fast-tracked by a series of multimillion-dollar payments from TRECan to Matamec ($16M as of April 2013). According to Matamec president André Gauthier in a July 2012 press release, this makes Matamec “the only rare earth exploration company to have received funds to accelerate and complete a feasibility study and an environmental and social impact assessment study of a HREE deposit.”
The chiefs of Eagle Village and Wolf Lake First Nations have been demanding a consent-based consultation and review process since the project was quietly made public in 2011—one that exceeds “stakeholder” consultation standards and acknowledges the traditional relationship of the Algonquin people to the land. Residents only became widely aware of Matamec’s plans following the company’s community consultation session in April 2013.
Jamie Lee McKenzie has not been impressed by Matamec’s consultations. “They come in and they have a meeting…and they tell us all the good things about the mine,” McKenzie told The Dominion. “[They say,] ‘It will give you jobs. We need this to make batteries for green living,’ but that’s it.”
Local organizers told The Dominion that a Matamec-chaired community focus group had been cancelled during the early summer after one local participant asked that her critical questions be included in the group’s minutes. Following what many residents see as the failure of Matamec and provincial assessment agencies to meaningfully engage with Kipawa residents, the community has taken matters into their own hands.
In the summer of 2013, Kipawa residents began to organize, with the leadership of Eagle Village and Wolf Lake members. Petitions containing over 2,500 signatures were sent to provincial ministers, demanding a provincial environmental assessment as well as “public hearings to review the Mining Act…to strengthen rare earth environmental monitoring.” As of late November, there had been no official responses to the petitions, and no positive response to letter-writing campaigns directed at the office of the federal Minister of Environment. (Quebec adopted a new Mining Act in early December, as this article went to print.)
But demands have grown beyond calls for review. “We’re not okay with the BAPE [provincial assessment]; we’re not okay with the mine,” said Mary McKenzie. “We’re against the [project] 100 per cent.” In September, McKenzie helped organize a 100-person anti-mine protest on the shores of Kipawa Lake. In November, the resistance network formalized their association as the Lake Kipawa Protection Society, committed to stopping the mine through regional education, local solidarity, and creative resistance strategies like a “Tarnish Toyota” day of action.
The Kipawa HREE project, if approved, would open doors for the numerous other companies exploring the watershed—such as Globex, Fieldex, Aurizon, and Hinterland Metals—as well as for heavy rare earths mining in the rest of Canada.
“We have mining companies all over in our area here,” said Mary McKenzie. “Matamec is the most advanced, but it’s not just Matamec: we want all the mining out of our region.”
The mine is not the only project on the fast-track: Algonquin and local resistance efforts are picking up momentum, and backing down on protecting the water and land is not on the agenda.
“This is ancestral ground,” McKenzie stressed. “We can fight this.”
Claire Stewart-Kanigan is a student, Settler, and visitor on Haudenosaunee territory.
In the last few years whales stranded on the beaches of the East Coast have become common. In just the past two months there have been over a dozen. And that does not include the whales who have died in that time and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Fishermen blame industrial wind farm surveys, the wind industry blames climate change, and the vessel strikes of the global supply chains of civilization will not slow down. All the while mainstream “environmental” groups have become PR people for industrial energy. That stance is mutually exclusive from their professed goal to protect wildlife like desert tortoise, sage grouse, bats and to Save The Whales.
NOAA declared an official “unusual mortality event” for humpback whales in 2016, when the number of deaths on the East Coast more than doubled from the average in previous years. Coincidentally that is the same year when offshore wind development began, which coincides with the huge jump in NOAA Incidental Harassment Authorizations. The claim that this huge jump in mortality predates offshore wind preparation activities is patently false. This strong correlation is strong evidence of causation, especially since no other possible cause has appeared. It also seems odd that dead whales are now showing up on the west coast just as wind development is starting up there as well.
If what we are seeing is what happens during the surveying process for an offshore wind farm, we can only imagine what will happen when major construction begins. If vessel strikes are a leading cause of death, why on earth would you diminish habitat and increase vessel traffic with the construction of wind turbines? Yet in the recent denial of a vessel speed reduction, NOAA said it was “focused on implementing long-term, substantive vessel strike risk reduction measures.” Hopefully that will include the cancellation of any further wind farm construction. We certainly should not be increasing vessel traffic at this time, we should be restricting it. Vessel strikes and ocean noise from these extra ships and their sonar mapping is killing whales.
Noise interrupts the normal behavior of whales and interferes with their communication. It also reduces their ability to detect and avoid predators and human hazards, navigate, identify physical surroundings, find food and find mates. Such effects make it difficult for whales to avoid ships. It is one of NOAA’s four threats, along with vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements and climate change.
Sound travels farther and four times faster in water than in air (at a speed of almost 1,500 meters per second). The noise produced by humans can therefore spread considerable distances underwater. These sounds can be relatively constant, such as the noise produced by a ship’s engine and propeller, or sudden and acute in the case of naval sonar and seismic air guns. The sound produced by a seismic air gun can cause permanent hearing loss, tissue damage and even death in nearby animals.
Evidence for the lethal effects of noise can be hard to document in the open ocean, but seismic surveys have been linked to the mass mortality of squid and zooplankton. In 2017, research revealed that a single air gun caused the death rate of zooplankton to increase from 18% to 40–60% over a 1.2 kilometer stretch of the ocean off the coast of southern Tasmania.
Examination of the dead whales revealed they had suffered trauma similar to decompression sickness. This was believed to have been caused by sudden changes in their deep diving behavior following exposure to sonar. The wind companies are using sonar in the geotechnical and site characterization surveys. There is also the detonation of unexploded ordnance (UXO) items from ship wrecks at this time, accidental and intentional.
Noise increases animals’ physiological stress. Research found that a reduction in shipping following the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a six decibel drop in noise levels in the Bay of Fundy on Canada’s Atlantic coast. This coincided with lower levels of physiological stress detected in North Atlantic right whales when researchers measured stress hormones from floating whale feces.
During construction of the turbines, high-duty cycle impact pile driving (one strike every ~two seconds) will be used. And the pile driving is expected to occur for approximately four hours at one time for monopile installation, and 6 hours per pile for piled jacket installation.
This takes us to the biggest threat to whales and the ocean ecosystem that they live in: climate change. Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. These are created by industrial development. So climate change is a symptom of industrial development. That is the extractive industries of mining, deforestation, agriculture, factory fishing and dams which provide — through production, manufacture, transport, installation and operation — the current conveniences of a modern way of human life.
Industrial development destroys ecosystems. More industrial development, by the installation of thousands of offshore wind turbines, will not solve the problem of climate change. There’s one inescapable truth about the headlong rush to cover vast swaths of our countryside and oceans with 800-foot-high wind turbines: the more turbines that get built, the more wildlife will be harmed or killed. And no amount of greenwashing can change that fact. So it is distressing to see the numbers of whales washing up on our beaches. NOAA also says there is no proof that offshore wind is killing the whales. We must remember the onus isn’t on whales to prove guilt, it’s on industrial development to prove their innocence.
The production of the materials as well as the manufacturing processes for wind turbines and associated infrastructure of the extracted energy storage and transmission are made possible by burning fossil fuels. To obtain the raw material used in wind turbines, habitat is destroyed through open pit mining and mountaintop removal. The raw materials are then transported to processing plants to be turned into the component parts. It will take a tremendous amount of energy to mine the materials; transport and transform them through industrial processes like smelting; turn them into wind turbines, batteries, infrastructure and industrial machinery; install all of the above; and do this at a sufficient scale to replace our current fossil-fuel-based industrial system. In the early stages of the process, this energy will have to come mostly from fossil fuels, since they supply about 80 percent of current global energy. Their emissions will be added to the current use emissions. After manufacture, the turbine parts need to be transported to the project location. The construction and operation of offshore wind farms increase boat traffic, also leading to more greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. All of which adds to a non-existent carbon budget and thus increasing climate change. Not to mention the increased risk of marine mammal vessel strikes.
All of that energy use has a carbon payback period to plan, build, maintain and decommission the processes involved in an offshore wind turbine and its required infrastructure amounting to many years. This could be up to a quarter of its expected lifecycle. But this does not take into account the wildlife loss and habitat destruction from those processes. And then in 20 years the process must be done all over again. So this is not renewable. Also there are not enough metals on the planet to produce even the first generation of a total electric energy extracting transition, even if we mine the deep sea as we are starting to do.
Currently only 20% of our energy is electric. The other 80% is fossil fuel, the bulk of which is used by industry. The industrial advantage of fossil fuel is that it is stored energy that is extracted rather than an energy extracting device that requires storage and transmission infrastructure.
The paradox of “renewables” is that they need unprecedented volumes of non-renewable mined materials. Increasing “renewables” means large upticks in battery metals such as copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel. Wind turbines need rare earth metals such as neodymium of which there are scarce amounts. But the work wouldn’t stop there.
Closed mines themselves are a huge source of devastation. If all mining stopped today there would still be an area at least the size of Austria with degrading and, in some cases, dangerous levels of heavy metals. Mining brings materials that have been locked up in concentrations underground and lets them out into the world. Mines usually operate at depths below the water table — they need to be constantly dewatered using pumps. When a mine is abandoned, the ground water gradually re-floods underground passages and mineral seams over many months, creating acidic reservoirs of water. Above ground there are tailings ponds and piles of low-grade ore with traces of heavy metals. All of this material is exposed to oxygen and water. Exposing such elements wreaks havoc on ecosystems, soils and water supplies through acid leaching. A mine that is abandoned can have chronic pollution for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Cleaning up a mine consists of reducing water acidity, detoxifying the soil and treating waste before reintroducing flora and fauna to the site. It’s a lengthy, expensive process and can cost billions for a single large mine. Avoiding an environmental catastrophe and cleaning all the world’s mines at once would cost hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. So mining the materials needed for renewable energy will increase the threats to biodiversity. These threats will surpass those avoided by “renewable” climate change mitigation.
The concept of material footprints, in addition to carbon footprints, should be taken into consideration by governments. If not, the planet’s scarce non-renewable resources will continue to be destroyed. These factors will more than offset BOEMs calculations for climate change in the DEIS.
During their operation wind turbines create a disturbance in the air that can have far-reaching effects on the environment. The turbulence created is known to warm up the surface temperature around them by up to 2℉. This will change the climate by taking away the cooling breeze. Wind turbines will change weather patterns and currents which will create more and stronger storms.
Michael Moore, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said whales face “a suite of risks” as turbines are built, such as increased vessel traffic and potential changes to the ecology. But that ecological change, he said, “needs significant further study to truly understand its significance.”
As Sunrise Wind admits, their planned construction and operations activities are not expected to “take” MORE than small numbers of marine mammals. They say incidental long-term impacts that have negative effects on large whales from the presence of turbine foundations is uncertain. For the right whale, according to NOAA Fisheries, “The potential biological removal level for the species, defined as the maximum number of animals that can be removed annually while allowing the stock to reach or maintain its optimal sustainable population level, is less than 1.” This means the death of a single right whale could make the difference between extinction and recovery.
There is no question wind turbines kill wildlife. Humans and domestic animals account for 96% mammal biomass on the planet. Only 4% is wild. Our activity has reduced the biomass of wild marine and terrestrial mammals by six times. Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens all life on the planet.
Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, said, “But we know that even in the face of a shifting climate, direct exploitation remains the largest factor affecting aquatic animals.”
BOEM is basing its conclusions in the DEIS on a false analysis that offshore wind turbines will reduce climate change. They will not. It makes no sense to increase disturbance to whales when they are suffering through an unusual mortality event. Whales as a keystone species are the canary in the coal mine. As they go, so do we. That in the effort to save the climate and continuance of business as usual, we are destroying the environment. If this offshore wind project continues, it will be humans who experience an unusual mortality event.
Carl van Warmerdam has lived his life on the West Coast of Turtle Island. He has always aligned with the counter culture ideals there. Now he currently lives on the coast of New England, the ancestral home of the North Atlantic Right Whale. If you would like to help Save the Whales email Lafongcarl@protonmail.com. We stopped offshore wind before, we can do it again.
Editor’s note: It is true that wind and heat from the sun are renewable but the devices used to capture that energy are not. Creating such devices only adds on to a non-existing carbon budget. Richard Heinberg, the author of the following article, is an advocate for “renewable” energy as a part of the “transition” to a post carbon civilization. However, the following article demonstrates that the so-called transition is not happening in real life. In reality, civilization and a “post-carbon” future is an oxymoron. Civilization cannot survive in a post-carbon future. It is highly unlikely that humanity will willingly transition out of civilization, so it must be brought down “by any means possible”. The best way to accomplish that is through organizing. The sooner it is brought down, the better for the planet.
Despite all the renewable energy investments and installations, actual global greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing. That’s largely due to economic growth: While renewable energy supplies have expanded in recent years, world energy usage has ballooned even more—with the difference being supplied by fossil fuels. The more the world economy grows, the harder it is for additions of renewable energy to turn the tide by actually replacing energy from fossil fuels, rather than just adding to it.
The notion of voluntarily reining in economic growth in order to minimize climate change and make it easier to replace fossil fuels is political anathema not just in the rich countries, whose people have gotten used to consuming at extraordinarily high rates, but even more so in poorer countries, which have been promised the opportunity to “develop.”
After all, it is the rich countries that have been responsible for the great majority of past emissions (which are driving climate change presently); indeed, these countries got rich largely by the industrial activity of which carbon emissions were a byproduct. Now it is the world’s poorest nations that are experiencing the brunt of the impacts of climate change caused by the world’s richest. It’s neither sustainable nor just to perpetuate the exploitation of land, resources, and labor in the less industrialized countries, as well as historically exploited communities in the rich countries, to maintain both the lifestyles and expectations of further growth of the wealthy minority.
From the perspective of people in less-industrialized nations, it’s natural to want to consume more, which only seems fair. But that translates to more global economic growth, and a harder time replacing fossil fuels with renewables globally. China is the exemplar of this conundrum: Over the past three decades, the world’s most populous nation lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, but in the process became the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal.
The Materials Dilemma
Also posing an enormous difficulty for a societal switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is our increasing need for minerals and metals. The World Bank, the IEA, the IMF, and McKinsey and Company have all issued reports in the last couple of years warning of this growing problem. Vast quantities of minerals and metals will be required not just for making solar panels and wind turbines, but also for batteries, electric vehicles, and new industrial equipment that runs on electricity rather than carbon-based fuels.
Some of these materials are already showing signs of increasing scarcity: According to the World Economic Forum, the average cost of producing copper has risen by over 300 percent in recent years, while copper ore grade has dropped by 30 percent.
Optimistic assessments of the materials challenge suggest there are enough global reserves for a one-time build-out of all the new devices and infrastructure needed (assuming some substitutions, with, for example, lithium for batteries eventually being replaced by more abundant elements like iron). But what is society to do as that first generation of devices and infrastructure ages and requires replacement?
Circular Economy: A Mirage?
Hence the rather sudden and widespread interest in the creation of a circular economy in which everything is recycled endlessly. Unfortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen discovered in his pioneering work on entropy, recycling is always incomplete and always costs energy. Materials typically degrade during each cycle of use, and some material is wasted in the recycling process.
A French preliminary analysis of the energy transition that assumed maximum possible recycling found that a materials supply crisis could be delayed by up to three centuries. But will the circular economy (itself an enormous undertaking and a distant goal) arrive in time to buy industrial civilization those extra 300 years? Or will we run out of critical materials in just the next few decades in our frantic effort to build as many renewable energy devices as we can in as short a time as possible?
The latter outcome seems more likely if pessimistic resource estimates turn out to be accurate. Simon Michaux of the Finnish Geological Survey finds that “[g]lobal reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system … Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. This has the implication of the increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal.”
Steel prices are already trending higher, and lithium supplies may prove to be a bottleneck to rapidly increasing battery production. Even sand is getting scarce: Only certain grades of the stuff are useful in making concrete (which anchors wind turbines) or silicon (which is essential for solar panels). More sand is consumed yearly than any other material besides water, and some climate scientists have identified it as a key sustainability challenge this century. Predictably, as deposits are depleted, sand is becoming more of a geopolitical flashpoint, with China recently embargoing sand shipments to Taiwan with the intention of crippling Taiwan’s ability to manufacture semiconductor devices such as cell phones.
To Reduce Risk, Reduce Scale
During the fossil fuel era, the global economy depended on ever-increasing rates of extracting and burning coal, oil, and natural gas. The renewables era (if it indeed comes into being) will be founded upon the large-scale extraction of minerals and metals for panels, turbines, batteries, and other infrastructure, which will require periodic replacement.
These two economic eras imply different risks: The fossil fuel regime risked depletion and pollution (notably atmospheric carbon pollution leading to climate change); the renewables regime will likewise risk depletion (from mining minerals and metals) and pollution (from dumping old panels, turbines, and batteries, and from various manufacturing processes), but with diminished vulnerability to climate change. The only way to lessen risk altogether would be to reduce substantially society’s scale of energy and materials usage—but very few policymakers or climate advocacy organizations are exploring that possibility.
Climate Change Hobbles Efforts to Combat Climate Change
As daunting as they are, the financial, political, and material challenges to the energy transition don’t exhaust the list of potential barriers. Climate change itself is also hampering the energy transition—which, of course, is being undertaken to avert climate change.
During the summer of 2022, China experienced its most intense heat wave in six decades. It impacted a wide region, from central Sichuan Province to coastal Jiangsu, with temperatures often topping 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and reaching a record 113 degrees in Chongqing on August 18. At the same time, a drought-induced power crisis forced Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s top battery maker, to close manufacturing plants in China’s Sichuan province. Supplies of crucial parts to Tesla and Toyota were temporarily cut off.
Meanwhile, a similarly grim story unfolded in Germany, as a record drought reduced the water flow in the Rhine River to levels that crippled European trade, halting shipments of diesel and coal, and threatening the operations of both hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.
A study published in February 2022 in the journal Water found that droughts (which are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change) could create challenges for U.S. hydropower in Montana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, French nuclear plants that rely on the Rhône River for cooling water have had to shut down repeatedly. If reactors expel water downstream that’s too hot, aquatic life is wiped out as a result. So, during the sweltering 2022 summer, Électricité de France (EDF) powered down reactors not only along the Rhône but also on a second major river in the south, the Garonne. Altogether, France’s nuclear power output has been cut by nearly 50 percent during the summer of 2022. Similar drought- and heat-related shutdowns happened in 2018 and 2019.
Heavy rain and flooding can also pose risks for both hydro and nuclear power—which together currently provide roughly four times as much low-carbon electricity globally as wind and solar combined. In March 2019, severe flooding in southern and western Africa, following Cyclone Idai, damaged two major hydro plants in Malawi, cutting off power to parts of the country for several days.
Wind turbines and solar panels also rely on the weather and are therefore also vulnerable to extremes. Cold, cloudy days with virtually no wind spell trouble for regions heavily reliant on renewable energy. Freak storms can damage solar panels, and high temperatures reduce panels’ efficiency. Hurricanes and storm surges can cripple offshore wind farms.
The transition from fossil fuel to renewables faces an uphill battle. Still, this switch is an essential stopgap strategy to keep electricity grids up and running, at least on a minimal scale, as civilization inevitably turns away from a depleting store of oil and gas. The world has become so dependent on grid power for communications, finance, and the preservation of technical, scientific, and cultural knowledge that, if the grids were to go down permanently and soon, it is likely that billions of people would die, and the survivors would be culturally destitute. In essence, we need renewables for a controlled soft landing. But the harsh reality is that, for now, and in the foreseeable future, the energy transition is not going well and has poor overall prospects.
We need a realistic plan for energy descent, instead of foolish dreams of eternal consumer abundance by means other than fossil fuels. Currently, politically rooted insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning for how to live well with less.
Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis.
Editor’s note: Mainstream environmentalists have been demanding that countries across the world declare a “climate emergency.” But what does a climate emergency mean? What will the consequences be? Is there a possibility that it will be more detrimental to the environment? In this piece, Elisabeth Robson argues how declaring a climate emergency can be worse for the environment.
“Climate emergency”. We hear these words regularly these days, whenever there is a wild fire, a flood, or an extreme weather event of any kind. We hear these words at the annual Conference of Parties (COPs) on climate change held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including at the COP27 meeting happening right now in Egypt. And we hear these words regularly from organizations petitioning the U.S. government to “declare a climate emergency”, and from Senators requesting the same.
Most recently, here in the U.S., we heard these words on October 4, 2022 when a group of US Senators led by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) urged President Biden to “build on the inflation reduction act” and “declare a climate emergency”, writing: “Declaring a climate emergency could unlock the broad powers of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Stafford Act*, allowing you to immediately pursue an array of regulatory and administrative actions to slash emissions, protect public health, support national and energy security, and improve our air and water quality.”
The requests by these Senators include two related specifically to electric vehicles:
* Maximize the adoption of electric vehicles, push states to reduce their transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and support the electrification of our mass transit;
* Transition the Department of Defense non-tactical vehicle fleet to electric and zero-emission vehicles, install solar panels on military housing, and take other aggressive steps to decrease its environmental impact.
The Senators continue, “The climate crisis is one of the biggest emergencies that our country has ever faced and time is running out. We need to build off the momentum from the IRA and make sure that we achieve the ambition this crisis requires, and what we have promised the world. We urge you to act boldly, declare this crisis the national emergency that it is, and embark upon significant regulatory and administrative action.”
What the Senators are requesting is that President Biden invoke the National Emergencies Act (NEA) to go above and beyond what the Biden Administration has already done to take action in this “climate emergency” by invoking the Defense Production Act and passing the Inflation Reduction Act. This is not the first time a US president has been asked to declare a climate emergency by members of Congress, but it is the most recent.
Invoking the Defense Production Act, as the administration did in April, 2022, allows the administration to support domestic mining for critical minerals (including lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which readers of this blog will recognize as essential ingredients in batteries for EVs and energy storage) with federal funding and incentives in the name of national security.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August, 2022, codified into law support for domestic mining of 50 “critical minerals” to supply renewables and battery manufacturing. This law directly supports EV manufacturing by offering tax credits to car companies that use domestic supplies of metals and minerals above a certain threshold (40% to start).
We’ve already seen how the Biden Administration is using its powers under these two acts (the Defense Production Act (DPA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)) to encourage more domestic mining for “critical minerals” and the expansion of electric vehicles and charging stations. Mining companies are “celebrating”, as one journalist wrote, including Lithium Americas Corporation (LAC) whose CEO said of the IRA “We’re delighted with it.” Car companies getting support from the government to expand manufacturing, companies getting support for building out the EV charging networks, battery-making companies, and the Department of Defense must also be celebrating the infusion of government cash and the tax incentives coming their way.
The administration would have even more power to fund and incentivize mining, manufacturing, development and industry with the National Emergencies Act, or NEA. The NEA empowers the President to activate special powers during a crisis. These powers could include loan guarantees, fast tracking permits, and even suspending existing laws that protect the environment, such as the Clean Air Act, if the administration believes these laws get in the way of mining, manufacturing, and other industrial development required for addressing the climate emergency.
As described in the Brennan Center’s Guide to Emergency Powers and Their Use, in the event a national emergency is declared, such as a climate emergency, the “President may authorize an agency to guarantee loans by private institutions in order to finance products and services essential to the national defense without regard to normal procedural and substantive requirements for such loan guarantees” [emphasis added]. This authorization could occur, as stated in the NEA, “during a period of national emergency declared by Congress or the President” or “upon a determination by the President, on a nondelegable basis, that a specific guarantee is necessary to avert an industrial resource or critical technology item shortfall that would severely impair national defense capability.”
Included in the long list of requirements for a Department of Energy (DoE) loan guarantee, the loan applicant must supply “A report containing an analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project that will enable DoE to:
(i) Assess whether the proposed project will comply with all applicable environmental requirements; and
(ii) Undertake and complete any necessary reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.”
In the event a climate emergency is declared, could the administration then be able to “authorize an agency to guarantee loans” to a corporation “without regard” for these requirements? If so, then a corporation could potentially skip the NEPA process currently required for a new mining project, and not bother to do an assessment about whether their project would comply with all applicable environmental requirements (e.g. requirements under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act).
In other words, a corporation could proceed with their project, such as a lithium mine, with little to no environmental oversight if the Administration believes the resulting products are “essential to national defense.”
We already know that the Biden Administration believes that lithium production is essential to national defense: they have explicitly stated this in their invocation of the Defense Production Act and in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Declaring a “climate emergency” would give the administration free rein to allow corporations to sidestep environmental procedures that are normally required during the process of permitting a project like a mine, resulting in more harm to the environment.
Aside from these technical details about the implications of declaring a climate emergency, we know that most organizations, including those participating in COP27 and the 1,100 organizations that signed a February 2022 letter to President Biden urging him to declare a climate emergency, are demanding actions that would further harm the environment, such as “maximiz[ing] the adoption of electric vehicles” and “transition[ing] the Department of Defense…to electric and zero-emission vehicles” as demanded in the Senators’ October 4 letter to President Biden.
While these actions may reduce some greenhouse gas emissions, neither of these actions will reduce other harms to the environment, because these actions require more extraction and more development. And neither of these actions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a scope large enough to solve the climate crisis. What the activists, organizations, and Senators crying out for the President to declare a climate emergency seemingly fail to understand is that the climate emergency isn’t the only emergency we face.
Industrial development, and more specifically, industrial agriculture, has caused a 70% reduction in wildlife numbers just since 1970. This is an emergency inextricably linked with and just as dire as the climate crisis, yet the Senators and organizations calling for a climate emergency don’t demand a reduction in overall industrial development, only a reduction in fossil fuels development.
Each year, 24 billion tons of topsoil are lost, due primarily to industrial agriculture practices and deforestation. In 2014, the UN estimated that if current degradation rates continue, all the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years. This too is an emergency inextricably linked with and just as dire as the climate crisis, yet again, the Senators and organizations calling for a climate emergency don’t demand actions to rebuild and restore soil.
Industry, including the military-industrial complex, has polluted the entire planet with toxic levels of mercury, lead, PCBs, dioxins, forever chemicals such as PFAS chemicals, and micro- and nano-plastics. These toxics are in the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe—“we” being, of course, not just humans but all wildlife on the planet. Again, this is an emergency just as dire as the climate emergency.
More than 50 million gallons of wastewater contaminated with arsenic, lead, and other toxic metals flows daily from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. into groundwater, rivers, and ponds. Mining waste that is captured must be stored and/or treated indefinitely “for perhaps thousands of years,” as the Associated Press wrote memorably in a 2019 article on mining waste. Replicate this kind of mining waste pollution around the world, and obviously, this too is an emergency just as dire as the climate emergency.
All of these emergencies are related to climate change, of course. The more our societies develop, the more harm we do to the natural world, including the atmosphere.
“Development” is really global technological escalation by industry to extract more materials more efficiently, destroying more of the planet in its relentless theft of “resources.” The more our societies develop, the less habitat for life is left, and the more we overshoot the ability of the Earth to sustain us and the rest of the species on Earth.
We ignore these other emergencies at our peril. Indeed, ignoring them in favor of the climate emergency often exacerbates these emergencies. When the organizations mentioned above demand increases in electric vehicles, increases in batteries, increases in renewables, and increases in climate mitigation and adaptation (building sea walls, retrofitting and improving roads and bridges, moving entire cities), what they are demanding is more development, not less, which means more harm, not less, to the natural world. For instance, we know that the materials required to supply the projected battery demand in 2035 will require 384 new mines. That’s to supply the materials just for batteries.
Ultimately, what most organizations that support declaring a climate emergency want is not to protect life on this planet, but rather, to protect this way of life: the one we’re living now, the one that’s killing the planet. These organizations believe that we can simply replace CO2-emitting fossil fuels with EVs and so-called renewables, and keep living these ecocidal lifestyles we have become accustomed to.
We know this to be true, because we can see it directly in the actions already taken by the Biden administration, actions that will dramatically increase mining in the U.S. Mining increases the destruction of the natural world, meaning MORE habitat loss, not less. Mining increases toxic pollution. Mining increases deforestation. Mining increases top soil loss. In other words, these actions will significantly worsen all the emergencies we, and all life on the planet, face.
Rather than demand governments around the world declare a “climate emergency,” we could instead demand governments around the world declare an “ecological overshoot emergency.” In place of demands to increase industry, increase mining, and build new cars and new energy infrastructure, we could instead demand governments reduce industry, end mining, help wean us completely away from cars, and dramatically reduce energy extraction, production, and consumption. In place of demands to continue a way of life that cannot possibly continue much longer, with its relentless destruction of the natural world, we could instead demand that all societies around the world center what makes life possible on this planet: flourishing and fecund natural communities, of which we could be a thriving part, rather than dominate and destroy.
Join us and help Protect Thacker Pass, or work to defend the wild places you love. We can’t save the planet by destroying the planet in the name of a “climate emergency.”
* In their October 4 letter to President Biden, the Senators mention how invoking the NEA could “unlock the broad powers of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Stafford Act.” The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) authorizes the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency, for instance by blocking transactions with corporations based in foreign countries, or by limiting trade with those foreign countries. This would, like the IRA, incentivize building domestic supply chains and manufacturing capabilities. The Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act encourages states to develop disaster preparedness plans, and provides federal assistance programs in the event of disaster. In the event of an emergency, such as a declared climate emergency, the President could direct any federal agency (e.g. FEMA) to use its resources to aid a state or local government in emergency assistance efforts, and to help states prepare for anticipated hazards. In the event of a declared climate emergency, this would unleash federal funds and other incentive programs to states to build and harden infrastructure that is vulnerable to wildfire, floods, severe storms, ocean acidification, and other effects of climate change.
Editor’s note: Deep sea mining could begin in about a year. But opponents of deep sea mining are taking their arguments onto the world stage at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Portugal and increasing numbers of Pacific leaders have added their voice to deep sea mining. Palau, Fiji, and Samoa are the latest to call for a moratorium on the emerging industry, in the first governmental alliance of its kind. Also French President Emmanuel Macron says we have to create the legal framework to stop mining in the high seas and not allow activities that put in danger the ecosystems that depend on them. France joins the global call for a ban on deep sea mining.
At the U.N. Ocean Conference taking place this week in Lisbon, momentum has been building in support of a moratorium on deep sea mining, an activity projected to have far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and global fisheries.
The Pacific island nation of Palau launched an alliance of countries that support a moratorium, which Fiji and Samoa subsequently joined.
A global network of parliamentarians has also banded together to support a moratorium and to look for a legal way to enforce it.
As things stand, deep sea mining could begin a year from now, with the International Seabed Authority, the body tasked with regulating the activity, drawing up the rules that would allow mining to commence.
LISBON — Should we mine the seabed, a part of the world rich in resources, but less mapped than the surface of the moon? A growing number of politicians, scientists and conservationists are saying that we shouldn’t — at least, not until we fully understand the consequences of doing so.
At an event on June 27 at the U.N. Ocean Conference (UNOC) in Lisbon, Surangel Whipps Jr., the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau, took to the podium to announce that his nation was launching an alliance of countries pushing for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“Palau believes that in this instance, deep sea mining should be discouraged to the greatest extent possible,” Whipps said to a packed room. “Deep sea mining compromises the integrity of our ocean habitat that supports marine biodiversity and contributes to mitigating the impacts of climate change.”
Whipps was joined on stage by famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who said the risks of deep sea mining should be the “headline issue … of our time.”
“There is no way that we should be going forward now, or maybe ever, with tearing up these systems that we don’t know how to put back together again,” Earle said. “The greatest discovery perhaps of the 20th century about the ocean was discovering the magnitude of our ignorance.”
At the launch of the new alliance, the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Samoa also announced they would also be joining the coalition. The following day, Tuvalu and Guam expressed their support, although they have yet to formally join the alliance.
‘Different voices of concern’
Experts say they’re hopeful that others will come forward, if not this week at the UNOC, then in the weeks that follow.
Chile, for instance, recently called for a 15-year moratorium on deep-sea mining at the annual meeting of state parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at the U.N. headquarters in New York, citing concerns about environmental damage and the lack of scientific data. However, Chile hasn’t yet joined the alliance either.
“There are different voices of concern who express their concern a little bit differently, but they’re all about slowing down because there’s no rush,” Jessica Battle, the lead on WWF’s deep-sea mining initiative, told Mongabay in an interview in Lisbon. “There really isn’t any rush.”
Sian Owen, the global coordinator for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a consortium of 90 international organizations working to protect the deep sea, said that while the alliance itself has no authority to force the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — the U.N.-linked agency charged with regulating deep-sea mining — to impose a moratorium, it does have the “authority of persuasion.”
“What this does, for the first time, is create a space where states and governments can come together and say, ‘Actually, we have some concerns about this idea of opening up a vast new extractive frontier in one of the last wildernesses on our planet,” Owen told Mongabay.
At a separate event at the UNOC on June 28, members of parliament and other leaders appealed to the global network of parliamentarians to sign a declaration that also calls for a moratorium. At the time of writing, the declaration had been signed by more than 70 individuals from 35 countries.
“On this issue of moratorium, we don’t see things moving fast enough,” Marie Toussaint, a member of the European Parliament who launched the declaration, told Mongabay in Lisbon. “But we also have to acknowledge the fact that it’s been only one year since the requests for exploiting the seabed [have been] presented.”
Toussaint added that she and other allies are currently working on a legal framework that would oblige the ISA to carry out the moratorium that many are calling for.
‘Potential sources of metal supply’
Interest in deep-sea mining began in the 1970s, then picked up again in the last two decades as nations explored the possibility of mining the seabed in their own coastal waters as well as the high seas, the areas of the ocean to which no country can claim jurisdiction. Then, in June 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered an obscure rule embedded in the UNCLOS that requests the ISA to approve a plan for exploitation with whatever rules are currently in place within two years. That means that deep-sea mining could be set into motion in about a year’s time from now.
The company positioned to benefit the most from this early start is Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned The Metals Company (TMC), formerly known Deep Green. TMC, which is a publicly traded company listed on the NASDAQ exchange, has long argued that it is necessary to mine the deep sea to procure minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese to help the world transition to electric cars and other renewable technologies. These minerals can be found in abundance in the ocean’s abyssal plains in the form of potato-sized rock concretions known as polymetallic nodules. TMC and other companies have their eyes on a part of the ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, roughly between Hawai‘i and Mexico, which harbors vast quantities of these nodules.
“Expected metal shortages will derail the energy transition,” Gerard Barron, TMC’s chairman and CEO, who was not at the UNOC, told Mongabay in an email. “We owe it to the planet and people living on it, to stay calm, consider all potential sources of metal supply and compare the lifecycle impacts of our options on a project-by-project basis. Indeed, as the world’s largest source of battery metals, it would be unethical not to fully explore nodules as a solution.”
Many industrialized nations are working toward a swift transition to electric vehicles. For instance, the European Union has just approved a plan to end the sale of combustion-engine vehicles by 2035 in a bid to lower its carbon emissions. In the U.S., the Biden administration also announced in 2021 a plan for half of all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030.
While there is increased demand for electric cars, WWF’s Battle said renewable technologies are quickly evolving to not require minerals sourced from the deep sea, with many innovators preferring to source metals from the circulator economy — that is, recycling it from electronic waste.
“This move to stop this industry from happening … will also accelerate the move to go circular because of the fact that there will be less new minerals coming into circulation, and then the economy is forced to go circular,” Battle said. “If you put more new resources in, there’s less incentive to think about how you can use existing resources.”
Several large car companies, including BMW, Renault, Volkswagen, and Volvo Group, have already pledged not to use any metals from the seabed.
Critics of deep sea mining also say that sourcing metals from the deep sea could destroy ecosystems that have taken millions of years to form, irreversibly harm marine biodiversity, and disrupt global fisheries.
‘An uphill battle’
The ISA, the body mandated to both protect the seabed and ensure equal access to its resources, seems to support the launch of deep-sea mining. When Nauru triggered the two-year rule, the ISA scheduled a series of meetings to help finalize the mining code that would allow exploitation to begin, despite a slew of warnings from scientists and other experts about the dangers associated with mining.
Critics of the ISA also say the body is skewed toward mining rather than conservation, and for that reason, they say the ISA is “not fit for purpose.” Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency of the ISA’s activities and decision-making processes.
Yet the ISA presents a position of environmental stewardship. Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, speaking at an interactive dialogue at an official event at the U.N. Ocean Conference on June 29, said the ISA would “regulate all related activities and in doing so applying the highest possible environmental standards using the best scientific evidence to create global standards which will form a benchmark for the rest of the world.”
Another speaker at the dialogue, Alex Herman, the seabed minerals commissioner of the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, the group overseeing mining in that territory’s waters, said seabed mining offers many “untapped possibilities.” She also appealed to other Pacific nations to unite in support of this activity.
“Our Pacific leaders have long held our commitment to working together,” Herman said. “Moving forward as a collective has proven time and again that we can resolve the most complex issues through open and frank discussions.”
‘A flood of support’
While deep sea mining has not yet begun, the ISA is proceeding with its plans to approve a set of rules that would allow it to begin. At the same time, conservationists say support for a moratorium is gaining strength.
“I’m very hopeful,” Owen said. “I feel like we’ve got a momentum, it’s picking up speed, and there’s this collective sense of urgency of learning from the past, of not making the same mistakes, of taking nature for granted, and of actually evaluating the ecosystem functions and valuing what the ocean in a healthy state brings to us.”
Phil McCabe, the Pacific liaison for the DSCC, said he believes there’s been a “seismic shift in the political landscape” in terms of support for a moratorium at the UNOC.
“We are in dialogue with a number of other states [and] it’s all tracking towards a flood of support behind this moratorium, not only from the Pacific [but from] Latin American countries, European countries,” McCabe told Mongabay in Lisbon.
He added: “We all know what the right thing is here.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.