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Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

Thea Riofrancos interviewed by Annabelle Dawson - Green European Journal, August 12, 2021

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

Mining and Green New Deals

By Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz - The Ecologist, August 4, 2021

Mining that destroys communities and the ecosystem can have no part in any Green New Deal.

The recent mainstreaming of the Green New Deal framework has intensified scrutiny on oil majors.

However, the same cannot be said of global extractivist power - especially mining companies, who see the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and guarantee their bottom line. 

Supported by the World Bank, the mining industry has cynically positioned itself as key actors in the energy transition, claiming they are needed to provide the minerals and metals to meet growing renewable energy demand.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

Batteries

Yet, many of these same companies are heavily invested in fossil fuel extractors, and are among the world’s highest corporate emitters.

The mining industry, along with other extractive industries, has been at the heart of a colonial model which continues to bring profits to multinational corporations and the wealthy few, while dispossessing countless communities of their lands, water and livelihoods and exploiting workers at the expense of their health and well-being.

Miners are also amongst the most mistreated workers in the world.

In July 2019, at least 43 artisanal miners died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), due to a mine collapse at an industrial copper and cobalt mine owned by Anglo-Swiss multinational Glencore - cobalt is a vital part of electric car batteries.

Protest

UNICEF estimates that 40,000 children work in mining across the south of the DRC. Meanwhile, Glencore sees itself as part of the energy transition powering the electric vehicle revolution.

During the pandemic, multiple governments declared mining an essential activity, or responded to industry pressure to do so after a brief shutdown.

Mining operations became vectors of the disease - for workers and rural communities.

As companies profiteered from the pandemic, threats to land defenders exercising legitimate protest increased, and the regulatory groundwork was laid to reposition and bolster extractivist industries.

Just Minerals: Safeguarding protections for community rights, sacred places, and public lands from the unfounded push for mining expansion

By staff - Earthworks, June 17, 2021

Mining has harmful climate, equity, and resource impacts that, without reform, may ultimately undermine the benefits of transitioning to renewable energy. Building a sustainable economy based on clean energy gives us an historic opportunity to confront the legacy of injustice to Indigenous communities and damage to the public lands held in trust for future generations.

This report outlines how current federal minerals policy conflicts with the Biden-Harris administration’s clean energy and environmental justice agendas, and how those policies must change to ensure minerals are sourced in a way that better protects marginalized communities and the environment. The infrastructure to support the transition to low-carbon energy requires a variety of minerals—cobalt and lithium, among others. Just Minerals encourages government officials to prioritize recycling, reusing and substituting minerals needed for renewable energy technology over new extraction.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Updating the rules that govern mining on public lands must be an integral part of this administrations’ environmental justice agenda, until Congress acts to reform the antiquated 1872 Mining Law. Even without Congressional action, the Biden administration has a variety of policy tools available to reduce the pressure to source minerals from irresponsible mines.
  • There is significant untapped mineral recycling and reuse potential available using current technology. With the right policies in place, we can create a more circular economy that may approximately halve global demand for certain minerals, like cobalt, lithium, and nickel, key to the clean energy transition.
  • Major consumers, including automakers and electronics companies, have also directed their suppliers to source more responsibly. Ford, Microsoft, BMW, and Daimler-Benz, among others, have committed to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), which independently audits and certifies environmental and social performance at mines.

Read the text (Link).

What’s Missing from the New IEA Report on Mining and the Renewable Energy Transition?

By Raquel Dominguez - Earthworks, June 14, 2021

The International Energy Agency sends a mixed message in its recent reports, urging that we leave fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously calling for more extraction of metals used in low-carbon technologies. This extractivist push is both problematic and unnecessary: the world can achieve a clean energy transition without the kind of human rights catastrophes and environmental devastation that the mining industry currently considers acceptable. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released two important reports in the past month. The first, Net Zero by 2050, notes that “there is no need for new investment in fossil fuel supply,” a conclusion that many in the climate movement, including Earthworks, have applauded. The second, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, undermines the “keep it in the ground” message of the first report by calling for more extraction in the form of metals mining. 

With the ever-increasing damage and injustices exacerbated by the climate crisis, the renewable energy transition is more urgent than ever. Demand for the “transition” minerals used in renewable energy technologies is in turn projected to increase sharply: according to the IEA, to meet the Paris Agreement goals, demand will rise (over the next 20 years) by more than 40% for copper and rare earth elements (REEs), 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and more than 89% for lithium. Lithium-ion batteries need lithium, nickel, and cobalt (among other elements), wind turbines use REEs, and copper is used in all electricity-based technologies, due to its high rate of conductivity. 

These aren’t new projections: our own 2019 publication on this issue based on research by the University of Technology, Sydney, pointed to similar trendlines. This steep upward trajectory in minerals demand could be devastating for communities and ecosystems in the regions where these minerals are extracted. Hardrock mining has a long, terrible history as a tool of colonization and imperialism; in the United States alone, mining has accompanied and driven western settlement, which killed untold numbers of Indigenous peoples, breaking multiple treaties with Indigenous peoples, contaminating more than 40% of western watersheds’ headwaters, and directly causing the deaths of many members of mining-affected communities from cancer. Mining is the country’s leading industrial toxic polluter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the UN Environment Programme.

But the social and environmental harm brought on by mining is not a thing of the past: in the Olaroz salt flat in Argentina, Indigenous peoples “that own the land struggle to pay for sewage systems, drinking water and heat for schools” even as Minera Exar anticipates making $250 million per year by mining lithium; in Australia, Rio Tinto blew up the Juukan Gorge, which is sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kuurama and Pinikura peoples and which had evidence of continuous habitation for more than 46,000 years, in pursuit of iron ore. There are hundreds of stories just like these, some of them which are detailed in our recent report, Recharge Responsibly, happening all over the world—and this environmental injustice will continue apace if recycling and reuse, alongside other demand reduction strategies and more responsible primary sourcing, are not prioritized as part of a clean energy transition.

It doesn’t have to be this way...

Read the rest here.

Deep-Sea Mining for Metals: Treading Carefully on the Path Toward Renewables

By Katherine Wilkin - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, June 8, 2021

As the push for renewable energy sources continues as a means to combat climate change, the demand for metals and minerals that make up critical components of clean energy technology will be on the rise. While some of these minerals can be obtained via deep-sea mining, the environmental impacts of such efforts are not well understood. In moving to a clean energy economy, governments and international non-governmental organizations need to research, understand, and mitigate the negative impacts to the environment and communities that can and will result from activities like deep-sea mining before allowing projects to go forward.

The United States Geological Survey has identified 11 metals and minerals as critical commodities in renewable energy technologies: arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earth elements. Silver, copper, selenium, silica, nickel, and cadmium are also used in solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Several of these critical metals and elements can be obtained via deep-sea mining from three different types of deposits: (i) cobalt-rich crust that contains manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel and platinum; (ii) polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, molybdenum and rare earth elements; and (iii) sea-floor massive sulphides which contain copper, gold, zinc, lead, barium and silver.

Whether deep-sea mining is necessary to acquire enough minerals to fuel the renewable energy shift remains an unanswered question. In a May 2021 report on the need for minerals to power energy transition technologies, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2040, total mineral demand for clean energy will be four times current demand. Electric vehicles and battery storage technology account for about half of this predicted growth in mineral demand. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney indicated in 2016 that this increased demand for materials can be satisfied without utilizing deep-sea mining even under a target of 100% renewable energy use by 2050. Further, Carbon Brief reported in 2018 that reserves of lithium and cobalt are likely to be sufficient to meet demand, but there are outstanding concerns of supply chain bottleneck causing delays. This is supported by the IEA report, which indicated that problems in supply of minerals is more likely to be a matter of quality rather than quantity. However, a 2018 study supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure found that the current supply of critical metals is not enough to transition to a fully-renewable energy system in the Netherlands. Additionally, a 2019 projection of demand for cobalt, lithium, and silver looking as far as 2050 found that “reserves” of these materials—a portion of total available resources that can be extracted economically—will not be sufficient to meet demand for cobalt, and demand for lithium can only be met in a “potential recycling scenario” with improved recycling rates over what is being conducted at present.

With the growing demand for metals and materials for use in renewable energy technologies, concerns arise about the environmental impacts and environmental justice implications of mining on land. For example, cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the site of human rights violations, child labor, and severe environmental pollution. For that reason, deep-sea mining of these materials may present an option with fewer direct human impacts and environmental justice concerns.

The plan to turn coal country into a rare earth powerhouse

By Maddie Stone - Grist, May 26, 2021

At an abandoned coal mine just outside the city of Gillette, Wyoming, construction crews are getting ready to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot building that will house state-of-the-art laboratories and manufacturing plants. Among the projects at the facility, known as the Wyoming Innovation Center, will be a pilot plant that aims to takes coal ash — the sooty, toxic waste left behind after coal is burned for energy — and use it to extract rare earths, elements that play an essential role in everything from cell phones and LED screens to wind turbines and electric cars. 

The pilot plant in Wyoming is a critical pillar of an emerging effort led by the Department of Energy, or DOE, to convert the toxic legacy of coal mining in the United States into something of value. Similar pilot plants and research projects are also underway in states including West Virginia, North Dakota, Utah, and Kentucky. If these projects are successful, the Biden administration hopes that places like Gillette will go from being the powerhouses of the fossil fuel era to the foundation of a new domestic supply chain that will build tomorrow’s energy systems.

In an April report on revitalizing fossil fuel communities, administration officials wrote that coal country is “well-positioned” to become a leader in harvesting critical materials from the waste left behind by coal mining and coal power generation. Several days later, the DOE awarded a total of $19 million to 13 different research groups that plan to assess exactly how much rare earth material is contained in coal and coal waste, as well as explore ways to extract it. 

“We have these resources that are otherwise a problem,” said Sarma Pisupati, the director of the Center for Critical Minerals at Penn State University and one of the grant recipients. “We can use those resources to extract valuable minerals for our independence.”

Those minerals would come at a critical moment. The rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium, in particular, are essential to the powerful magnets used in offshore wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. A recent report by the International Energy Agency projected that by 2040, the clean energy sector’s demand for these minerals could be three to seven times greater than it is today. 

Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?

Mineral constraints for transition overstated by IEA

By Kingsmill Bond - Carbon Trackers, May 10, 2021

The IEA’s latest piece on minerals critical to the energy transition gives a rather pessimistic spin to what was some very positive data. Looked at from a wider perspective, the note provides another useful source of analytical support for the energy transition.

The IEA looked into the amount of minerals needed to fuel the energy transition, and pretty quickly worked out ‘there is no shortage of resources’. The world has plenty of lithium, nickel, rare earth metals and so on. This is what the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been saying for a while, and fits with the work done by the Energy Transitions Commission on mineral availability.

The IEA notes for example that we have 170 times as much lithium reserves as annual demand and that our lithium reserves have increased by 42% over the last eight years as higher prices and the prospect of rising demand have drawn out new investment. Under the IEA’s 1.5 degrees scenario, we will need about twice the amount of critical minerals by 2040 (six times as much for the clean energy industry, but that is only part of global demand), and the IEA put forward a series of sensible suggestions (increase recycling, invest in new supply and so on) to ensure that we get it.

However, their take then turns gloomier as we are warned about how hard this is going to be. Impressive charts show that the average electric vehicle uses 210kg of critical minerals compared to only 35kg for an ICE car and that a MW of solar generation capacity needs 6.5 tonnes of critical minerals compared to a coal plant which needs only 3 tonnes. We are then encouraged to think about all the ESG issues and environmental issues associated with the surge in mineral usage and to worry about supplier concentration, water usage, pollution and depletion.

Stand back a moment however, and you can see immediately that the IEA are very selective in their presentation of the data. They look only at the stocks (the assets you need to build the generator or car) not the flows (the energy you need to run them). But the flows of energy are 2-3 orders of magnitude larger than the stocks, and this means that many of their conclusions are more useful for fossil fuel advocates than for policymakers.

Calls for sustainable and responsible mining for the clean energy transition

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 6, 2021

An important Special Report by the International Energy Association was released in May: The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. Reflecting a mainstream view of the importance of the raw materials for clean technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, the IEA provides “ a wealth of detail on mineral demand prospects under different technology and policy assumptions” , and discusses the various countries which offer supply – including Canada. The main discussion is of policies regarding supply chains, especially concerning responsible and sustainable mining, concluding with six key recommendations, including co-ordination of the many international frameworks and initiatives in the area. The report briefly recognizes the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) protocols as internationally significant, and as one of the first to require on-site verification of its standards. The Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was established in 2004, requiring member companies to “demonstrate leadership by reporting and independently verifying their performance in key environmental and social areas such as aboriginal and community engagement, biodiversity conservation, climate change, tailings management.”

On May 5, the Mining Association of Canada updated one of its TSM protocols with the release a new Climate Change Protocol, a major update to its 2013 Energy Use and GHG Emissions Management Protocol. It is designed “to minimize the mining sector’s carbon footprint, while enhancing climate change disclosure and strengthening the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change.” The Protocol is accompanied by a new Guide on Climate Change Adaptation for the Mining Sector, intended for mine owners in Canada, but with global application. The Guide includes case studies of such mines as the Glencore Nickel mine in Sudbury, the notorious Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the Suncor Millennium tailings pond remediation at its oil sands mine in Alberta. The membership of MAC is a who’s who of Canadian mining and oil sands companies / – including well-known companies such as ArcelorMittal, Barrick Gold, Glencore, Kinross, Rio Tinto, Suncor, and Syncrude. Other documentation, including other Frameworks and progress reports, are compiled at a dedicated Climate Change Initiatives and Innovations in the Mining Industry website.

The demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other rare earth minerals needed for technological innovation has been embraced, not only by the mining industry, but in policy discussions – recently, by Clean Energy Canada in its March 2021 report, The Next Frontier. The federal ministry of Natural Resources Canada is also supportive, maintaining a Green Mining Innovation Initiative through CanmetMINING , and the government joined the U.S.-led Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) in 2019 to promote “secure and resilient supply chains for critical energy minerals.”

Alternative points of view have been pointing out the dangers inherent in the new “gold rush” mentality, since at least 2016 when Amnesty International released its 2016 expose of the use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most recently, in February 2021, Amnesty released Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain, which sets out specific principles that governments and businesses should follow to avoid human rights abuses and environmental harm. Other examples: MiningWatch Canada has posted their April 2021 webinar Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?, which states: “The mining sector is working hard to take advantage of the climate crisis, painting mining as “green” because it supplies materials needed to support the “green” energy transition. But unless demand for both energy and materials are curtailed, environmental destruction and social conflicts will also continue to grow.” MiningWatch Canada published Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis? in 2020, reporting on a 2019 international conference which focused on the experience of frontline communities. Internationally, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a Transition Minerals tracker, with ongoing data and reports concerning human and labour rights in the mining of “transition minerals”, and also compiles links to recent reports and articles. Two recent reports in 2021: Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries (March 2021, Earthworks) and A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals from the U.K. organization War on Want.

Ecosocialismo: Envisioning Latin America’s Green New Deal

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