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Nature Magazine Column Calls on U.S. to “Embrace Tough Trade-Offs” and “Get Serious” About Domestic Mining to Support Green Energy Shift

The time has come for the United States to get “serious about mining critical minerals for green energy,” writes Saleem H. Ali for Nature.

Ali points to the inherent irony of the green energy transition — renewable technologies requiring vast and increasing amounts of metals and minerals like lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese and REEs, but the U.S. Administration finding itself in a bind with the climate movement, a core part of President Joe Biden’s base, not wanting to mine them, “certainly not close to home.”

Ali cites the January 2023 Boundary Waters decision, in which the U.S. Department of the Interior closed over 350 square miles of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota – an area that holds some of the nation’s largest undeveloped deposits of copper and nickel but is also known for its pristine lakes — to mineral and geothermal leasing for twenty years.

Arguing that while the “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) sentiment has gone global – Ali points to Serbia’s Jadar lithium mining project being stopped in response to environmentalist pressures — the “United States seems particularly stuck.”  

(See ARPN’S coverage of the NIMBY movement here.)

Relying on allies, such as Australia and Canada, and countries with “controversial domestic-labour policies and environmental standards, including Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo” rather than developing its own resources has led to the U.S. yielding to China which has “benefited from the uncompromising US opposition to domestic mining and has built up a formidable dominance in critical metal extraction and processing over the past 30 years.”

Ali notes that while “[m]ining has a sordid history of exploitation and plunder, particularly with respect to Indigenous people,” “contemporary mines with regulatory oversight can have workable impact–benefit agreements with communities,” citing specific examples exemplifying such agreements, including Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Canada and Red Dog Mine in Alaska, which preferentially employ Indigenous people, respect traditional hunting seasons and include incremental royalties and partial resource ownership.

Ali suggests:

“The country is in danger of forgetting one of the four laws of ecology that Barry Commoner (…) established in his 1971 book A Closing Circle: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch.’ All industrial activities have some ecological impact. As researchers, and as informed societies, we must consider the benefits and trade-offs in concert.”

adding that

“as the world prepares for the 2023 COP28 climate conference — where even free conference lunches are not really free — the United States should revisit Commoner’s wisdom: there is virtue in embracing tough trade-offs.”

All in all, a welcome if somewhat unexpected proposition coming in an article from (mostly) peer-reviewed Nature.