The dark side of ‘clean energy’

The Mountain Pass rare earth mine, north of Mountain Pass, California, United States. The mine, owned by Molycorp Inc., once supplied most of the world's rare earth elements (Photo: Creative Commons)

Are ‘green’ and digital technologies environmentally friendly? The transition to green and digital technologies is portrayed as the way to move to zero carbon emissions and a clean environment by reducing our dependency on nuclear power and fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources are promoted as clean, environmentally friendly and sustainable. Renewable energy sources are an increasing proportion of the energy we use. Digital technologies maximise the efficiency of renewable power production and consumption. The full story is, however, more complex.

Guillame Pitron’s book, The Rare Metals War: the dark side of clean energy and digital technologies, fills in some of the gaps in this green and digital technology story. Pitron is a French investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. The book is the result of six years of research in a dozen countries. It was written in 2018 and translated into English and published in 2020.

He says that the environmental impact of rare earth metals “could prove far more severe than that of oil extraction”.

Rare earth metals

Green and digital technologies rely on ‘rare earth metals’. The term was coined in the late eighteenth century as the metals began to be discovered. There are 17 rare metals (classed as ‘heavy’ and ‘light’). One electric vehicle uses minute amounts of ten of them. Whilst they are not all rare, like all natural resources, they are finite. Some have been used for a long time, but their use has grown exponentially since the 1970s as technology has developed. They are now in practically every device. They have enabled the production of tiny ‘super’ magnets that have enabled miniaturisation. Many are used to produce alloys.

For the most part, they exist in minute quantities in metal ores with more abundant metals which have to be mined. Their extraction is difficult, requiring lots of labour, chemicals, water and land. A tonne of rock produces four to seven grams of platinum, for example. Other rare metals have similar or smaller quantities in ores. Rare metals make up a minute fraction of the metals market but their importance due to our reliance on technology containing them is huge. Refining them always produces radiation as well as other toxins. Setting up a mine can take 25 to 30 years.

Whilst various countries stockpile digital technology waste (‘e-waste’) to recycle rare metals one day, there is currently no industrial process to do this. Japan is taking the lead in research on this. The recyclable elements have so far amounted to from zero to ten per cent depending on the metal. Recycling may be the key to sustainability for rare metals, but it is not here yet.

Moves are being made in persuading manufacturers to make items repairable and longer-lasting but these are tentative and informal. Meanwhile, there is a land grab for the seabed and its minerals. Countries can claim a certain amount of seabed off their shores as theirs. So far, the only ‘mining’ that has been done has been by divers with compression tanks. Nevertheless, there is a scramble to invest in this future. China is developing submersible craft and building artificial islands to claim seabed. The environmental impact of trying to mine the seabed is incalculable.

Others are looking to space and asteroids as a future supply of rare metals. The fact that this is even further off than mining the seabed is not deterring capitalist adventurers and futures buyers.

Outsourcing pollution

In 1991 a memo by Lawrence Summers, then Chief Economist at the World Bank (and subsequently president Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary), recommended that developed economies export polluting industries to poor countries, especially to “underpopulated countries in Africa (that are) vastly under-polluted” as the “economic logic is impeccable”. Despite pleading “intentional sarcasm” when challenged, his comments perfectly sum up the reality of all kinds of industrial activities being outsourced from Europe, the US and elsewhere.

The consequences of this have not just been hugely damaging to local communities through exploitation and pollution, they have led to huge geopolitical concerns. In fact, the environmental concerns raised by Pitron seem almost secondary to the concerns that China has developed a monopoly over the extraction and supply of rare metals. It has gone on from there to acquire the technologies to manufacture the products as well as provide the raw materials.

Tellingly, the foreword to the book is written by Hubert Vedrine, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs under the conservative French president Jacques Chirac and a diplomatic adviser to his social democratic Parti Socialiste predecessor Francois Mitterand: “Pitron sounds the alarm on a serious geopolitical problem: the world’s growing reliance on rare metals for its digital development… The first problem is that most of these resources are in the hands of China… Other countries with such underground resources have for various reasons abandoned their mining operations”.

China took on the ‘dirty work’ of extracting green technology components and enabling what Pitron describes as ‘the West’, the developed world, to buy the “pristine product”. He describes the world order as “the dirty and those who pretend to be clean”. Asked about this relocation of pollution, a European industrialist told Pitron that “all that matters is having the lowest price possible”.

Pitron thinks that capitalism can be persuaded by ethics and consumer pressure on businesses and governments to ‘forget the bottom line’ and to extract rare metals in cleaner ways, unlike China. He says that the Chinese could have opted for clean mining but “chose not to”. However, the examples he gives of mining outside China, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, France and the US, give the lie to this. His book also shows that such clean mining techniques have not yet been developed anywhere. Improving technique costs money. Capitalism is only interested in the short term ‘bottom line’ – the profit – in this, as in everything else.

The real cost of rare metals

In Baotou, Inner Mongolia, a boom city has grown up around rare metal refineries.  The area has 40% of the world’s rare metal reserves. The city is spreading nearer to the refineries and to the Wekuang Dam, an artificial lake that covers ten square kilometres into which toxic black water from the nearby refineries flows through pipelines. This effluent sometimes overflows into the Yellow River. Pitron says Baotou is also the “beating heart of the energy and digital transition” with businesses built and attracted there to manufacture the ‘added value’ products that use the raw materials.

Dalahai was a community near to this “immense disintegrating lunar landscape” of rare metal refineries. When Pitron visited in 2010 it was called the ‘cancer village’. Young men’s hair turned white. Children grew up without developing any teeth. Sixty-six residents had died of cancer. The land was becoming too toxic to farm. One man told him: “We know the air we breathe is toxic and we don’t have much longer to live”. The Chinese regime wanted to move the farmers into high rises in the city but with no help to be able to afford to live there. The refineries expanded in 2019 removing and forcing inhabitants to move.

The official in charge of the Enterprise Trade Zone says that they welcome technology industries and “can supply them with virtually all the minerals they need”. There are 300 factories, 50 of them foreign owned. Vivian Wu, a Chinese environmental expert, said: “The Chinese people have paid a high price to supply the world with rare earths. Ultimately the price of developing our industry is just too high”.

Pitron describes the site of the Mountain Pass mine in the US as a “corroded industrial wasteland”. There is a circular decant pond 20 kilometres away in the Mojave Desert where contaminated water is seeping into the ground. The pipeline has had 60 spills over 15 years contaminating soil, sand and groundwater. It closed in 2002 due to lawsuits about the effects of pollution, costs of repair to environmental damage, modernisation costs but most crucially due to China driving down prices of metals. Due to concerns about reliance on rare metals from China moves are underway to restart mining there.

There are stories of the detrimental effects of mining rare metals on workers and communities all over the world from Kazakhstan to France to Congo to Bolivia.

Pitron suggests that an environmentally ethical approach to mining outside China is possible if the quest for financial gain is set aside. His own evidence shows no sign of that happening. And it is impossible in a capitalist system.

China and rare metals

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries sold off the rare metals that they had stored for military uses as a ‘peace dividend’. China, on the other hand, built up reserves and bought up others and developed its monopoly overproduction and supply of many rare metals.

As rare metals were used in more and more digital technology, China and a number of other countries’ share of global production was high enough to trigger temporary shortages and wild price swings. China produces 45% of the world’s metals and 95% of certain rare metals. It is also now the biggest consumer of metals in the world. The number of mines multiplied. The ‘Belt and Road’ project was partly designed to provide easier access for China to other countries’ rare metals.

Deng Xiaoping said in 1992: “The Middle East has oil; China has rare earth metals”. The World Trade Organisation reports that for two decades China had engineered a policy of systematic restrictions on rare mineral exports. A Japanese diplomat told Pitron that “whenever we raise the issue of rare earths, the Chinese made it plain that they could at any time turn off the tap (of exports)”.

China kept prices low domestically while organising artificial shortages and export quotas to raise prices internationally. It has used the supply of rare metals to attract or force companies to locate in China and ‘share’ their technology. Magnet manufacturers who had not relocated were starved of raw materials until they did. China now produces a third of the world’s magnets. So far this has resulted in trade wars and rhetoric, but military build ups in the South China Sea show the possibility of real conflict.

Other producing countries have taken their lead from China in what Pitron calls ‘rare metals nationalism’. They want to control what they produce. This has been the case since independence movements began in the colonial world. With rare metals capitalists can see that the subordinate relationship that Summers referred to in his 1991 memo will no longer hold.

No way forward under capitalism

The rare metals market is opaque, informal and volatile. The appearance or disappearance of a few grams of a metal can result in bubbles, panics and wild price fluctuations.

Given that it is the basis of the technological future we are moving towards to the exclusion of any warning voices, Pitron says we need a fair distribution of minerals; “a cause in which international institutions are now united”. He thinks “returning mining to the West” is part of this and that if we see the environmental effects of our consumption it will lead to change.

This is impossible under capitalism where the working class has no control over what is produced and how it is produced and distributed. The capitalist system cannot be an ethical system, no matter how much some people wish it could be. Even concessions it has been forced to make to workers in boom times are being rolled back in this economic, health and social crisis.

Only a socialist transformation and a worldwide socialist plan can solve the problem of the environmental costs of rare metals and therefore of the green and digital transition. Only then could science and technique be developed to solve the conundrum of cleaner mining and efficient recycling. Our future and a sustainable planet depend on it!

The Rare Metals War: the dark side of clean energy and digital technologies

By Gullaume Pitron (translated by Bianca Jacobsohn)

Published by Scribe, 2020, £16.99 (UK)


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April 2021