Mines are not just holes in the ground

One way to think about the places where we get metal

I’m Ian Morse, and this is Green Rocks, a newsletter that doesn’t want dirty mining to ruin clean energy.

I read an academic book and had some abstract thoughts. Also, a few of you said you were interested in going back to basics. So let’s talk mines. Skip to the end if you want news.

A few years ago, I spent two weeks in a tiny archipelago that even many of my Indonesian friends didn’t know existed. It felt far off the map and more different than any other place I had been. This place, where internet connection didn’t support downloading photos and where people didn’t know who was running for president, was one of those places where the rest of the world tries to fulfill its material cravings.

Its fish were sold to stores as far as the US, its birds populated foreign markets, and its timber was worth a fortune. Yet, as this place had become a periphery in most people’s minds, the fish industry relied on slavery, soldiers became bird merchants, and the forests would have been razed if not for the craftiness of local activists.

Urbanization as progress puts the city on a pedestal, but urban life disappears without the labor and natural resources of faraway lands. These places are only peripheral if you believe they are. If there were to be a center of the world, it would be these frontiers of extraction.

Martín Arboleda takes a similar approach. He’s a geographer in Santiago, Chile, and his Planetary Mine published last year with Verso. I read it when I should have been on vacation.

When we recenter what our minds have marginalized, places like mines look a lot more like the center of a bicycle wheel. In every direction, stretching across a planet, its spokes support the same things that hold it in place. (🚲 is also a climate technology!)

For Arboleda, a mine is more than just a hole in the ground. It’s the migrant workers inside, the faraway white-collar labor, the laws that dictate where profits go, the efforts to delegitimize peasantries, the listings on stock exchanges, the ships that haul ore across oceans, the processing centers that are never turned off, the waste often magnitudes larger than the commodified product, and the price tags on consumer items. Meanwhile, it is one of the few human activities that can leave lasting damage for centuries. These things create and are created by mines.

The spokes of the bicycle wheel are truly planetary in their reach and their origins. The term “global”, it seems, doesn’t quite capture how unequivocally material mines are, even as most are controlled remotely through pixels. Every day, new consumer products, financial tools, labor mechanizations are introduced, and these rapid revolutions are hinged on mines (Arboleda would add “…among other things”).

This newsletter traces the creation of one of thee revolutions — of clean energy technologies. The spokes of the clean energy supply chain are as new as the technologies themselves, and they have been given a golden ticket to scour the planet for the raw materials to save the planet. The makers and beneficiaries of lithium-ion batteries are struggling to find the right raw materials and manufacturers. Every new deal makes headlines. They’ve been sounding the scarcity alarm; that unless more is mined, a renewable future is impossible.

Another spoke of the planetary mine is the set of paradigms that refashion the natural world to resemble pots of gold. In a story last month, I wrote about scientists’ difficulty in understanding where we get a lot of our lithium. Before any Indigenous group in Chile raised their voice about the Atacama Salt Flat, most scientific knowledge about this Rhode-Island-sized expanse was created to enable extraction of the brine below the surface. That brine, which is left out in pools so the sun can evaporate out water and leave lithium-rich crystals, is only a mineral in the eyes of government. But if it impacts water for the 18 surrounding communities, or even the endangered flamingos made pink by freshwater shrimp, the law may need to begin seeing it as water.

Arboleda challenges the grounding of policy in nationalism, which has sprung up at every utterance of a ‘critical metal.’ The world is a competition of countries, the story goes, and only certain countries can win. That image only exists if you squint too hard. A mine does not know borders, and ‘mining countries’ haven’t seen equal economic growth throughout their population.

US politicians say their domestic lithium wars are really a fight against Chinese dominance, which had itself been US-supported to keep US shores clean. Indonesia’s insistence that companies process ore within the country loses its chauvinistic rationale when only foreign companies make up that new industry. In Arboleda’s Chile, copper miners have spent this century intertwining their fates with East Asian producers. The biggest mining company in the world, Glencore, is based in a country in which it has no mines (Switzerland).

So what if we thought of mines — with all their spokes — as actors? Where does power and accountability lie? When we think of our consumption like clean energy, where should our attention be focused?

Now we can comfortably flip our understanding. The question is not How does clean energy tech motivate more mining? But rather, How has this unprecedented leap in extraction shaped the solutions we’ve chosen for climate crisis? What are our alternatives?

The Green Rocks Map

Trump’s last mining moves

In its final days of power, the Trump government is preparing to open more public lands to miners hungry for minerals.

Those include gas pipelines, helium mines, and uranium projects, as well as two mines that are trying to brand themselves as clean energy companies.

In Nevada, a lithium mine is close to receiving final approval from the Interior Department. It could be the first source of lithium in the US and has been opposed by locals for threatening water supply and by conservationists for endangering valuable sage grouse habitat.

On January 15, the Forest Service will publish its final environmental impact statement about the Resolution Copper project that would likely destroy the sacred site at Oak Flat. Regardless of the decision in the FEIS, a 2014 law will hand over the land to the Rio Tinto and BHP company. After that, the company will need to get more permits from Biden’s administration to proceed. Or just wait until another mining-friendly president comes along.

But then there’s good news. Deb Haaland will become the first Native American to be nominated for the position of Secretary of Interior. If confirmed by the Senate, she’ll have power over the department that has systematically displaced people and extracted from Native lands. (The Oak Flat project, however, is under the direction of the Agriculture department.)

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Eye on Industry

  • Akon, yes the creator of ‘Smack That’, has entered the Congolese mining sector. He’s struck a deal with a state miner through his company White Waterfall to begin a feasibility study on a copper and cobalt reserve.

  • Locals scored a win when a court denied a key permit for a copper mine on wetlands in Michigan.

  • A $9.8 billion deal is set to make Indonesia the first country to house an entire EV supply chain, from mine to lithium-ion batteries. The deal with South Korea’s LG leverages the country nickel and cobalt prospects and is one of two likely battery plants to come.

  • Trump’s pandemic aid package included $800 million to fund research into rare earths and other strategic minerals. Mitt Romney added a clause that required intelligence services produce an annual report on China’s overseas mining investments.

  • Two major aluminum firms from China have left an industry association for unknown reasons.

  • Rio Tinto and the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people have begun to mend ties after the former blew up the latter’s sacred site for iron. A joint statement read, “we are not underestimating the time it will take to genuinely work together and achieve the mutual objectives of this partnership.”

  • China is looking abroad to fill its iron, manganese, and chrome demand.


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Thanks for reading! I’m Ian Morse, and this is Green Rocks, a newsletter that doesn’t want dirty mining to ruin clean energy.

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