Mining for clean energy: fact, fiction and misinformation
If you’ve read anything recently about cobalt or lithium, you may have come across the “global race” narrative about how we’re in a struggle to secure enough of these critical minerals for the energy transition.
And thanks to the war in Ukraine, the ongoing tensions between China and the U.S., massive price rises in all commodities – that narrative is growing more politicized with every passing day.
So, to try and separate fact from fiction, I talked Thea Riofrancos, Associate Professor of Political Science at Providence College, and Ian Morse, science writer and publisher of the “Green Rocks” newsletter. They are both specialists on this hugely important emerging topic of minerals and the clean energy transition, and have done a lot of time in the field in Latin America and Indonesia.
We covered a lot of ground, and it really opened my eyes to some of the important questions, such as:
Are these minerals really in short supply?
Do we really have to dig up more and more of the globe at a faster pace to electrify our transport systems, regardless of the social and environmental harm this involves?
Is on-shoring extraction back to rich countries the answer?
Why is it so hard to recycle a Tesla battery, and who’s working on this?
So if you’ve been wondering whether the mining question is “clean energy’s dirty secret” or not, stay tuned.
We talked about:
01:25 “Critical minerals” is a term with origins in the military. Thea cautions against replicating the idea that national security depends on the control or dominance of the supply chains that these minerals feed.
5.54 Calling them “climate” or “decarbonisation” metals opens the door to a positive branding that mining companies can and are taking advantage of.
8.57 Why are prices for these minerals sky-high at the moment? Thea & Ian talk about market speculation and the financialization of commodity prices, the role of commodity traders.
14.27 Mines can on average take a decade to build and operationalize – this creates a lag between demand and supply, and drives markets shortages and price rises.
19.27 Relying on mining as the key to unlock the energy transition may be one of the slowest ways to do climate action, because we know we’ll only have enough materials in 15 years, since we’re only just starting to grow now.
22.42 The changing global map of lithium extraction: we’re going from a situation of 4 main producers to probably double that in 10 years from now. Competition dynamics and geo-political rivalries will change, and nation states will shift their economic policies around these stakes.
24.03 On-shoring of extractive activities anmd vertical integration of supply chains are two big trends happening now as a result of the market shortages of critical minerals.
Car companies like Tesla and VW are contracting directly with raw material companies, either via direct investment or joint ventures. This further drives market shortages as it akes years of supply off the market.
26.38 Ian talks about his experience covering nickel mining in Sulawesi, Indonesia, “where the ground was dug up, shipped elsewhere. And people there were left with red seas, polluted air, no rainforest.”
37.53 The media narrative is not only invested in the “global race” narrative, it’s also crowding out the climate crisis itself, and allowing mining companies to brand themselves as climate heroes.
39.32 The worst way to organize an energy transition is to change only the fuel source, when in fact the fastest way to decarbonize the transport sector is to scale up public transportation.
51.59 What can we learn from the recent example of Chile, a mineral powerhouse with a new left-wing government breaking new ground on policy approaches to the extractive sector.
56.27 Is recycling the answer, and why is the mining industry not moving to build this up at scale right now? Our EV batteries today were never designed to be recycled – they are hard to disassemble, and hard to extract the relevant minerals to be sold again.
1.01 China’s BYD recently developed a battery that’s relatively easy to pull apart with your hands, but the Tesla battery is notoriously difficult to disassemble and recycle.
The climate crisis is almost now becoming, um, an aside in this narrative. mining companies have really latched onto this idea that they are climate saviours, right. Like mining companies are going to save us from, from the climate emergency….
but as politicians increasingly talk about supply chain security and the rush and the boom and, you know, the need to dominate, um, climate change is kind of falling out a little bit.
We’ve seen this with some recent Biden speeches on the topic where he emphasizes the need for, um, America to dominate battery supply chains, but he doesn’t even talk about climate that much.
Denise: Lithium mining is in the spotlight right now – prices have gone insane, as Elon Musk tweeted only just last week, saying that Tesla may get into the mining business itself as a result.
Lithium, along with cobalt and nickel, are critical elements of electric vehicle batteries and we’re hearing everywhere these days that there isn’t enough of this stuff to go around.
I wanted to know if this is actually, geologically, true? And is this the dirty secret of the clean energy revolution?
What I found out was that this is a really big conversation that touches everything from global supply chains to climate action to human rights to geopolitics to commodity markets.
Some of the big questions we tackled were: Are we in locked a global struggle for scarce mineral resources that are critical for the energy transition?
Does this mean we have to mine like crazy to get them?
And is there such a thing as clean and responsible mining?
Spoiler alert – nothing may be actually quite what it seems on the outside.
Oh, and, by the way, Elon Musk says that Tesla have some cool ideas for sustainable lithium extraction and refinement. But, as Ian explains at the end of our interview, Tesla’s batteries are notorious for being impossible to recycle, thereby driving even more demand to mine for lithium.
So, buckle up for a fascinating and thought provoking discussion.
Denise: Today I’m talking with Thea Riofrancos and Ian Morse about, uh, the so-called critical minerals. Um, these are things like lithium cobalt, nickel, and copper, which are needed for the energy transition. And this is a very hot space right now, demand for these metals, uh, and their prices have gone crazy.
And it’s driving a rush amongst rich countries to secure an adequate supply, which is in turn driving a mining boom with all the associated, harmful social and environmental impacts.
Thea and Ian, could I ask you to briefly introduce yourselves and also maybe just say a few words about the terminology, because there are many, many different ways to refer to these.
And I personally am confused. I’ve seen them called decarbonization metals, green metals, uh, uh, all kinds of things.
Thea: Yeah, thank you so much for having us. I’m Thea Riofrancos, I’m an associate professor of political science at Providence college, and I’m researching the global lithium frontier, which we’ll talk more about what that is, why it’s important.
Um, but let me, let me think about your question a little bit. I think it’s a really important one and I think terminology matters a lot. It both reflects, uh, power relations and hegemonic viewpoints, and it also can, can reproduce them. So I think it’s important to be careful about what we call things. Um, right now there is, as, as you mentioned, Denise, a rush to mine and secure access to so-called critical minerals.
This terminology dates to the interwar period in the U S when the U S government first began recognizing a list of strategic or critical minerals and creating stockpiles for them. Primarily, as you can guess from the time period for military and security concerns. Over time, this language has continued to be used by the USGS, the geological survey agency in the US, the department of energy, the department of the interior, et cetera.
Um, what critical means in a sort of neutral sense is that, one, the mineral in question is important for some economic or military application. Two, that the mineral in question is subject to either supply disruptions and/ or concentration of supply. So there’s some concern that it only comes from a few places or the places where it comes from might be politically risky.
So we, in this case, in the US, global north, need to be concerned about access to it. Um, when, uh, when a mineral is both of these things important, and potentially its supplies disrupted, it’s called a critical mineral, but you can already tell that there’s a lot of normative evaluations that are happening here, right?
Like what is considered important, for what purposes, what countries are considered risky, what counts as a supply disruption. Right. And so I think, you know, it’s important, especially because of the military provenance of this phrase, to be careful when we use it as scholars, as advocates, as sort of objective commentators to not kind of replicate the idea that our, you know, US national security hinges on the access or worse, the control or dominance of the supply chains that these minerals feed, um, I’ll I’ll just flag, you know, briefly at the end here and then turn it over to Ian that there’s also a proliferation of terms, uh, that can be unclear how they relate transition minerals or transition metals, critical minerals, decarbonisation metals, green minerals, you know, et cetera.
What these have in common is just that there is a growing basket of minerals that are specifically linked to the energy transition, right? So these other labels kind of allude to that more clearly than the word critical might. Um, but they, I think share some of the problems, um, as, as baskets or as, as, as overarching frames as, as the term critical minerals does.
Denise: Thanks, Ian, would you like to introduce yourself and I mean, please mention newsletter, which is called Green Rocks, which I think is another way of referring to these.
Ian: Yeah. Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. So my name is Ian Morse. I’m a journalist, a science and environment journalist and I focus on extraction and natural resources and I investigate, uh, rainforest land and corruption in Indonesia.
And I write this newsletter, Green Rocks, which, um, hasn’t been taken up by any, uh, anybody with a platform besides me, uh, as a term.
Uh, but yeah, I think, um, to answer your question as well, and to, um, I think build on what Thea said, I think the, the category or the idea that we could, uh, create a basket of minerals that are specifically used for climate can also be problematic or has it has its disadvantages, I guess.
Um, because for example, like the critical minerals, um, that people may want to focus on in the US uh, they don’t even list iron ore or iron, for example. And that is one of the biggest things that are going to push in, uh, in any kind of climate policy, because you need a lot of construction, you need to build things.
But at the same time, When people think of climate metals, they probably also don’t think of, uh, indium boron, tin, these kinds of things are also, they’re used in technologies that are labeled climate technologies, but they’re not necessarily this kind of thing that comes to mind when we think of these things.
Maybe to take a step back as well. It’s interesting that people want to create this kind of category of climate metals or decarbonization minerals, whatever that may mean. Um, because it necessarily also comes with a branding. A branding that people think is good, it needs to be pushed.
Any kind of growth there is justified. Problems that may come up in relation to climate metals then are also bound within this very entangled web of moralism and markets. Um, but at the same time, they’re metals, it’s mining. It’s very often the same actors that have, um, created violence and even wars in other places as a result of this mining.
Um, yeah, so we ‘ll just offer that to introduce some more nuance into that. Um, people will use the term, but it’s very, it’s necessarily fraught and it may not always be the best way to, to refer to what we’re really trying to talk about. I
Denise: I guess we’ll land on a smaller number of terms as you know, this topic kind of becomes more mainstream, but I just, you know, um, each one of these terms makes me feel something very, very different.
Uh, and so you know that in itself, um, uh, I, it, it renders sense, making more complicated, I think.
I wanted to kick off the conversation. Cause this is a very big topic, um, by looking at supply and demand for these metals, and trying to separate fact from myth.
Uh, so the price of lithium has gone up more than 400% in the past year. Ian, could you start off by talking a bit about what’s happened to the prices of these metals in recent months, what’s driving those crazy price rises.
Ian: So I usually try to approach this question as, uh, trying to, to take a larger maybe bird’s eye view of the conventional economic principles that people often cite with regards to this. So this is, uh, climate metals are in higher demand because we’re trying to, uh, create an energy transition. Um, and as a result, supply is going to be tight, um, for a while, at least, uh, there’s the commodity markets are also extremely complicated.
They’re not just simple, simply supply and demand. I mean, probably a lot of listeners can understand that, but there’s also a lot of financial tools that go into these markets that fuel growth, that fuel prices that are not linked to any sort of, like the building of a pipeline or the building of a mine or things like that.
Um, those things are really hard to predict. And it’s unfortunate I think that a lot of the reporting that has come out around, uh, these so-called climate metals, uh, still kind of use those terms, use the terms of supply and demand. Um, but then, so if we just take that as a, as a baseline, I think, uh, if we assume maybe that that’s correct.
Uh, it’s interesting then to see that when, uh, we are trying to create an energy transition and we’re trying to grasp as many of these materials as we can, so that we can build a technology so that we can quote unquote, save the world. They’re still beholden to the same exact things that every other market is controlled by us. So the supply and demand, these price shocks this political instability, this war in Ukraine. So gas prices jumps colossally, but probably more colossally in the past year, past two years has been these metals that previously no one heard about that are in these far away places that are often very concentrated.
Uh, these prices jumped extremely high and the reasoning, so if we’re going to ask about the reasons that the price is increased, the reasoning that many people give often companies, mining companies, uh, is that we need these things. And as a result, we need to pay more for them. Uh, there’s a lot of, uh, a lot of logic, obviously that we can throw at this.
I know that there are tangible reasons that people will increase prices. I also know that mining companies love high prices because that means that they can expand, they can open up new mines. And that is definitely what has been happening with many materials around the world.
Thea: Let, let me, um, expand a little bit on what Ian just said. I think those were a bunch of important points and then. Go to the politics of this.
So, um, it’s, it’s absolutely true. As Ian mentioned that commodity prices are not just driven by supply and demand in a, in a sort of fundamentals kind of sense, right there, there’s been now some great, uh, reporting and, and there’s a new book, um, on this topic that I think is called Price Wars or something, but, but kind of tracking, um, the role of commodity traders, which are sometimes also commodity producing firms, right?
So oil companies may be commodity traders and also oil producers. Uh, in which case, you know, they’re, they’re working the market sort of from both ends, but some firms are just commodity traders and their speculative activities, which relate to underlying fundamentals, but also distort them.
Right. And it can create frenzies and panics and the feeling that there’s all of a sudden geological scarcity of something whose quantity has not changed in the Earth’s crust. Right. So I think it’s, it’s very important to attend to that, that part of what Ian said.
Interestingly though, lithium is only partly commodified in this way.
Right? Lithium just recently, I think in the past year has been traded on the London metals exchange with a futures market around it. That was a new development. Right. And, and I don’t think that it’s traded anywhere else or really financialized any other degrees. So lithium is a little bit of a partial exception here.
Lithium firms, the main producers Albermarle, SQM, Tianqi, Jiangxi Ganfeng, have all resisted Lithium’s inclusion in some of these financial, uh, kind of commodity exchange settings. Right?
So that, that, that, you know, we can get into why that is, but I just want to kind of note that that dynamics might be different from metal to metal.
One thing I’ll add on the price. So there is a lag between supply and demand.
I think that’s true that lag is exacerbated by the speculative nature of commodity trading and also the more, kind of, political speculation around, you know, are these markets going to form what policies are going to shape them, et cetera. Um, but, but there is, you know, putting kind of discounting that speculation or putting it aside, certainly demand is going up, and supply cannot generally move as quickly as demand moves, right?
Because mines, for various reasons, geological, climactic, regulatory, um, social conflict, et cetera, are not built very quickly, right. They may take upwards of a decade sometimes more to go from exploration to production. Um, and when you have a lag like that, on the one hand and volatile demand swings on the other, obviously you are going to have what we could call a market shortage, not an actual geological, underlying geological shortage, but a market shortage that drives up prices. Um, and that can impact, um, consumption patterns. Right?
So that is one thing to keep in mind. Another is – we see a lot of blaming of environmental and indigenous protesters.
And I know we haven’t gotten into that subject yet, but, but just to say, there has been growing protest around a number of these so-called critical minerals. We see the industry and also sometimes the news media saying, you know, the reason that it’s slow to mine is because of protest. I think it’s an interesting narrative.
I don’t, I don’t think it’s altogether true not to say that protest doesn’t have impact, but I don’t think it’s actually the primary thing. The primary is, as I said, like the length of time to build a mine, but equally, maybe important, um, is the fact that since the commodity crash in 2014, so your listeners may remember that there was another recent commodity boom at the turn of the millennium that lasted actually quite a long time, 10 to 15 years, depending on which commodity you’re looking at.
And when that crashed, investors in extractive sectors, imposed what’s called capital discipline. What that means is they demanded returns on their investment and they kind of reigned in investment in exploration production.
You know, a publicly traded firm can do two things with its money. It can invest in productive capacity or it can pay back shareholders. It cannot do both things at the same time with the same dollar. For almost a decade now, shareholders have been demanding returns, which is part of a broader kind of, you know, pivot in Wall Street towards short-term returns.
Denise: Can I ask, how long does it take for a new mine, tis it like 15, 16 years?
Thea: I’ll let Ian weigh in on this. It really depends because this is, as I said, it’s partly, um, a physical question of setting up the mine in a certain geology, of dealing with changing climatic conditions. Especially when we’re talking about something like lithium brine which really is affected by climate.
It also is very much a regulatory and political question about when mines get approved, their environmental impact statements, other permits, and whether conflict, whether it’s protest or other types of conflict slows down the mine.
But yeah, we’re talking about seven to 20 years. Just to give you the bookends. I don’t think you’re going to see a mind developed and slower than seven. And I would say 20 is getting towards the longer end, but it’s not atypical.
Ian: I’d say that’s pretty accurate too. I think, um, I think what I would add to that as well, is that not only are you trying to dig a hole in the ground, you’re trying to create the processing facility that is tuned directly to the soil or to the, ore that you’re digging up.
I think actually to bring it full circle as well. The prices are often blamed by groups like the IMF, um, to say that this is what will slow down climate action. Um, but I think a lot of that is ignoring as well that there are these intrinsic roadblocks that make it difficult to grow these mines and processing centers, which they themselves, like, if we rely on just mining to happen, we may actually be choosing one of the slowest ways to do climate action, because we know that we will only have enough materials in 15 years, maybe, since we’re starting to really grow now.
Thea: I can add a little bit, um, on the question that you actually asked me Denise, which is like, what are the political upshots here? Um, and, um, and I’ll include, um, political and maybe kind of knock-on like economic upshots of this as well.
Um, so the politics of this are getting quite interesting and Ian has covered this a lot in his newsletter. Something that I’ve recently been focusing on in my research is that global North countries, powerful affluent countries in the world, the US, European states, have increasingly become concerned about the access and security of these supply chains for green technologies. And they’ve become concerned with the entire supply chain beginning with mining.
So these are supply chains for solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, lithium batteries. But for a few reasons, uh, that we could discuss or not, uh, lithium batteries, I would say are, are they’re they’re real focus. And, and within that, lithium has gotten particular attention, um, as a quote, critical mineral, mostly because it’s unsubstitutable, it’s the common mineral of all cathode chemistries of lithium ion batteries.
So global north governments, which have for years, decades, in fact, coming up on a century, have increasingly relied on imports of minerals, of all types of minerals, critical or otherwise, um, are now saying actually we want to onshore or reshore or domesticate, or, you know, these are a variety of terms that are used.
We want to explore and extract these minerals, these special, important minerals within our borders. We don’t want to rely on imports. We don’t want to rely on China, right? So we have this kind of geopolitical angle here. Now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this argument has gained a lot of steam. So there’s an interesting policy pivot to onshoring, uh, mining, which is the, as we mentioned already, like the most, um, uh, environmentally toxic node of supply chains, it’s economically volatile. It’s also low value-add compared to any later node on the supply chain, like making bad batteries is much more profitable than mining the lithium that goes into them. But regardless, um, because of the strategic concerns, and I think also partly in my view, under pressure from firms, whether it’s mining firms or EV firms, uh, to increase and diversify supply, governments in the global north have decided to induce lithium companies to set up shop within their borders, which is a real, it is a real change. And I think it’s worth noting it as such and analyzing why it’s happened and what its implications are.
But it’s, you know, most immediate near term implication is that the map of lithium extraction is actually changing pretty quickly.
Those projects may take a decade to come online. But they’re in there in the so-called pipeline. And that, so the map of production is, is changing around the world. Um, and that, so we’re going from a situation in which there are four main producers to, I don’t know, there might be double that in a decade from now.
And so that’s quite interesting. Each of those producers will therefore decrease their market share, and there’ll be new competitive dynamics. And perhaps geo-political rivalries that that stokes, but you get, you get the idea. So these minerals are seen as geopolitically important and states are shifting their economic policies to reflect that.
Um, one other piece that I’ll mention is now how firms are responding to all of this. And it actually relates to some of the supply and demand dynamics we discussed earlier. So. Um, there is a looming or actually you’re already kind of in a situation of a market shortage of, of lithium, and nickel, you know, likewise and, and a few other of these of these minerals and firms are watching this with, with a lot of worry, because they are rolling out, you know, dozens of new models of electric vehicles and making promises to their shareholders, to governments, to consumers that they will fully electrify.
And if they don’t have the raw material inputs to do it. Um, they’re going to be caught in, in a bind. And in some cases they may be flouting, you know, new emission standards or, or electrification requirements and in places like the EU, right? So they really need to electrify their they’re being regulatorily forced to increasingly, um, and it’s just the way that the market is moving, um, so they need the raw materials.
What they’re doing is quite interesting and it hearkens back to actually like the early 20th century era of industrialization and vertical integration, which is that they’re investing directly in the most upstream part of their supply chain. That is a big change, um, from the way that neoliberal globalization, reshaped, um, really created these dispersed supply chains, where all you have is a relationship with your most proximate supplier.
What companies are doing is, again, hearkening back to this era of sort of more vertically integrated firms and they’re saying we need more control over our raw material inputs. Right. Um, and so they’re directly contracting with the raw material companies, skipping many steps in between, cause in between your battery manufacturing, cathodes precursor is a whole very complex long supply chain.
But Tesla, BMW, VW, all of these companies, Ford, are directly contracting with the raw material producers. And in some cases they’re directly investing, and creating joint ventures with mining companies. And so this is the way that car companies, you know, states are securing supply chains by trying to get them in their borders or in their allies’ borders.
Car companies are securing supply chains by, by engaging in these long-term contracts or direct investments in, in extractive zones. It is just further contributing to the shortage market shortage because that takes years of supply off the market. When we talk about a five or 10 year off take contract.
So it is quite interesting. Um, but it is changing the way that car companies operate in terms of their relationships to their, to their suppliers.
Denise: I want to move now to, um, how you both got into this topic. I mean, you’ve been following this issue for many years now. You both came in sort of from the field as it were, um, you know, Ian, you were a reporter in Indonesia, uh, following nickel and Thea, you were doing research in Ecuador. I wonder if you could both just maybe, um, share some insight of like how you came into this topic and how being close to the, the, the impacts of people, you know, on the ground, in these mining areas, like how that informs the way you look at this issue today.
Ian: So I, I began in Sulawesi in Indonesia, which has rapidly become in the last few years, one of the, actually in the last decade, one of the main hotspots for nickel, uh, but in particular for steel and more recently, um, for battery nickel. On Sulawesi, all my friends were talking about nickel mining, all my Indonesian friends were talking about nickel mining, because that was the thing that was affecting their home most directly.
It was also the one story that had such a striking imbalance, um, where the ground was dug up, shipped elsewhere. And people there were left with red seas, polluted air, no rainforest.
Uh, yeah. Um, And as I followed that, as well as I tried to dig deeper to understand why these things were happening. I think I was pulled into the technology arena, the science, uh, of batteries, uh, markets as well, because all of these things are kind of, I guess, intersecting in places like Sulawesi where there are actors like companies and local officials who are trying to promote a kind of industry that, um, for a long time for local communities has been deemed very problematic.
Uh, and I think, uh, granted that Thea has a lot of experience in south America. I think that was one of the places that for a long time has that very strong resistance to, uh, extractive projects like mining. In Indonesia, and parts of Africa clearly, um, uh, a lot of these kinds of movements were, were springing up.
But in the landscape of this very different, just differently branded, form of mining, meaning branded towards climate, there were new dynamics, there were new market forces to pay attention to. There are new legal regimes that are being created to address and promote or extract different kinds of value from these from these new projects that operate very differently.
Denise: Can I just stop you for a sec there and ask, like, are you saying that, um, civil society groups in Indonesia who would normally be quite robust about organizing to protest against mining had less momentum around nickel mining for electric vehicle batteries?
Ian: Well, so for example, in Indonesia, there’s a lot of, um, activism around coal mining, um, because it’s the one of the largest coal exporters. It’s huge.
I mean, the kind of coal that comes from Indonesia is very valuable and very dirty. Well I mean all coal is. First of all, in Sulawesi, the growth in nickel came from the businesses that were trying to create steel, primarily Chinese businesses.
And that has been growing since around 2010. Um, and then maybe 2017, 2018, 2019, uh, groups began to realize that, uh, the reason that nickel was doubling in size was coming from something that was meant to be environmental and they were trying to address it in this way.
And the government was doing the same thing where government officials were very often saying that they were preparing for meetings with Tesla. Uh, no, one’s really sure whether that has ever happened in the three years that they’ve been talking about it. Um, and then Tesla went to New Caledonia, a different place for their nickel, which is very interesting.
But, um, yeah, th that, I think that’s just to say that there was some reformulating of how anti mining activism works in Indonesia because of this climate push.
Denise: Thanks, and Thea, what about, um, you, I mean, you started in Ecuador.
Thea: Yes. Um, yeah, I began my interest in extraction and the politics and social conflicts around extraction, uh, over a decade ago, I guess, um, in this very interesting moment in Latin America’s recent history, a moment that kind of feels like it’s repeating itself, though, with a lot of important differences. Which was a moment when there was a commodity boom at the same time that a lot of left wing governments were elected across the region. Um, and the confluence kind of changed the political economy quite dramatically.
So we had left wing governments that were flush with commodity revenues and therefore actually able to live up to some of their ambitious promises around social spending. Uh, but we also, by that same token, had an intensification and an extensification. So, you know, territorial expansion and also productive intensification of, of mining and other extractive sectors around the region, which led to environmental impacts and which in the sort of highly politicized and politically engaged indigenous and campesino communities in Latin America led to a lot of resistance and conflict.
Right. And so it was a paradoxical moment of the left being in power. Um, but also of some constituents we might say of progressive governments, um, uh, being in conflict with those governments’ decisions to expand extraction as well as in conflict with multinational companies. So that’s where I first got interested in this.
I was living in Ecuador when some of this was initially unfolding. I got the sense that it would be interesting and I wrote a dissertation and then a book about it. Um, but what I, you know, sort of brings us up to the present and resonates a little more with where Ian went with the end of his comments.
Once I was finished with my book “Resource Radicals” or with, with the main, uh, research and writing for it, I wanted to, you know, in academia you are supposed to always have a new project. So I was thinking about what my next project was and I decided to focus on lithium because it bore some resemblance to my prior focus on, on extraction in Latin America.
And Chile is the number two producer of lithium in the world right now. So there was, I wanted to work on it there. But it also had this other role, um, as Ian was pointing out, and as your question also pointed out, which is that unlike some other extractive sectors, lithium was poised to grow in a energy transitioning world.
And so I thought that lithium was sort of emblematic of some of the tensions that mark the energy transition. Uh, and yeah, and that, that’s sort of where, where I ended up landing with, with the kind of twist, um, that I ended up also going outside of Latin America.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s been a big push to change the map of lithium and that I’ve sort of tracked that or followed that. So I’ve ended up doing research in the US and European Union. And I’ll just close with saying, to sort of answer the other part of your question. I have noticed, I guess, two things.
One is that extractive sectors are extractive sectors, right? Like, um, they are environmentally consequential by nature. Um, you know, the degrees of how badly they harm the environment can, can shift from, from project to project or place to place. But mining is an extremely invasive process and it will have environmental impacts and that can stoke social protest and conflict.
And so that is similar from oil to lithium. Right. Um, and so I, that that’s like a similarity and another similarity, um, kind of from a different angle is that as mining moves to the global north, um, very similar kinds of conflicts are erupting in the US and Canada and the European union as have erupted in south America.
And in fact, some of these groups are in coordination and, alliance with one another across battery supply chains. So there, so there’s kind of, yeah, they’re, they’re just interesting resonances with the very system let’s say that we’re trying to get out of – fossil fueled- capitalism. Um, and then there’s interesting geographic, um, uh, echoes kind of emerging as battery supply chains move to new, um, new places in the world.
Denise: Um, I wanna like, uh, try and sort of move towards a discussion that’s focused on change solutions and all that type of thing. And, um, but I’m kind of mindful that a lot of things are holding us back. And so, um, I saw Thea, you said in a, in a, in a talk, but, uh, you know, the real problem is probably the status quo and, um, Ian, when you and I spoke before this podcast, you said, uh, something like mining may not be necessary.
And so, I just want to do a quick touch on some of the language that’s appearing in the mainstream media. They really locked into this kind of, um, uh, you know, the global race to mine the metal of the future. The power struggle over Congo’s cobalt has rattled the clean energy revolution.
Uh, those are the New York times. The Economist has come up with some language like the green commodity superpowers and all of this language feels really horribly like 19th century, you know, great power struggles, imperialism, uh, and they, they give me a sinking feeling like, uh, yes, we’re transitioning out of fossil fuels, but there’s a huge, you know, social and environmental price to pay for that. And we just have to suck it up. Uh, so I wanted to ask both of you, um, um, you know, what, what kinds of headlines actually, uh, should we be hoping to see from the media that, uh, might start to steer us in, in a new direction that can, you know, help kind of power, the narrative change that, you know, will support the system change that we really want to see.
Thea: No, I can go first. I was just trying to alternate, but I’ll take a stab. So yeah, it’s an excellent question. Um, I am concerned about the media narrative, which reflects and inflects a political narrative that the race is on.
Right? Like we, you know, whoever the we is and whatever context, like need to secure our access to these supply chains, the way to do that is to open up vast territories, ecosystems, places, for exploration and extraction. And that’s how we’re going to also address the climate crisis.
Right? The climate crisis is almost now becoming, um, an aside in this narrative. It’s interesting because the whole, as, as we brought up a few times, like mining companies have really latched onto this idea that they are climate saviours, right. Like mining companies are going to save us from, from the climate emergency.
And it’s a very useful narrative for them for obvious reasons. Um, and it’s a useful brand for the more consumer facing industries, like in the auto world. Um, but as politicians increasingly talk about supply chain security and the rush and the boom and, you know, the need to dominate, um, climate change is kind of falling out a little bit.
We’ve seen this with some recent Biden speeches on the topic where he emphasizes the need for, um, America to dominate battery supply chains, but he doesn’t even talk about climate that much. Right. So we can see how the rush to mine and to dominate supply chains kind of takes on a life of its own. And, and it’s not even explicitly interested in like, what are the solutions to the climate emergency. Right. And so I think that that’s one, one thing that I might say, and then the other to address, um, other parts of your question is that, you know, I think that exactly as you put it, like the, the worst thing, I think in terms of the energy transition, the worst way to organize an energy transition is to change as little as possible.
Meaning that all that’s changed are the fuel sources. The, the, you know, to some extent the technologies and infrastructures, but the rest of like how we organize our social and economic life remains basically the same, right? This is the worst way to do an energy transition for two or three main reasons.
As Ian said earlier, it’s the slowest. Like if you maintain everything as it is, um, and, and decarbonize sector by sector with existing modes of production, like it’s actually not the fastest way. And I think. Um, cars and, and, and the transportation sector provide a really helpful example of this, the fastest way to decarbonize the transportation sector.
According to, you know, the transit wonks out there, the people that study this, is to have as few cars on the road as possible. Um, it makes the coordination of the transition easier. You have fewer cars to swap out and electrify. It means that more people are in each electric vehicle, right? So if we have a system that’s more reliant on electric buses than individually owned passenger cars, that’s actually faster for decarbonisation.
Um, uh, instead what we’re looking at is like reinforcing car dependency, but making everything an EV which is slower to decarbonize, less equitable as well, because car ownership is very unequal. Um, and also to our topic today, worse in terms of resource extraction. So it’s the most resource intensive way.
If everyone individually owns a car, which is by the way, sitting in a garage most of the time. So it’s like a very irrational way to use these resources extracted under great cost and harm. And so you get the idea. I think that like, you know, in a more rational society, which we don’t live in, there would be more kind of systemic thinking about how do we actually transform our life ways, our ways of producing and consuming so that they are less environmentally impactful and, um, easier to switch to renewable energy and electrify, um, in a quick and just way.
Um, and so I’d really like in the transportation kind of world, much more of a discussion of how mass transit is part of the solution. Right. We hear a lot, mining is going to save us from climate change, but what about like are buses going to save us from climate change and just thinking more deeply about how to reorganize our transportation sector, um, especially in the US where it’s super car dependent and, you know, relatedly, it’s our, it’s the biggest contributor to emissions.
Ian: Like you mentioned the word, we, uh, it’s also very unfortunate that, uh, there’s a lot of discussion about, we need to do this if we are going to fix the climate that we need to do this it’s, uh, that we need to get more minerals or whatever it is that we never includes the people who are actually living next to these mines. And if they did, they would, uh, they would lead the discussion on whether a mine opens up in Greenland rather than the US and China and people who have never been to Greenland, uh, as well as other places.
Um, I think as well, there’s, uh, a kind of supreme lack of solutions discussion in a lot of this kind of, uh, mining journalism. So at the same time that they’re just focusing on climate, they’re bringing up this quote-unquote contradiction, which I don’t really like that term, I guess. Um, but actually I don’t like that term because there are so many solutions in between.
There’s not just a dichotomous choice that we have. There’s ways that we can address, um, that we can build up mining. Even if we want to focus on mining, we can build up mining in new ways that engage the people around there. Um, so for example, one of the greatest, uh, innovations that has been very scantily explored is legal rights to land for people in, in rainforest forest, uh, along beaches, uh, people who may be sitting on top of mineral deposits that people think are very valuable, legal rights to land can just allow people to, one give real consent over where it, whether a mind can start and it also allows them to be stewards of that land, probably sequester much more carbon than any other, uh, what carbon trading or carbon offset company could do.
Those are the kinds of solutions that I think should be tied to, uh, the discussion of, uh, just endless growth for mining for the climate. Uh, because this mining, I mean, mining, just, I dunno how to, how to phrase it, but it, it, it has always been, has not always been, but it’s, it has for decades allowed the life t hat we currently know in the global north to exist and that life has been non-stop consumption of more and more material and more material added just because it’s labeled under the climate, doesn’t change the rest of the world. Um, but because we also know that these materials are just created in our everyday life at every step of our job and, and vacations and food, that those are also the places where we can imagine solutions.
Denise: I really like that framing because in the same way that in the past decade, people have become more attentive to their own carbon footprint. And, you know, uh, th th how, how much emissions is each act in their life and the things you can then what you’re talking about, the same thing.
It’s just some kind of like, um, the mining footprint of my everyday life. Right? How can I audit that? Something like that.
Thea, I know we were running out of time and I do have, um, a few other questions for you, but so let’s see how we go. I wanted you to talk, um, about, uh, policy solutions and specifically Latin-America, which you’ve written about recently.
Um, can you talk about how, um, You know, things are changing there. And somehow there’s a sort of empowerment of all of these countries, uh, uh, which have been implicated in, in, in, in this type of mining. Um, and, and, and how that’s coalescing and creating political change.
Thea: Yeah. Um, it’s a great question. So, you know, my general view on this and this applies beyond Latin America, but Latin America is certainly the place that taught me this, um, is that.
It all hinges on the power relationships between the different actors involved in, in mining. Right? So that is, um, the, the mining companies, the governments both local and national, depending on how mining is regulated and, uh, communities and also social movements that come from and represent those communities.
Right. And so it’s in the sort of balance of power, uh, which is despite being asymmetric, like the firm most likely have the most power, the governments are maybe second, and the communities least in a sort of just like basic analysis. Despite that asymmetry, which can be quite extreme in certain contexts, um, communities in Latin America and elsewhere in the world have been able to, um, reshape the outcomes of extractive sectors, have been in many cases, actually outright stalled mines, uh, or even led to investors, canceling their interest in the project.
Or in other cases where they haven’t stalled or canceled the mine. They have led to a change in how the mine is regulated or in the physical footprint of the mine or in the compensation that communities receive. Right?
So communities that are located at these critical points of supply chains, if they organize effectively, um, actually can have some leverage. Just like workers going on strike have some leverage, right? Like workers are, have less power in a sort of like, you know, I’m just looking at it superficially then maybe the boss or owner or government does. But if they decide to go out on strike and not work, then they make everyone come to the negotiating table.
Right. And so it, tha type of power analysis is how I look at both how extractive sectors are governed and also like the concrete material outcomes, um, of that governance.
Um, you’re totally right. That a lot is happening in Latin America and has been for a little while now, really, as a result of the dynamics that I just laid out. Movements, um, for the past couple of decades have really mobilized in a militant and effective way against mining and oil projects and other mega development projects that they view as, um, existential threats to their livelihoods, their ecosystems, their territories.
Right. Um, and those, you know, over time, accumulated victories have really reshaped the political debate around mining in Latin America, um, and actually led to like the latest or current kind of cohort let’s say of left-wing governments either that have just come to power or that may soon come to power in places like Columbia and Brazil, um, to incorporate much more environmental framing, um, more caution around extraction, um, than the prior wave of left wing governments did.
So that’s one concrete outcome, the other, and I’ll just sort of end with this. Cause I think it’s indicative and also inspiring. Chile is like a quote critical mineral like powerhouse, we might say, right? It’s the number one copper producer. It is the number two lithium producer. Um, and it’s a big regional economy.
Um, and so what’s happening in Chile I think is quite important. A couple of years ago, there was a major social uprising in Chile in 2019, um, just before the pandemic, that uprising just changed the complexion of Chilean politics, um, which was for many, many, many years ever since the Pinochet dictatorship a really like exclusive kind of elite affair, um, a kind of very limited democracy in many senses, but this social uprising, which came after other waves of protest in the past really changed that.
One of the main demands of the uprising ended up being, we want a new constitution, which is obviously like the highest legal change that can take place in any country. Um, right now we’re in the midst of a constitutional assembly in Chile where amazing proposals are being proposed, um, you know, for everything from nationalizing the mining industry, but in a way that is more environmentally astute like limiting mining in certain areas, but also asserting state control over the sector, to the rights of nature recently passed the constitutional assembly. Uh, so kind of similar to what Ian was saying around stewardship and thinking about how to give legal rights to land owners and land stewards.
Also thinking about, of course, nature being a subject of rights in and of itself. Um, there’s also strides being made around water regulation and all sorts of things. So the outcomes of this constituent process will change governance in Chile and that coincides with the left wing government being in power that has made some commitments that are, that are similar to, to, to, to the proposals that I just mentioned.
So we’ll see. I mean, Chile could move from like a neoliberal mining paradise to like a much more environmentally founded, um, uh, kind of government and, and, and set of legal principles. Um, and that would really reflect the power and mobilization and creativity of, of movements there and across the Americas.
I have a book that I’m working on now with Norton press that is called Extraction: the frontiers of green capitalism.
It kind of says it in the title more or less, but, ‘m looking at what I call green capitalism or in other words, the energy transition that is unfolding under the condition of global capitalism. And what that energy transition looks like from what I call and other scholars call it’s extractive frontiers.
So the places that we’ve been talking about this entire, um, uh, podcast episode, um, and that those places really, you know, as we’ve said a few times now, um, uh, exemplified the contradictions and tensions and social conflicts at the heart of that transition, but also, you know, especially when we look at what movements and advocates, um, and I think critical policy researchers are thinking about also, I think, hold a lot of promise in terms of rethinking our whole economic system from the ground up. Right. Cause I think it’s in those extractive frontiers that we see the most rapacious, violent, harmful extractive, you know, pun intended practices of, of global capitalism. And if we can think from there and sort of take that viewpoint, um, then we end up with really different proposals for how to organize the energy transition.
Um, and so yeah, it’s a place of, I think sorrow and tragedy and also a place of great, great inspiration to me. Um, the, the, those frontiers around the world.
Denise: Ian, do you have time to say a few words about recycling?
Ian: So recycling is a super interesting field and I’m talking about lithium ion battery recycling specifically, but also recycling in general is a field that, uh, I think many people should be researching more, should be, uh, definitely should be funded more. It’s. I mean, it’s, if we’re talking about materials in this episode, materials, don’t just disappear after they’re used or after they’re bought.
So the lithium ion battery recycling worlds, um, and these are ones that would be used for grid storage batteries, um, or, uh, yeah, EV batteries, uh, is right now kind of in a gestation state, if I said that correctly, right? Um, it’s but it’s also controlled by people who, um, generally are also car companies.
Um, and I think the feeling in the industry right now is that there’s not going to be enough materials to actually build a recycling industry for another decade, probably at least. Um, but there are still, uh, recycling factories being built in the US.
Denise: Sorry, when you say there’s not enough materials, do you mean there’s not enough of the minerals we’ve been talking about or other materials?
Ian: Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. And it’s also a fair thing to be kind of amazed about because there’s a lot of materials in the world and where did they all go once we use them? Um, I think it’s also a bit of a misleading framing as well, because it’s not as if we just shouldn’t worry about recycling for another 10 years.
Um, and we shouldn’t fund it. Um, we need to focus on producing the things first. The issue is that the batteries that are, uh, being produced currently, as well as 10 years ago, they were never designed to be recycled. So it’s very difficult to build a recycling industry right now because the batteries that we’re dealing with are very hard to disassemble and to have the relevant minerals and materials extracted and then sold again.
And maybe if 10 years ago, 15 years ago, these kinds of batteries had recycling in mind. Then we could have a robust recycling industry right now, and it’d be very easy to with your hands, pick apart a battery safely, and then sell off the relevant materials back into the industry. It’s unfortunate that still, um, many companies are not quite thinking about recycling.
As result, we’ll probably have, uh, a entire wave of batteries coming in 10 years that we cannot with the majority of which by weight we cannot deal with. We don’t have a place for, or on the other hand. Um, because we, uh, we, I keep using deliberately the word we’ve, um, uh, because we can’t take these things apart they will not be able to compete in price with, uh, newly, uh, mined materials. So it’s almost as if, at the manufacturing stage and at the recycling stage, there’s a great opportunity to address whether we mine new materials. Um, and in particular, the way that that will happen is that we just make it cheaper to recycle the materials, or we also make newly aligned materials more expensive.
We actually incorporate the cost of land, the cost of, of cleanup into the price of nickel, lithium iron, because currently those things are not being done. There are thousands of abandoned mines. I mean, way more than a thousand. I mean, hundreds of thousands, probably around the world. I mean, there’s thousands on the scale of a single country, um, that are abandoned and, um, uh, these things need to be cleaned up.
They’re continuously polluting. That kind of price is not in the current, uh, metal. And unfortunately recycling is competing against a heavily subsidized product, which is newly mined materials. Um, so. There’s a few things to address within recycling to make it, it seems like a more feasible option and that is to redesign batteries.
This is something that battery scientists are really starting to, uh, study not only to research, but to push, to tell people that, Hey, can we just start to design these things a little bit differently so that we can actually recycle them? And then the other thing is to address, um, yeah, the pricing of, uh, newly minded materials.
I should mention that there’s a BYD in China, um, that produces batteries. They’ve developed recently a battery that is very, at least relatively, uh, more, uh, easy to disassemble, uh, where you can actually just pick it apart with your hands and replace the single cell individually, and then resell the old cell into the, into the market that resell into the market. Sorry.
Denise: And how does that compare with how you deal with a Tesla battery?
Ian: So Tesla batteries are a bit notorious because they are so difficult to disassemble because there’s this kind of permanent concrete glue that holds all the cells together, which is very different from other kinds of batteries, but they hold these cylindrical cells together.
And I mean, Tesla, I don’t think they have a product that can dissolve this glue. So they also have to just shred the entire battery. In which case you end up with a colossal black mass of matter. And then you have to figure out a way to then go back in and use all these chemicals to, uh, chemicals, acids, and very harmful things to either burn off the excess material, which also creates greenhouse gases that are sometimes more potent than methane, or then you figure out whether you can only extract cobalt, because it’s the most expensive and because you know that you can at least cover the costs of paying for all those acids and all the energy. Um, so it’s a, it’s a really rough market and industry right now, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Denise: And do you think all these crazy price rises, the speculative frenzy around that? Does that support, you know, more R and D in this area?
Ian: Uh, to some extent the, the research, the innovation already exists and. We know how to create a battery that doesn’t have glue. Um, which kind of strange is that there’s a lot of scientists that are focusing on disassembling other companies’ batteries, where effectively, it feels like the company has just handed off the task of dealing with these batteries, these very toxic products to science and to government to fund that science.
Whereas they know their product the best. Why are they not focusing on this? There, there’s also a great market opportunity to have an in-house recycling program. There’s a few tiny companies I know of in Europe that have tried that kind of thing, where you simply give your battery back to the company after a few years.
They will recycle it because they know exactly how to, how to deal with their own battery.
Um, yeah, there. Yeah, just great opportunity.
Denise: Thanks for listening to New Climate Capitalism. For more information on Thea and Ian please go to the episode shownotes at climatenarratives.co and follow them on Twitter @triofrancos and @ianjmorse.
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Thanks again to Valentine Scherer and to Victoria Yates for their help producing this episode, and to Lucas Laufen for the theme music.