Senate Democrats Must End Environmentalists' 'Catch-22'

Last Thursday, House Republicans--with the support of a handful of Democrats, and no support from the White House--passed the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act. The Act is an important first step to getting past the U.S. environmental movement’s grave misunderstanding when it comes to the relationship between metal mining and America’s green energy future. Now it is up to the Democrat-controlled Senate, which is not expected to pass the new law. 

Here is why it must.

Ask any environmentally-minded person to describe the future they hope for our planet, and you tend to get pretty much the same answer. Our primary energy sources will be non-polluting, sustainable technologies such as wind and solar. Our remaining reliance on oil, coal and gas will be limited to highly efficient non-polluting power generation systems such as fuel cells and hybrid electric motors. Wasteful technologies and equipment will be replaced with advanced energy efficient high technologies and equipment, e.g. 20th Century incandescent lighting will be replaced with 21st Century LED lighting. No surprises. 

However, what may come as a huge surprise, particularly to those within the U.S. environmental movement, is that they themselves are today the biggest barrier to realizing this future. That is because they misunderstand the fundamental relationship between building this green future and the mining of critical metals. 

Most people think high technology is only about computer science, such as software, the Internet and telecommunications. However, green energy high technology is very different. It is all about materials science. A solar energy panel works not because of some software or hardware innovation. The high technology comes from discoveries in the nature of certain metals on the periodic table. Metals we mine, refine and then turn into components. 

We cannot, in fact, build the green technology infrastructure environmentalists hope for without first mining these next generation essential metals. To build an electric car, wind generator or fuel cell, you need lanthanum metal and neodymium metal. Solar panels require indium metal. There are more than 3 dozen metallic elements America will need to build an energy independent national infrastructure. Yet at present America mines virtually none of these metals. 

Yes, we have deposits within our borders, but most of these mines are at the earliest stages of the approval process. To open a gold or silver mine in the U.S. today takes 35 to 40 years. Much of this is of course due to opposition to mining from environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club. But when it comes to building the energy infrastructure that will address global warming and free us from our reliance on oil, coal and gas, do we have 40 years to wait before we have the raw materials in hand just to begin? 

The Sierra Club lists on its home page as its first goals getting beyond coal and oil. Yet search “mining” on the same website and every result deals with opposition efforts. This across-the-board opposition to any form of mining creates what I dubbed in an article published in 2011, and in speeches in Washington D.C. and Brussels earlier this year, the “Environmentalists’ Catch-22”. Namely--the movement cannot both oppose critical metal mining and demand the government build a green technology future. The two approaches are mutually exclusive. 

On Thursday, Congress took the first critical step to resolving this hypocrisy. By a 245-180 vote the House passed the Act, which will streamline the permitting process and prevent certain frivolous lawsuits from blocking the siting of critical metals mines. It establishes a 60-day time limit on the filing of suits ,and caps the overall approval process to 30 months.

If Senate Democrats are serious about America’s green future, they must support this legislation and explain to their supporters in the environmental movement that this time they simply got it wrong.

And it is time for environmentalists themselves to start appreciating the whole supply chain to building an energy efficient non-polluting America. It necessarily includes mining and refining of the metals from which this green world will be built. Only the environmental community has the bona fides and clout to craft and pass regulations that can strike a balance which harmonizes environmental protection with the mining of these green technology metals. 

Even the most ardent environmentalist reading this would agree we do not have 35 to 40 years to begin dealing with carbon emissions and global warming. Now is the time to appreciate the fundamental relationship between mining and America’s energy independent future--and do what is necessary to realize that future as soon as possible.

Photo: Oregon State University students prepare a solar car. (Credit: Doug Beghtel/The Oregonian)


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