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Mining the planet for renewable energy

By Paul Driessen
web posted July 8, 2024

This election year, several critical issues dominate voter concerns. Illegal immigration across unsecured borders by migrants, criminals, sex traffickers and terrorists. Anti-police policies, reduced prosecution of criminals and rising crime. Unprecedented prices for food, clothing, housing and other necessities.

Parental roles in education and sex changes for children. Threats to our republic and democracy from unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who use their powers to persecute, prosecute, silence and even imprison opponents, and control our lives.

Also crucial: control over energy – the lifeblood of our civilization, jobs, health and prosperity.

Will America shut down coal, gas and nuclear electricity generation before it has sufficient reliable replacements? Will we have electricity when we need it, or only when it's available,  especially after we're forced to convert gasoline cars and gas stoves, furnaces and water heaters to electric models?

What will families pay for that electricity and everything we eat, drink, build and use? Where will we get plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals, and thousands of other products made from oil and gas they want to lock in the ground? What will happen to our jobs, health, living standards – and personal choices about where we live, what we eat, what car we can drive and how far, whether we can fly places for vacation?

We're told a great energy and economic transformation is underway – and is essential to prevent a "climate crisis." In reality, the crisis exists in computer models, headlines and politicized science, but not in actual temperature and weather records.

In reality, there is no energy transformation. In 2023, wind and solar power generated 2.7% of the world's primary energy; 81.5% came from fossil fuels. Between 1965 and 2023, North America and Europe cut their fossil fuel consumption almost in half; but over the same period, the rest of the world consumed seven times more than those two regions reduced their use. Emissions went up even more, because China, India and other developing countries require minimal pollution controls on power plants and vehicles. 

In reality, a transition to an all-electric economy with no fossil fuels means millions of acres of America's wild, scenic and agricultural lands would be covered with wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, and warehouses filled with batteries that can spontaneously erupt in flames.

In reality, we don't know whether there are enough accessible metal and mineral deposits on Planet Earth to extract all the raw materials required to manufacture the turbines, panels, batteries, transmission lines, electric vehicles, transformers and other equipment the energy transformation would require – just for the United States, much less for the entire world.

We don't know how many billions of tons of rock would have to be mined, processed and disposed of; how many millions of acres would be impacted; how many millions of tons of toxic air and water pollution would be emitted; what human rights would be violated to get those metals and minerals.

One of the most basic and vital metals for the energy transformation is copper. Average worldwide ore concentrations (0.04%) mean miners would have to remove some 40,000,000 tons of overlying rock and extract, crush and process nearly 25,000,000 tons of ore to get 110,000 tons of copper – enough for just the first 30,000 megawatts of President Biden's offshore wind plan.

Worse, mining is essentially banned in the United States – and the Biden Administration has vetoed world-class mines that could have met US needs for copper (and other metals) for decades to come. And the problem isn't just President Biden or the Biden Administration. It's governors like Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer, and countless activists and mostly Democrat politicians who support these policies.

Recent studies question whether mining companies can even produce enough copper just for the electric vehicles people are told they must buy – much less for wind and solar power; to say nothing of a full US (or global) energy transformation. Again, that's just the copper.

A 2022 International Energy Agency report examines the need for essential metals and minerals in energy transitions. Onshore wind installations, the report says, require nine times more materials than combined-cycle gas generating plants, to produce the same amount of electricity. Offshore wind installations require fourteen times more. (These IEA numbers do not include materials for transmission lines or backup power for windless-sunless periods.)

The IEA says its projections are "highly dependent" on how quickly and stringently the world actually tries to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions in power generation and all energy uses; on which wind, solar, battery and other technologies dominate; and on whether countries also try to utilize low-carbon (natural gas) or no-carbon (batteries) equipment in mining, materials processing, manufacturing and transporting wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, vehicles and other technologies.

However, the IEA calculates, demand for aluminum, copper, cobalt, graphite, iron, nickel, lithium, rare earths, concrete and other "green" energy materials is expected to skyrocket by 5, 20, 40, 50 or more times current global requirements by 2040.

The Agency says numerous "challenges" to actually acquiring those materials include actually finding producible deposits, plus land use, water scarcity and pollution, air pollution, toxic mining waste management, corruption and bribery, worker and nearby resident health and safety, and child labor.

Meeting these challenges, the IEA says, will require "systematic approaches," the "development of institutions and the rule of law," "inclusive legal frameworks," "responsible" and "robust" pollution and waste management frameworks, "sustainable practices," "international coordination," "capacity building and knowledge sharing," greater "transparency" and, ultimately, "international minerals governance."

These actions will all help foster "sustainable and responsible supply chains that contribute to a low-carbon economy" worldwide, the IEA assures us.

But will these wishful terms survive collisions with the real world? Developing nations view coal, oil and gas as their key to jobs, modernity and prosperity. China, Russia and their allies perceive the West's fixation on climate change and green energy as opportunities to control US and EU supply chains, geo-political options and military-economic capabilities.

The biggest wind energy project in the USA will soon blanket 1,600 square miles (1.25 times Delaware) of New Mexico, to generate 3,500 MW about 30% of the year. The Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona generates 4,200 MW from 6 square miles almost 24/7/365.

A Bloomberg research team says the world will need at least $200 trillion to stop global warming by 2050. Others estimate $275 trillion

How can we head this economy-and-environment-killing craziness off at the pass?

Wise decisions at the ballot box are essential, of course. But state and local governments should enact laws requiring that utilities explain how they will generate wind and solar replacement power on windless winter nights, before they shut down a single coal, gas or nuclear power plant – or get approval for a single wind or solar project. (Those are just a few of the actions they can take.)

They should also demand full details on where raw materials will come from, and at what dollar, human rights and environmental costs – to state and local communities ... and our planet.

America's jobs, health, living standards, and right to choose our homes, cars and food depend on it. ESR

Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org), and author of articles and books on environmental, climate and human rights issues.

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