The components of our new eco-friendly cars, trains, planes and toasters need to come from somewhere. But what’s the cleanest way to extract these resources right now and what new methods are miners developing?
How does green mining work?
Green mining means making different parts of the mining process more environmentally friendly. As modern mining is a complex and varied process, there are a lot of moving parts here. Some steps are more simple than others. For example, a miner might decide to cut the carbon footprint of its operations by only using vehicles and machinery which run on clean fuels.
Additionally, there is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This sees the capture of carbon emissions released during the mining process. The miner then stores the carbon dioxide in underground locations rather than releasing it into the earth’s atmosphere.
This is not all about carbon though. Mining does not simply damage the planet through emissions. The digging, explosions and waste materials involved in the projects can decimate natural habitats.
The industry is exploring myriad solutions to these issues. These include re-mining existing waste materials, cleaning wastewater and replenishing the local ecosystem at the end of a mining cycle.
Companies which have moved purposely to adopt some of the methods outlined here include:
Barrick Gold (NYSE: GOLD), which has extensive emissions targets and receives 19 percent of its power from renewable sources.
BHP Billiton (ASX: BHP) and Anglo American (ASX:AQM), who combined to create a near-zero waste facility in South Africa.
A green mining case study
One example of a miner looking to improve its green credentials is Australia’s Vulcan Energy Resources (ASX: VUL). The company is aiming to become the world's first lithium producer with net zero greenhouse gas emissions. It seeks to do this through its geothermal lithium brine project in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley.
The company argues that, without the methods used at its project in Germany, the pathway for producing and refining enough lithium to electrify all the planet’s passenger vehicles would emit approximately 1.05 billion tonnes of CO2. This would be equivalent to the combined annual emissions of the UK, France and Italy.
As such, Vulcan is keen to point out that the project would emit zero kilograms of carbon dioxide for each tonne of lithium hydroxide produced. In fact, the project would actually have a negative carbon footprint. This compares with 15,000 kilograms and 5,000 kilograms from hard rock mining and evaporation ponds respectively.
Vulcan has also boasted that this project would produce just a small fraction of the waste caused by alternative methods, such as hard rock mining and evaporation ponds. Reagent consumption and land usage would also be lower.
Manufacturers of vehicles and other products can then enjoy these benefits. The negative carbon footprint of the project would help the manufacturers in achieving their own CO2 goals by offsetting the less green aspects of their supply chain.
The future of green mining
There are also some less traditional options, which could offer greener alternatives.
Deep sea mining: this would see mining companies scouring the ocean floor for mineral deposits and polymetallic nodules.
Agromining: plants can harvest metals without the need to break open the earth’s surface.
Asteroid mining: this remains strictly hypothetical but would see metals being extracted from asteroids and minor planets.
These each have their own pitfalls and advantages. For example, deep sea mining would give the planet access to rich and untapped deposits of valuable metals which will be necessary for building greener tech. However, activists are concerned about the damage that could be done to ocean-dwelling creatures and plantlife.
No successful deep sea mining operations have ever been launched. Past attempts include Nautilus Minerals and its Solwara 1 resource off the coast of Papua New Guinea. However, the company collapsed in 2019.
Similar concerns exist around asteroid mining. While mining outside of the earth’s atmosphere might limit emissions from the actual process, the emissions involved with construction and launching spacefaring mining vessels could be enormous. The costs associated with spaceflight are an additional barrier.
As such, asteroid mining doesn’t seem like it will be a reality any time soon. Ten years ago there were a few asteroid mining companies floating around and a great deal of excitement surrounding the idea. However, these companies have largely been shut down or snapped up in acquisitions.
Perhaps the most notable case is that of Planetary Resources. The company, which was backed by investors such as Google’s Larry Page, intended to set up fuel depot in space by 2020. Instead, the year saw the business’ hardware assets sold off.
Finally, there is agromining. This relies on a natural process called phytomining. In short, this process sees plants absorb metals from the soil in which they are grown. The theory is that this can be used to extract metals in an environmentally friendly way.
The process has yet to be adopted on a large scale. However, backers such as environmental agronomist Rufus Chaney insist that it is a viable method of extracting high value metals such as gold, nickel and cobalt.
Is green mining viable?
There is some contention over whether mining can actually be considered ‘green’. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), which is a network of European environmental organisations, called green mining a “myth” in October. Instead, the organisation argued that we simply need to learn to cut down our use of resources.
EEB associate policy officer for environmental justice, DiegoMarin, said:
“Recognising that we cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis means that we need to stop the growth frenzy. It is as if current policies were driving a bus toward a cliff edge and the passengers were arguing about whether the bus should run on electricity or fossil fuels, when the more urgent question we should be asking is how we can stop the bus from plummeting down the cliff in the first place.”
One of the problems here is that some experts argue that extraction of metals will have to escalate in order for our society to adapt to a net zero world. For example, the EEB says demand for batteries for things like electric vehicles will increase the European Union’s demand for lithium by almost 6,000% by 2050.
Cobalt, Nickel, Neodymium, dysprosium and copper are among the other metals which could face sharp spikes in demand as electric vehicles become more popular. However, while these metals might be extracted for green purposes, it remains to be seen whether the methods employed can ever qualify as ‘green’.