Yesterday’s post about Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on China belongs to one strand of a larger story that’s coming into focus. It’s a story about China and human rights, to be sure, but also about what role human rights issues will play in the transition to renewables and in the politics of the transition.
House Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee have already cited reports of human rights abuses in China and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (where Chinese companies control cobalt mining operations) as an argument for boosting extraction of critical minerals here in the US. As the gavel passes in the coming year, their position is likely to attract even more support.
In fact, the 118th Congress could see the emergence of a Green Right coalition: hawkish on China, touting the magic of markets, openly hostile to the administrative state, and more interested in achieving energy dominance (to borrow a phrase from the Trump years) than in paying lip service to a just transition (as some Democrats do). The incoming Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, plans to “outcompete China on climate:” that phrase sums up a whole political and geopolitical agenda.
The program could be a political winner: anti-China, pro-growth, industry-captured climate policy may accelerate organized labor’s rightward drift; and the Green Right may even enjoy an uneasy honeymoon period with more left-leaning advocates of permitting reform.
Over the past year or so, as Joe Manchin tried but failed to advance his permitting deal, reformers have shown themselves ready to take an axe to environmental law, they have regularly dismissed public opposition as NIMBY whining, and some of them have done more public advocacy for extractive industry than seasoned lobbyists and flacks could ever dream of doing.
Asked this morning about Republican plans to create a Select Committee on China in the coming year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that there is already a bipartisan, bi-cameral committee on China and made this “statement” about human rights.
Corporate America has [been] largely responsible for the situation we’re in, in terms of the trade deficit and the rest…but from a standpoint of values, from the standpoint of economy, and from the standpoint of security, China poses a challenge to us….We want to work together on climate issues and the rest, but, but we cannot have our workers disadvantaged by China having prison labor manufacture products or contribute to the manufacture of products that just provide unfair competition for us….My statement is that if we refuse to talk about human rights in China because of economic issues, we lose all moral authority to talk about human rights anyplace in the world.
Predictably enough, the press conference moved on quickly from there. A follow-up question on legislation to ban TikTok failed to elicit anything more on US economic interests and human rights in China. Here’s video of the moment:
When presented with an opportunity to review human rights risks at a major hydropower plant in Chile, the Development Finance Corporation and affiliated international development banks reacted defensively and responded with boilerplate.
In a July post, I set out some context for records I received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made to the Development Finance Corporation. It’s probably best to review that post before reading this follow up. Briefly, in August 2020, five UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights sent a detailed letter to DFC CEO Adam Boehler, warning of serious human rights risks at Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile. The DFC is a major funder of the project.
A second set of responsive records, which DFC tells me is the final release, arrived yesterday. I’ve put them online here.
These are emails circulating within DFC and with other members of the Alto Maipo Lender Group in August and September, 2020, in response to the rapporteurs’ letter. The Santiago office of Norwegian bank DNB apparently received the letter first, on 18 August 2020, and emailed others in the Lender Group to alert them that it was on its way.
I don’t know what else the Office of Investment Policy (OIP) had heard about the Alto Maipo project before receiving Uauy’s email, or what exactly prompted OIP’s Jean Kim to remark “It Just keeps on coming.” Maybe Alto Maipo was already a source of concern or bureaucratic headaches, or maybe (given the email was sent at 8PM) it was just an especially busy day at the office.
The correspondence that follows Jean Kim’s email is pretty thoroughly redacted, making it difficult to assess the DFC response, but a few things are tolerably clear.
As suggested by Uauy’s email, DFC, DNB, International Finance Corporation, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other members of the Lender Group (like Germany’s KfW Development Bank and Brazil’s Banco Itau) will coordinate their response to the UN letter. The Lender Group’s Independent Environmental Consultant, ERM, will lead this effort.
ERM organizes a call to bring everyone up to speed, and after the call, a Social Risk Officer at DFC emails colleagues with a summary of the letter’s contents: “apparently the letter is claiming that the Project did not complete FPIC [Free, Prior and Informed Consent, as established in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], amongst 5 other comments.” The 26 August chain of correspondence also includes a summary of a UN press release on the topic, with this quotation called out in bold:
“The Chilean Government would not be fulfilling its international human rights obligations if it prioritises economic development projects over the human rights to water and health,” said Léo Heller, UN special rapporteur on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation. He referred specifically to the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, southeast of the capital, Santiago, and the avocado business in Petorca province in the Valparaiso, region north of Santiago.
Heller focuses his remarks on the Chilean government’s obligations to protect human rights. He goes on to suggest that steps taken by the government have been inadequate:
“Not only may this project reduce the main source of drinking water for residents of Santiago de Chile, it could also make air pollution in the capital worse,” Heller said, by damaging the “green corridor” of the Maipo River basin that has helped offset pollution.
During implementation of the project, which is due to come online in December, “although the Government has investigated damages to the environment no effective measure was taken to guarantee the human right to water for people affected by this megaproject”, Heller said.
There is clearly a role — or an opportunity — for the Lender Group to help the Chilean government address these challenges. As funders, the DFC and the Lender Group have a shared, concomitant responsibility to respect human rights in the economic development projects they back; to this end, DFC has its own environmental and human rights policies and compliance procedures in place.
But by September 4, the DFC appears to have assumed a defensive posture. “The letter,” writes Kate Dunbar of the Office of Investment Policy, “has reiterated key issues claimed by the opposition group throughout the Project.” She no doubt has in mind the group — “the opposition” — led by the Center for International Environmental Law, the Chilean NGO Ecosistemas, and Coordinadora No Alto Maipo. These organizations have been monitoring the project and raising concerns over human rights due diligence since its inception.
By September 21st, as the deadline for responding to the letter approaches, this defensive stance has hardened among some members of the Lender Group: the UN letter “contains a series of allegations than contain with [sic] no support whatsoever,” writes one member of the International Development Bank, dismissively. A strategy takes shape:
DNB is on board with the suggestion that the Lender Group keep the response non-confrontational, “high level and pointing to public information and bank’s general procedures.” ERM produces a draft and revisions follow, but all of that is redacted.
It’s hard to say how much these redactions could matter. Overall, the impression is that the Lender Group had decided, by late September, to stonewall. If that impression is mistaken, I welcome corrections.
The report includes lots of information about mining in the Lake Superior region that deserves consideration. The report also notes: “The cumulative impact of mines on the ecological integrity of Lake Superior is not well understood.”
Reports of Latvian-American financier and Putin critic Dan Rapoport’s death are rife with contradictions and uncertainties. He fell, or jumped, or was pushed from a building on August 14th in Washington, DC. When Metropolitan Police responded to reports of a “jumper,” they found Rapoport dead in front of his apartment building, wearing orange flip-flops and a black hat and carrying his phone, car keys, and $2,620 in cash.
Entertainment journalist Yuniya Pugacheva was first to report Rapoport’s death, claiming that he had abandoned his dog Boy in a nearby park with a suicide note and some money; Rapoport’s wife Alyona disputes Pugacheva’s account along with the allegation that she and her husband were on the outs and that Dan had been spotted in London in the company of other women.
Alyona is not the only one who doubts it was suicide. Friends of Rapoport have cast doubt on Pugacheva’s account. He was, after all, well known for his criticism of Putin, his support for Alexy Navalny, and his association with other Putin opponents, such as Vladimir Ashurkov, Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
I share these suspicions but I don’t pretend to have any special knowledge or insights into Rapoport’s death. I can, however, speak to some of the sloppy reporting of the story, especially as it concerns Rapoport’s ownership of a mansion at 2449 Tracy Place NW in Washington DC.
That’s the same Kalorama mansion I’ve written about before (e.g., here, here, and here), in connection with Antofagasta’s plans to mine near the Boundary Waters.
Nearly all of the reporting I’ve seen — not just the tabloids, but publications like the Daily Beast and National Review — claims that Rapoport sold his mansion to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in 2016.
That is simply untrue. And now this untruth has been copied, pasted, translated, and spread around the world.
I wrote a long Twitter thread on the subject. You can pick it up here.
The true story of the Kalorama mansion is so much crazier than this report makes it out to be: its transfer to Luksic, a foreign emolument, a failed bid to mine near the Boundary Waters, corruption at the highest levels of US federal agencies.
I’ve also revised Rapoport’s Wikipedia page — my attempt to create some kind of buffer against this piece of mis- or dis-information. Here’s the rewrite:
This fact check will not do much to stem the tide of sloppy clickbait journalism, I know, but why let it stand? Reaching for scandal, lazy reporters overlook corruption. They erase the true story of how Antofagasta tried to renew its mining leases near the Boundary Waters, or how the owner of that Chilean mining company purchased a luxury property in Washington, DC right after Trump’s 2016 election, then rented it to the new president’s daughter and son-in-law. They give Antofagasta, Andronico Luksic Craig, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner a pass.
The Kalorama story has worked this way since 2017, as I remarked on Twitter. Even when it gets the facts right, reporting wants to insinuate that something must be amiss at 2449 Tracy Place NW, but it fails to say what, exactly, and it rarely addresses the serious questions about ethics, foreign emoluments, and government corruption this story presents.
Update, 26 November 2022: having completed its autopsy, the DC medical examiner’s office has listed the cause of Rapoport’s “sudden” death as “undetermined.”
Before the Trump years, few Americans had heard of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta plc or the powerful Luksic family who control it. Today, Antofagasta’s controversial plan to mine copper and nickel on the edge of the Boundary Waters and the scandals associated with it are not exactly common knowledge, but at least better known. Congressional hearings, activism, and investigative reporting helped bring the previous administration’s reckless, clumsy, and corrupt handling of Antofagasta’s permits into focus. (Maybe some of the records I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act helped, too.) But despite steps taken by the Biden administration to set right some of what the Trump administration did wrong in this case, the Antofagasta file is far from closed. The lobbying for reversals and permits continues apace* and important aspects of the story are still obscure.
A FOIA request I made on June 3, 2021 promises to shed some light on one aspect of the story, maybe nothing more than a minor detail, involving the Development Finance Corporation. The first set of records arrived last Friday. Nothing much so far, just some innocuous looking office email correspondence, but I’ve posted the records on documentcloud and will continue to put them up as they arrive. Here, I just want to set these records in context.
The story takes us back to 2013, the first year of Obama’s second term. That’s when Twin Metals Minnesota filed its mineral lease renewal application at the center of the current Boundary Waters controversy, and it’s also when the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, made a $250 million investment in the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile. At the time, the Luksic Group, owners of Antofagasta plc, held a 40 percent share in the mega-project.
This looks like nothing more than a coincidence. Antofagasta would not formally acquire Twin Metals until 2015; and the company would decide to get out of Alto Maipo in 2016 (though it took until 2020 to divest fully from the project). At most, the OPIC deal might have helped persuade Antofagasta that the Obama administration would look favorably on its North American plans.
In 2018, the Development Finance Corporation, or DFC, took over the OPIC portfolio of projects, investments that aim to alleviate poverty, combat corruption, and promote sustainable as well as low-carbon and no-carbon development. DFC also shares OPIC’s stated commitment to “respect the environment, human rights, and workers rights.” Its Environmental and Social Policy and Procedures document, produced in July 2020, shows remarkably little sign of the crude transactionalism that dominated foreign affairs, including foreign aid and investment, during the Trump administration.
Just one month later, on August 18, 2020, DFC’s statements of principle would be put to the test. The DFC was informed of serious human rights challenges at Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project. Five UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights sent a five page letter to Adam Boehler, Jared Kushner’s friend and college roommate and the Trump-appointed CEO of the Development Finance Corporation, warning of possible human rights violations at Alto Maipo.
The letter is included as an Annex in written comments for the June 9, 2021 meeting of the DFC.
The UN Rapporteurs express concern that the Alto Maipo project hoards water for mining interests, hurts local communities, and is proceeding without adequate concern for human rights and the environment. The letter says the mega-project would reduce “the availability of water for human consumption and domestic use, in contexts already characterized by climate change and water scarcity.” The shortages could also affect subsistence agriculture, “resulting in violations of the right to food and other rights related to the right to an adequate standard of living.” The project appears to be proceeding without participation of the affected communities and with significant damage to biodiversity and the environment, and “multiple human rights violations” are likely to result.
Unable to find Boehler’s response to these claims, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “all DFC communications regarding the 18 August 2020 letter from UN Special Rapporteurs to DFC CEO Adam Boehler regarding the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile, including any and all communications to or from Mr. Boehler about the topic.” The few records included in the first FOIA production do not include anything from Boehler; they are a small set of emails to and from Catherine Andrade, DFC Corporate Secretary, in preparation for the June 9, 2021 DFC Board Public Hearing.
Alto Maipo was on the agenda for the day, as it was again at this year’s meeting. Groups that have monitored human rights and environmental issues around Alto Maipo were slated to participate: Juan Pablo Orrego, president of the organization Ecosistemas, and Carla Garcia Zendejas from the Center for International Environmental Law were among the presenters. Observers included representatives of BNP Paribas, Oxfam, US Small Business Administration, Accountability Council, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
All indications are that this was a meeting Boehler’s DFC wasn’t especially eager to have. In April 2020, the DFC declared itself exempt from the Sunshine Act, which requires federal agencies to open meetings for public observation.
In response, the Center for Biological Diversity and other plaintiffs sued:
They say the rule change means that [DFC] no longer faces any obligation to provide communities with information that could later impact their environments and livelihoods.
The Center for International Environmental Law, a co-plaintiff on the suit, spent years working with communities affected by the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, which Chilean activists argue would threaten the drinking supply of more than 6 million people in the Santiago Metropolitan Region. The OPIC granted $250 million in funding to the project in 2013.
“For many years, we worked to hold OPIC…accountable,” Carla Garcia Zendejas, the organization’s director of people, land and resources, said in an email, “ensuring that communities affected by the institution were able to secure access to information regarding the institution’s decision-making processes and to utilize the accountability mechanism when adversely affected….
Garcia Zendejas emphasized that the DFC’s new exemption “had very practical implications for communities on the ground who are seeking information about the projects that could upend their lives.”
Bill Snape, Senior Counsel of the Center for Biological Diversity, added that he could see little reason for the agency to try to exempt itself from the Sunshine Act, “unless you have things to hide.” The plaintiffs did not prevail, however, and in February of this year, Judge Christopher Cooper granted DFC’s motion to dismiss, writing that the Sunshine Act does not apply to the DFC. For now, at least, FOIA does.
* I looked at Q2 2022 lobbying for the Twin Metals project here:
Antofagasta is on track to spend a million dollars this year on lobbying for its expired mining leases in northeastern Minnesota.
There was some confusion around the testimony of Julie Padilla, Twin Metals’ Chief Regulatory Officer, at yesterday’s House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on HR 2794, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act.
Padilla originally submitted testimony stating unequivocally that “there is no potential for acid rock drainage.” Full stop. The emphasis on “no” is hers:
She then revised or, as she put it, “reframed” her written testimony to omit that sentence.
In her oral testimony, Padilla appeared to stick by her original statement, saying several times that the Twin Metals mine would pose “no” risk — “zero” risk — of acid mine drainage. Note when you are watching her testimony, however, that she is careful to qualify her original “no risk” blanket statement by adding that there is “no risk of acid rock drainage to the Boundary Waters from this project. There is zero risk to the Boundary Waters from acid rock drainage from this project.” I don’t see how that rewording safeguards the original claim, except that it allows for acid rock drainage outside the Boundary Waters.
Supporters of the McCollum bill asked about the inconsistencies and questioned Padilla’s motives, with Betty McCollum saying that Padilla “deliberately” removed the blanket statement. Padilla insisted the sentence was not eliminated, just “reframed,” and acted surprised by the contention. Here are the key exchanges:
Padilla’s complete original written testimony is here. So far, the revised — or “reframed” — testimony has not yet been posted.
The b(5) FOIA redactions I contested back in November have all been released in full. I’ve added these unredacted documents to the collection of records from my Boundary Waters FOIA case on documentcloud.
There are no earthshaking revelations here. The emails sent from David Bernhardt’s iPhone turn out to have been sent from his official email account; I suspected the agency might have redacted them to cover his use of a personal account. The redacted paragraphs in the leasing renewal documents from 1987-2005 concern Forest Service consent (or “no objection”) to the lease renewals, with some stipulations about an unresolved reclamation issue. These were public records of past decisions that were treated as if they held closely-guarded secrets.
Then there is the unredacted version of the Twin Metals Talking Points put together by Gary Lawkowski, Counselor to Solicitor Daniel Jorjani and fellow Koch network alumnus. These Talking Points were to accompany the Jorjani M-Opinion, the legal memo that determined Chilean mining giant Antofagasta plc had a non-discretionary right to renewal of its leases near the Boundary Waters. I talked a little about this redaction in a 2020 FOIA webinar. If there is a showpiece among these unredacted documents, this is it:
It’s worth asking why any of this — the letters, the email address, the Talking Points — was redacted in the first place. In previous posts I characterized these assertions of privilege as heavy handed. Interior misused, or abused, Exemption 5 redactions. Some look like a hamfisted effort to protect political appointees, like the full redaction of Lawkowksi’s Talking Points.
Why were these redacted? The Talking Points position the Twin Metals project as a source of critical minerals, criticize the Obama administration, and argue that the Jorjani reversal is “a victory for the rule of law by affirming that the government means what it says when it enters into contracts.” That last claim may be hyperbolical, but hyperbole hardly merits a coverup, and the Talking Points were written for public consumption. Trump himself would repeat the criticism of the Obama administration when he spoke in Duluth. Arguments about regulatory certainty are common enough and would have gotten a friendly reception in the business press. And as we saw just last week, when President Biden issued an executive order and the Senate held a hearing on critical minerals, there is plenty of bipartisan support for onshoring critical minerals production.
So why the sensitivity around Lawkowski’s arguments? Maybe this is just a case of a FOIA reviewer applying Exemption 5 indiscriminately. But why not roll out these talking points, and try to build public consensus around them? I can only guess that it was some mixture of incompetence, or an inability to coordinate a coherent critical minerals strategy (remember infrastructure week?), and arrogance: a sense that they didn’t owe the public explanations.
There is a world in which this could have been a political win, had the administration taken the time to build public support and rally Congressional allies around mining for the energy transition, or a new energy mix, and — this is the kicker — had it found a more legitimate route forward for the lease renewals. Instead, at every turn, they schemed behind closed doors, and they failed.
Last week, the Biden administration determined that Antofagasta plc’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters had been improperly renewed in 2019.
Principal Deputy Solicitor of the Interior Ann Marie Bledsoe Downs found that changes made to the Bureau of Land Management’s standard lease form were irregular and amounted to giving the Chilean firm “special treatment.” She also withdrew the “flawed” Jorjani M-Opinion, M-37049; its specious claim that Antofagasta had a “non-discretionary right” to renewal of its leases, she wrote, “spurred the improper renewal decisions.” The Jorjani opinion led the agencies into a procedural and legal morass.
“As a consequence of the Jorjani M-Opinion,” Bledsoe Downs writes, the Department of the Interior ignored or sidestepped the Forest Service’s statutory consent authority. Jorjani all but eliminated this authority and swept aside the fact that the Forest Service did not consent to a renewal of the leases back in December of 2016. That determination was invalid, he claimed, because the mining company had a non-discretionary right to renewal. Not just the Forest Service, but “the United States” itself had no say. The leases had to be renewed; the Forest Service could make some stipulations, nothing more.
And if you follow the argument here that Interior ignored the Forest Service’s statutory consent authority, you have to ask: why did Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue allow that to happen?
A small batch of Boundary Waters documents that arrived last night — the 19th supplemental release of records compelled by my FOIA lawsuit against the Department of the Interior — does not shed much new light on how these decisions were taken. This is probably the last batch of records, with the exception, maybe, of those records whose redaction I am contesting.
These records are almost entirely redacted. Nothing but black. I added them to the collection on documentcloud anyway, here.
The new records include three (totally redacted) drafts of a BLM News Release announcing the reinstatement in 2018 of Antofagasta’s mineral leases.
They also include two fully redacted memos from Mitch Leverette, Acting Eastern States Director at the Bureau of Land Management, to Tony Tooke, Chief of the US Forest Service. Even the dates are redacted on these! But we know that they must have been written between September 2017 and March 2018, during Tooke’s brief term as Chief.
The dates, but not much more than the dates, are not redacted on two DOJ communications from Lisa Russell, Chief of the Natural Resources Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Russell’s July 10, 2018 memo is addressed to Karen Hawbecker in the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior; this is followed by a 14 page draft litigation report on the Voyageur v. United States and Friends of the Boundary Waters v. BLM cases. Those cases had just been filed. Another report, from Russell at DOJ to Jeffrey Prieto, General Counsel at USDA, dated January 18, 2017, deals with Franconia Minerals v. United States, the lawsuit brought by the mining company in September, 2016, claiming a right to renewal of the mineral leases.
Though their contents have been completely obliterated, these records still tell us a little something. Both Leverette at BLM and Russell at DOJ are consulting with the Forest Service; the memos may simply bring the Forest Service into the loop of the the legal work being done at these agencies; they might well address the critical issue of its statutory authority; and in Leverette’s case, at least, the memo might reiterate the Jorjani argument that the USFS 2016 non-consent determination was invalid. The redactions make it impossible to say for certain.
When it comes to the three drafts of the BLM News Release announcing the reinstatement of Antofagasta’s leases, we have very little to work with. The news release comes from Leverette’s Eastern States division. The headline in all three cases reads: “Bureau of Land Management reinstates Minnesota mineral leases. Consideration of application for renewal also re-started.” All three drafts are marked “for immediate release.” While one of the drafts is dated May xx, 2018, two of the drafts are dated “February xx, 2018.”
The official date of the reinstatement was May 2, 2018, but we know from records I’ve previously obtained that the February draft of the news release caused a flurry of activity at the Department of Interior. For example:
The language requested by Leverette might well have been some legal justification of the reinstatement along the lines prescribed by Daniel Jorjani: Antofagasta’s leases could be reinstated because, due to a legal error, the Forest Service’s non-consent determination was invalid. Consider this paragraph from Leverette’s May 2, 2018 official Reinstatement Decision memo:
Because the BLM’s prior request for Forest Service consent was based on the legal error that the United States had discretion to decide whether to renew the leases, we informed the Forest Service that its December 2016 non-consent determination was not legally operative. The Forest Service has not objected to that conclusion.
This just leads me back to the question I asked on Twitter. Why didn’t the Forest Service object? Why didn’t it stand by its earlier conclusion? Why didn’t it make an effort to protect the integrity of the scientific study then underway? Or was there an objection that took from February to May to settle? Was that the subject of the two memos from Leverette to Tony Tooke? Did Tooke’s resignation in March 2018 help resolve the matter?
Of course, there are other explanations for the February-May delay. The federal bureaucracy is a slow-moving beast. Tooke was under siege in the last months of his career at the Forest Service and in no position to dictate terms. And, as Bledsoe Downs points out in a footnote to her legal memo, the decision to reinstate the leases was “concurred in by Joseph Balash, Dep’t of the Interior Assistant Sec’y for Land and Minerals Mgmt.” It may have taken from February to May of 2018 to obtain that concurrence.
What we do know for certain is that on May 2, 2018, on the very day the Bureau of Land Management reinstated these mineral leases, the CEO of Antofagasta plc met with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The pressure only mounted from that point on. Though Jorjani had asserted back in December of 2017 that the US Forest Service had no power to say whether the Chilean mining company’s leases should be renewed, the mining company, the agencies, the White House, and several members of Congress dedicated significant resources over the next year to making sure of that and getting Sonny Perdue to cave to their demands.
You can find all the Boundary Waters records I’ve received to date here.
Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.
Energy derived from sources like the sun, air, and water, on the other hand, is imbued with immense liberatory potential. In principle every house, farm, and factory could free itself from the grid by generating its own power. No longer would power lines and gigantic, leak prone tankers be needed for the transportation of energy; no longer would workers have to toil in underground mines or remote deserts or rough seas; there would be no need for the long supply chains required by fossil fuels. (Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, p. 102, emphasis mine)
Context makes it clear Ghosh is thinking of coal mining, oil fields, and offshore platforms when he dreams of a world where workers no longer toil. But in his reverie, Ghosh neglects an important and undeniable feature of renewable energy: it is mining intensive.
The IEA sees demand for critical minerals surging from 2020-2050 even as the demand for and value of coal drops. In green growth scenarios, workers will likely have to keep toiling in mines as they now do in Chile’s Atacama desert, the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the copper and nickel mines of South Asia, South America, or Siberia. The list of potential sacrifice zones will grow and could someday extend from American public lands to offshore oil platforms converted to deep-sea mining.
This observation is not an argument against the transition from fossil fuels. It’s just to say that right now there are no signs the shift to renewables will undo the resource curse. Extraction for global markets continues to exact a local toll: serious human rights violations, unremediated (or irremediable) environmental destruction, conflicts over water (which Ghosh himself mentions briefly in a list of “conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate,” p. 127), and social division. And for the foreseeable future, mineral supply chains will be nearly as long as those required by fossil fuels, strung across the globe and fraught with geopolitical tension.
A decisive shift from fossil fuels could see the end of the petro-dollar and the toppling of “global hierarchies of power,” as Ghosh imagines: “The liberatory potential of renewable energy has a very important international dimension as well: if adopted at scale it could transform, indeed revolutionize, the current global order” (p. 103). It could also precipitate another set of crises – environmental, humanitarian, and military — and it’s worth considering that eventuality.
Postscript, 20 January 2022: For more on the geopolitical risks of the energy transition, see Jason Bordoff and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “Green Upheaval The New Geopolitics of Energy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2022.