Tag Archives: metals

The Hysteria of H.R. 761

The authors of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (H.R. 761) complain that we depend on China — can you believe it? China! — for rare earth minerals that are “vital to job creation, American economic competitiveness and national security.” But the Act, which passed in a House Committee on Natural Resources vote on May 15, 2013 with bipartisan support, will effectively ease regulation of foreign multinational mining companies operating in the United States, including those who mine here and market U.S. minerals in — yes, you guessed it — China.

Bureaucratic delay puts “good-paying mining jobs…at the mercy of foreign sources,” according to the Act. Our security and prosperity are threatened from without, so we need to protect ourselves from within; and we are asked to believe that the surest way to do that is to replace careful assessment and regulatory oversight of risky mining operations with new efficiencies. The Act laments the weight of “onerous government red tape”: if only Atlas would shrug.

The authors of this act do not even try to disguise their contempt for the role of government in regulating industry and the “environmentally responsible development” they purport to uphold. Citing a report by international mining consultancy Behre Dolbear Group (with offices in Beijing, Chicago, Guadalajara, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, among other places, where, presumably, its teams of advisors and engineers steadfastly champion the strategic and economic interests of the United States), they note that “the United States ranks last with Papua New Guinea out of twenty-five major mining countries in permitting delays, and towards the bottom regarding government take and social issues affecting mining.”

That last clause about “government take” and “social issues affecting mining” gets sneaked into the sentence here without consideration for the social effects mining operations have: society here is just in the way of business and taxes or takings are just a burden. This is reckless thinking, but it’s carefully smuggled into discussions of the Act with the distracting reference to Papua New Guinea. That line snorts mockery and imperial contempt, and it’s intended to shame and prompt outrage — like the newspaper headlines the ranking inspired: The Wall Street Journal: “U.S., Papua New Guinea at Bottom of List for Mining Permit Delays.” Mineweb: “Protracted Permitting Delays Depress U.S. Mine Investment.” The Hill: “U.S. Wins Race to the Bottom on Mining Permits — Again.” The comparison with Papua even figured into an article by M.D. Kittle in the Wisconsin Reporter: “Wake Up, Environmentalists: Your Cell Phone Was Mined Somewhere Else.”

Needless to say, these newspaper discussions aren’t balanced by any appreciation of the complex social, environmental and human rights issues around mining in Papua New Guinea (or the United States). The promoters of H.R. 761 certainly aren’t going to invite debate on the situation in Papua — where growth in the mining sector has brought corruption, violence, and environmental devastation. Their intention is clear: they want to hold up Papua as one of those foreign and dirty places, a slow, corrupt and silly place, a little, squalid, underdeveloped and dark place. Certainly not an efficient place.

Lest the Chinese enslave us or we end up living like pygmies in grass huts, we have to make it easier for big mining companies to give Americans jobs. That is the hysteria just under the surface of H.R. 761. The legislation is so broadly and poorly written, and either so cynical or so ill-conceived, that any mining operation will be able to claim its protection from regulatory oversight. The “strategic and critical” exemption from government interference and delay will be repeatedly invoked, as it was by Republican Chip Cravaak in 2011, who at the time represented Minnesota’s 8th district in the U.S. House.

Before his defeat in 2012, Cravaak advanced the claim that exploiting the copper and nickel resources of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota would be “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” According to a 1978 law, those areas can only be mined in case of national emergency; but Polymet, a Canadian company, has been working since 2006 to obtain permits for an open pit mine in Superior National Forest. They negotiated a land exchange and loan scheme to get around the prohibition. Cravaak waved the stars and stripes for them on the Hill. Meanwhile, Toronto-based Polymet made a deal with the Swiss company Glencore to sell its American metals on the global market. At the time, Elanne Palcich noted, demand was especially strong in China and India.

Reading Orwell On Mining and the Metabolism of Civilization

I just finished George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. I wanted to track down the passage about mining and the “metabolism” of civilization that Shefa Siegel refers to in his essay on “The Missing Ethics of Mining” (which I quoted at length in a previous post). It comes early in the book, at the start of chapter two:

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble.

There is some uncertainty about the reference to Chesterton here. The editors of one anthology point to a debate about coal mining between Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. Mark Bernstein and Scott Rosenberg trace the reference to Chesterton’s assertion that civilization “is founded upon abstractions”. I like this better. Pace Chesterton, Orwell anchors civilization in the dark rock world below — the “necessary counterpart of our world above” — and in the hard work of the miners he witnesses: the stooping, the “travelling,” the dust, the deafening noise and the grimy air, the excruciating shovel work at the coal face, which the miners or “fillers” perform kneeling, and in hot, stuffy, dirty cramped spaces, stripped to the waist, sometimes down to their drawers, for 7 hours at a stretch.

Of course what Orwell wrote of coal in the 1930s could now easily be said of oil and gas, and, as Siegel would have it, many minerals as well — minerals we do not see or even give a moment’s thought, but which, like oil and gas, are extracted from the earth (and now, with rare earth metals, from the sea-bottom) at great hazard and great cost. The metabolism of the world (now the whole world, not just the West) has changed, as well as the materials that we now require to keep things up and running. That’s largely because things have changed.

That ordinary expression deserves some careful consideration. It’s safe to say that, although things have changed, we are, for the most part, blithely unaware of the hard, dirty world on which the things that make up our world depend. Or at least we prefer to act as if we are.

We still tend to believe, or I should say we would like to believe that that which does not appear grimy somehow comes into the world clean, the outcome of a great idea, the product of abstraction or an innovative approach, a flash of insight drawn on a cocktail napkin. That belief in the power of great ideas to make up the things of this world makes us especially ill equipped and nowhere near ready to deal with the increasing scarcity of the resources on which the shiny, fast world of things depends.

Postscript: