Monday, October 19, 2009

Making Sure Green Technology Is Green

We already know that it's becoming harder and harder to satisfy the world's thirst for oil. In addition, with the rise of China's economy, the world is rapidly becoming aware that resources for all the new technology being developed, including some parts of green technology, may not be adequate to meet demand in the coming years. Today's technology often requires rare earth metals that are not easy to come by. New sources of such metals, at a reasonable cost, are going to be needed. In some cases, old sources need to be revived.

Now in this post I'm pursuing a slightly odd story that requires a little background. Here's a story from last month in The New York Times:
Chinese officials said on Thursday that they would not entirely ban exports of two minerals vital to manufacturing hybrid cars, cellphones, large wind turbines, missiles and computer monitors, although they would tightly regulate production.

China produces more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of dysprosium and terbium, two rare minerals essential to recent breakthroughs in high-technology industries.

Although it's good that China is not going to tighten restrictions as much as originally thought, it should be noted that they are using their hard cash to acquire all kinds of resources throughout the world, including shares in various mines and oil facilities. The United States, Europe and other countries can hardly afford to be caught flat-footed. Fortunately, for the United States, there is an economically viable source for some of the rare minerals that are needed. Here's a story in the Los Angeles Times about a mine in California:
Fear of a shortage of rare-earth metals used in high-tech military and industrial products has spawned global efforts to reopen abandoned mines, including the formidable Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert.


...Molycorp Minerals in Colorado, has just begun a two-year effort to restore Mountain Pass to its former role as a leading global producer. Those plans were given a boost recently amid fears that China was poised to ban exports of some of the scarcer rare-earth metals and to sharply limit shipments of others.

Effort to restore? Uh-oh. In such cases, it's best to read the rest of the article. Down further we learn that Mountain Pass Mine was closed in 2002 for environmental reasons. Before we go further, let's stop and think for a moment. If 99% of some of these minerals are mined in China and the price on those minerals is acceptable to various corporations, what are the odds that China's famous mine has environmental problems as well? And what are the odds that at least some companies who buy from the Chinese are aware that the Chinese mine has environmental problems? Ah, but we still, for the most part, live in an era of laissez-faire capitalism. Anything goes.

Fortunately, there are people concerned about the environment in the U.S. (and more so in some states). So what was the problem with Mountain Pass? Here's an informative article from David Danelski in February 2009:
...while the mine was producing vital elements, it also was polluting the soil and groundwater.

Wastewater from processing the rare earths was pumped to unlined evaporation ponds, where nitrates and other salts leached into underground water on both sides of Mountain Pass...


Unocal owned the mine from 1976 to 2005. In the 1980s, the company began piping wastewater as far as 14 miles to evaporation ponds on or near Ivanpah Dry Lake, east of Interstate 15 near Nevada.

The pipeline repeatedly ruptured during cleaning operations to remove mineral deposits called scale. The scale is radioactive because of the presence of thorium and radium, which occur naturally in the rare earth ore.


In all, about 600,000 gallons of radiological and other hazardous waste flowed onto the desert floor, according to federal authorities.

Again, visualize what is probably happening at that mine in China! But, hey, their prices are good. Now it appears that the previous owner Unocal and the new owners of Mountain Pass decided to clean up the mining operation. They have passed environmental inspections. They have made various improvements, etc., etc. This is all to the good. Rare earth metals have a role to play in green technology and it's that much less embarrassment if Mountain Pass is cleaned up.

But I keep thinking of that radioactive pipeline. Obviously it has to be taken apart and disposed of and that apparently is happening. Pipelines interest me because I had a great-uncle who built a natural gas pipeline from Wichita, Kansas to Chicago back some eighty years ago. A lot of Eurasia politics now revolve around pipelines running from Western Europe to Russia and from Russia to China and along many other routes as well. Who cleans those pipelines? Who cleans the spills? Anyone?

If you're still with me, bear with me a little longer. I know, it's an odd subject today! But I also keep thinking of the British Petroleum pipeline in Alaska that became a major polluter along its route because of improper maintenance. At the time, the news was a bit ironic since the then president of British Petroleum, what's his name, had a major reputation for being green. The green tag turned out to be more hype that reality.

Of course those of us who have noticed ads by the oil companies since the first oil shortages of the 70s have always been skeptical of their claims of how green and environmentally concerned they are. Sometimes, there's some truth to their claims, but most times whatever little good oil companies do for the environment has been more than offset by so many other things they do that are not good. The Exxon Valdez obviously comes to mind. Even if global warming were not a concern, pollution by companies dealing with fossil fuels has been a reality long before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The oil companies of course are not alone. Over this past weekend, ads have been appearing for Clean Coal. As it happens, there currently is no such thing as clean coal. If one tweaks definitions and ignores how much cleaner natural gas and even light sweet crude are (not to mention solar and wind energy), there is such a thing as cleaner coal—barely. And there is a potential, at considerable expense, for perhaps sequestering the carbon dioxide and other pollutants put out by coal. But coal is the dirtiest fuel there is. Here's what Greenpeace says:
“Clean coal” is the industry’s attempt to “clean up” its dirty image – the industry’s greenwash buzzword. It is not a new type of coal.

“Clean coal” technology (CCT) refers to technologies intended to reduce pollution. But no coal-fired power plants are truly ‘clean’.

“Clean coal” methods only move pollutants from one waste stream to another which are then still released into the environment. Any time coal is burnt, contaminants are released and they have to go somewhere. They can be released via the fly ash, the gaseous air emissions, water outflow or the ash left at the bottom after burning. Ultimately, they still end up polluting the environment.

The article continues on making other points against clean coal. Ah, yes, Greenpeace is that leftist whale-hugging environmental group. So, what does a moderate-conservative magazine like Time magazine say?
If you paid any attention to last year's Presidential campaign, you'll remember ads touting the benefits of "clean coal" power, sponsored by the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. (The ads featured lumps of coal plugged into an electrical cord.) Designed in part to respond to the growing green campaign against coal power — which accounts for about 30% of U.S. carbon emissions — the ads promised high-tech and eventually carbon-free power, emphasizing coal's low cost compared to alternatives, its abundance in America and its cleanliness.

The "clean coal" campaign was always more PR than reality — currently there's no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be. But now the idea of clean coal might be truly dead, buried beneath the 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash that on Dec. 22 burst through a dike next to the Kingston coal plant in the Tennessee Valley and blanketed several hundred acres of land, destroying nearby houses. The accident — which released 100 times more waste than the Exxon Valdez disaster — has polluted the waterways of Harriman, Tenn., with potentially dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury, and left much of the town uninhabitable.

I guess the coal industry didn't place enough ads in Time. I shouldn't be sarcastic though. Coal has a friend in oil and it might not be much to ask for Exxon or Aramco to buy a major share of Time Warner.

I started this post by mentioning China. When people talk about limiting coal by turning to alternative energy, the cynics point to China. How will China's use of coal be limited? The statistics, in fact, are grim. According to Worldwatch, China's consumption of coal has more than doubled in the last nine years and now exceeds that of the United States.

I suspect, however, that the more the U.S. switches to green technology, the more China and other developing economies will follow. There are signs that this may already be happening. Unlike many members of Congress, the Chinese leadership seems aware that the age of abundant fossil fuels is coming to an end sooner than expected. We will continue to use fossil fuels for some years to come. It's unavoidable because of the time it will take to build an infrastructure based on alternative energies. But, if we're smart, healthy change will come, though not without troubles that we have already set in motion. If we continue to blunder and put off what needs to be done, we will undoubtedly face catastrophes we cannot fully appreciate at this time.

In the end, much will depends on the American people and how much they're truly paying attention. For now, I keep thinking of those pipelines and how much work it takes to keep them functional. I saw a program recently on the Monterey Aquarium in California. The aquarium brings in sea water by pipeline from Monterey Bay. It takes work to keep things from growing at the entrance to the pipeline as well as inside its walls. Is this relevant? It depends. The world's population exceeds 6.6 billion people and water is another resource that is getting scarce as populations increase and as many areas of the world turn into desert from overuse. Where will future water come from? From the sea through desalination?

In California, such a desalination facility has opened in Carlsbad, a city a few miles north of San Diego. Such facilities will need pipelines and they too will have to take environmental concerns into consideration if we are to avoid even further problems. Even green technology is going to require careful environmental thinking—but the promise of green technology is real.

And the alternative, as we are finding, has probably already set in motion catastrophes that will take enormous resilience and resourcefulness to overcome. It is only the year 2009 and the tasks for the rest of the 21st century are already difficult. Today, the task immediately at hand is to avoid making the problems insurmountable. A small step in that direction is making sure green technology is green.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I followed you all the way to the end. My thought is still, if Mountain Pass 'cleans up', how will it not get dirty again? Who is watch-dogging that proceedure? I'm all for producing rare earth here at home, but only if we can keep it clean.

5:12 PM  

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