Environmentalists like to argue that oil and gas are harmful to the planet, that their sources are drying up, and that “clean” green energy is the way of the future. However, more studies are finding that green energy is far from harmless to the environment. In fact, it may actually be more harmful than traditional energy sources.
This is because the batteries that run “clean” energy hybrids, electric cars, and other related products are made up of rare earth elements (REEs). REEs consist of 15 periodic elements of the lanthanide group, along with scandium and yttrium. These metals are in nearly all batteries due to their unique properties.
According to an EPA report, because REEs are generally concentrated evenly throughout the Earth’s crust, there are few locations where they can be economically mined. That doesn’t mean, however, that a determined government would be unable to gain a monopoly over REEs. Or that REEs would not require extensive mining and refining.
While the United States controlled the REE industry up until 1985, in recent years, China has taken over. By some accounts, it now produces 95% of all REEs. China managed to gain control by flooding the market with cheap REEs, due to large high-quality reserves and low labor costs. Since then, China has sent the cost of REE products — such as fluorescent light bulbs — soaring. The United States is trying to regain its dominance, and American producers have received permission to conduct exploratory drilling for heavy metals. Currently Mountain Pass mine in California is the only mine that has been used for heavy metal mining. Government and industry have set their sights on the Bokan Mountains in Alaska, Diamond Creek in Idaho, and the Bear Lodge Mountains in Wyoming as other potential mining locations.
Of course, even if the race between China and the U.S. to dominate the REE industry does not result an in international crisis, there is still the matter of REEs’ environmental cost. Preparing REEs for consumer use is a costly and toxic process. First, each element must be extracted from the earth. Then the REE goes through chemical processing, disposal of contaminants, and transportation. Chinese production has resulted in large amounts of harmful gas, as well as large amounts of solid and liquid waste. Once these toxins have been released into the environment, they can rapidly spread through the air, soil, and water. A few months ago, the Chinese government shut down REE production to address the alarming levels of toxins in the environment, often from small REE producers who had little to no oversight. However, it remains to be seen whether China will be able to fix all of its problems — or whether it is even possible to create an environmentally friendly refining process.
The problems above do not even touch upon what happens when “clean” batteries wear out and how they are disposed. The nickel in these hybrid batteries can leak into the environment, creating health problems for local residents.
So let’s see: the leading environmentalist arguments against the oil and gas industry are: extraction is harmful for the environment, oil is becoming increasingly rare and dependence on oil forces us to rely upon other countries with whom we have tense relations. On the other hand, when we consider REEs, we can say that their extraction is harmful for the environment, they are becoming increasingly rare and dependence on REEs forces us to rely upon other countries with whom we have tense relations. After all that, we still have the environmental hazards that result from disposal.
With all that coming from “green” energy, maybe it’s time to give “traditional” energy another chance!!