MAC: Mines and Communities

Miners in a fix over climate change

Published by MAC on 2006-09-16

Miners in a fix over climate change

16th September 2006

While their operations contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, mining companies themselves also face mounting risks - and costs - from the impacts of climate change. Not surprisingly the industry identifies open-pit mining and tailings dams as especially vulnerable to heavier storms. However, instead of significantly moving away from large open-cast operations, companies are turning to "hedging" (such as weather based derivates), and vesting their hopes in new technical fixes to reduce the CO2 burden that mineral processing imposes on our planet.

Just last week, scientists at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim to have developed a CO2 "free" electrolysis process, presaging the production of iron as a "carbon-free material" to replace aluminium, which requires vast amounts of electrical power. MIT also says the new process will deliver "productivities" between five and ten times higher than aluminium.

The automotive industry has substantially increased its use of aluminium (by fifty per cent between 2000 and 2005) as a substitute for steel, largely in response to demands for lighter vehicles in order to reduce petrol consumption. Meanwhile precious little is said about the social and environmental toll from bauxite mining, alumina refining and aluminium smelting - the biggest industrial consumer of electricity, apart from uranium enrichment.

With the sights of aluminium companies firmly fixed on record profits as more "hybrid" automobiles are marketed, they will energtically fight their corner against any attempt by steel manufacturers to muscle back into the transport sector. No doubt we will see a debate similar to (though not identical with) that surrounding the promotion of nuclear power.

Uranium-burning in power plants is also widely touted as making virtually no contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. But opponents claim that the construction of these massive edifices and of the mines which serve them carry their own high carbon costs. (Not to mention the dangers from radiation at the extraction or waste disposal stages.)

Iron and steel are recycled and re-used in largr quantities than alumininum; arguably its mining is less environmentally damaging than that of bauxite. Certainly the demand for electricity used in steel manufacure is proportionately far less than that for the so-called "green metal".

As for the MIT dream that steel can shed its dirty image and become "carbon free", many caveats must be entered at this stage: not least that new technical fixes for the problems associated with the minerals industry rarely, if ever, fulfil promises made by their advocates. Also, in this case the research was sponsored by a US agency whose goal is to increase the global competitiveness of US steel . [Comment by Nostromo Research, London, September 15 2006]

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