Why rush to renewables may create its own mining catastrophe – academics

A warning has been issued that the shift to renewable energy and the subsequent need for massive amounts of copper to be used in solar and wind farms could lead to a social and economic catastrophe.

Apr 08, 2021, updated Apr 08, 2021
The abandoned Bougainville copper mine

The abandoned Bougainville copper mine

Academics from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining and its Sustainable Minerals Institute said the benefits of clean energy were huge but it would also lead to a “supply crunch” for copper, which is used in solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and battery storage.

They said booming demand came as the mining industry was already facing a crisis of credibility over its management of hazardous waste.

The issue is not just related to copper. Gas development is also a major community concern and the east coast is facing a looming shortfall of the fuel by 2023.

Environmental group Lock the Gate today claimed 134ha of koala habitat would need to be cleared for a proposed gas pipeline from Galilee Energy’s field in central Queensland to Injune, near Roma.

The projected copper supply crunch is based on estimates from the CRU Group which found that an investment of about $US100 billion would be needed to develop copper mines to meet a shortfall in demand of about 10 million tonnes. That would require the equivalent of eight Escondida mines, the world’s largest copper mine in Chile.

“The complexity of these new mines will be unprecedented. Unless mining is done differently, rushing these projects into production could unleash unacceptable, catastrophic impacts onto local people and environments,” the academics said.

They cited the abandoned Panguna copper mine in Bougainville as an example of the potential impacts. They said it caused massive environmental damage and led to a civil war.

The group, which consisted of Professor Deanna Kemp, research fellow Eleonore Lebre, Professorial research fellow John Owen and director of the Sustainable Research Institute Richard Valenta, said the undeveloped copper orebodies were often found in places where there were significant social and environmental challenges, such as deep-sea mining, or remote areas where water use was an issue.

The issue recently led to BMW, Samsung and Volvo to back calls from a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Writing for The Conversation, the academics said the new copper mines would also be deeper, which meant more waste, more tailings and more hazardous elements like arsenic.

“If the projected demand (for copper) is met, we calculate the world will produce more than nine times the amount of copper tailings between 2000 and 2050 than in the entire century prior,” the group said.

“Our research from 2019 found that 65 per cent of copper ore bodies that haven’t been mined are in areas with high water risk. Too little water means miners compete for it among other local water users and too much means waste can be difficult to contain.

“Mining companies cannot pay their way out of diversity loss, extreme poverty and corruption risk. If they don’t engage these big challenges before the copper boom gets underway these impacts will be baked in mining’s future legacy, without clarity about who takes responsibility in the long term.”






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