Electric cars, solar panels, large batteries and wind turbines — the technology needed to go green relies on what can be a dirty industry.
“It’s absolutely ironic, but to save the planet we are going to need more mines,” says Allison Britt, director of mineral resources at government agency Geoscience Australia.
The need for one of the biggest increases in mining the world has ever seen is forcing some tough choices and redrawing old battlelines between environmentalists and miners.
In Tasmania, a mine that’s been leaking contaminated water for the past five years wants permission to expand into a wilderness area because the lead, zinc and copper it produces are vital for solar panels, electric cars and wind turbines.
King Island, famed for its high-end produce and rugged beauty, will soon be home to one of the world’s largest tungsten mines.
Outside Darwin, an open-cut mine that will produce lithium vital for electric car batteries looks to be already impacting local waterways.
Australian National University professor of economic geography John Mavrogenes says tough decisions need to be made.
These decisions are made even more difficult by China’s control of the 35 so-called “critical minerals”, which are not only vital for the transition to renewable energy but for economic and national security. The US and its allies fear Beijing could restrict or cut off supply in times of conflict.
And then there’s the need to quickly act on climate change.
“Everything is now an emergency,” says entrepreneur and inventor Saul Griffith, whose advocacy organization Re-wiring America has advised US politicians and businesses.
“We need to be making wind turbines 10 times as fast as we do. We need to be making solar cells 10 times as fast as we do. We need to be making batteries and electric vehicles 10 times as fast as we do today.”
An electric vehicle needs about 200kg of minerals like copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium. That’s six times more than a petrol-powered car.
A wind turbine needs four times more minerals than a coal-fired power station to generate the same amount of electricity.
These tough choices are becoming a trade-off between preserving local habitats and the global effort to avert the worst effects of climate change.
Kirsty Howey from the Northern Territory Environment Center says it’s “a confounding issue for the environmental movement”.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that we have to move to mining of critical minerals if we are going to address the climate crisis,” she says.
But she argues governments need to ensure miners adopt far higher environmental standards as Australia gears up for its latest boom.
A mine in Tasmania’s sensitive Tarkine wilderness highlights the difficult choices facing Australia and the world in the rush towards renewables.
The historic Rosebery mine, now owned by Chinese giant MMG, wants to clear 280 hectares of wilderness for a new tailings dam.
Its general manager, Steven Scott, says if permission is not granted, the mine will shut down within two years and with it will go the zinc, copper and lead vital for wind turbines and electric cars.
He insists the company has a “really good environmental performance record”.
Documents obtained by Four Corners suggest otherwise.
In a memo to the Tasmanian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), MMG admitted an existing tailings dam had been leaking contaminated water for almost five years.
It said “several complaints” had been made and conceded there was a “pressing need to rectify” the problem.
That was more than two years ago and the dam continues to leak.
The EPA told Four Corners contaminated water had flowed into the river on 18 occasions since late 2018. Despite this, MMG has never been fined.
In a statement, the EPA conceded MMG had some “issues” with the tailings dam and said the leaked water contained “elevated levels of metals”.
MMG says the leaking at the dam is a “legacy issue” and it has significantly improved management of the facility in recent years.
The company insists it should be allowed to build the new tailings dam, pointing out the mine’s products support a “lower-emission future”.
The father of Australia’s green movement, Bob Brown, who is leading protests against MMG, dismisses this as “green spin” and says the mining industry is using renewable energy as a cover.
His supporters have blocked MMG’s access to the proposed site, chaining themselves to trees and parking a mini-van over the road.
Mr Brown insists he’s not against the Rosebery mine, saying MMG has other options for the tailings dam and it should not be built at the expense of a sensitive wilderness area like the Tarkine.
King Island tungsten
Not everywhere is the battle to develop critical minerals so fraught.
King Island, off the Northern coast of Tasmania, is famous for its beef and cheese, oysters, kelp and crayfish.
Soon it will be famous for something quite different — one of the world’s largest tungsten mines.
Demand for renewable energy and anxiety over China’s dominance of the tungsten market will see the King Island mine reopen after 30 years.
It’s a test of whether tourism and agriculture can happily exist alongside mining.
Jobs and a larger permanent population have been a major selling point and the local community is firmly behind the project.
The Australian company which owns the mine has promised 65 full-time jobs when it reopens next year.
‘The luckiest country’
The supply chains for critical minerals will determine who controls the next industrial revolution, which will be dominated by the switch to renewables.
The International Energy Agency’s most conservative forecasts expect demand for lithium to grow 13-fold in the 20 years to 2040, rare earth demand to triple, copper to double and cobalt is expected to increase at least six times.
Mr Griffith says Australia is well positioned to supply all these critical minerals to the world and doing so is one of the biggest contributions the country can make to combat climate change globally.
“Australia is still the luckiest country,” he says.
“Australia is first, second, third or fourth in the world in terms of reserves and production of all of the critical things for this century.”
One of the most sought-after minerals this century will be lithium, a commodity for which Australia has rapidly become the world’s biggest exporter.
Among the newest players in this sector is Australia’s Core Lithium, a company worth more than $2 billion before it has even started mining.
The rapid increase in its share market value follows Core signing a supply deal with Tesla in March.
While shareholders are happy, some living near the mine, 80km outside Darwin worry that too little attention has been paid to its environmental impact.
Scientist and local environment activist Pauline Cass says the impact on a creek flowing through the mine can already be seen.
“The water’s very, very milky and murky. It’s meant to be clear flowing,” Ms Cass says.
“The mine is only in the very, very early stages and we are already seeing this consequence.”
Kirsty Howey from the Northern Territory Environment Center believes topsoil and gravel from the mine’s construction are running into the creek, which then flows into Darwin Harbor.
She believes Core Lithium is potentially breaking the law and has lodged a complaint with the NT Environmental Protection Authority.
Core Lithium declined requests for an interview. It plans to mine here for seven years and has promised to only partly rehabilitate the area.
Locals are sceptical the NT government will enforce a tough rehabilitation regime and they want global tech companies and automakers to take responsibility for how the minerals they use are mined.
“It raises a lot of questions for me about the nature of the kinds of deals that are being done in the rush to feed the boom for electric vehicles and the renewables industry more broadly.”
Watch Four Corners’ full investigation into the massive potential and difficult decisions facing Australia over critical minerals tonight on ABC TV, iview or livestream on the Four Corners Facebook page.