Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal has been decried as an economy killer, but a study released Thursday found that the sweeping climate change resolution would come as an enormous boon to the mining industry.
A report by the free-market Heartland Institute said that replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and electric vehicles would come at an environmental cost by driving a “massive worldwide increase” in mining.
“The solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries needed to replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy over a 10-year period to produce the 8.2 billion megawatt hours of power for America’s annual electricity-equivalent needs under the GND would require an unprecedented increase in mining for raw materials,” said the policy brief, titled “How the Green New Deal’s Renewable Energy Mining Would Harm Humans and the Environment.”
Those minerals include lithium, cobalt, copper, iron and aluminum. More than 70% of rare-earth elements are now mined by Chinese-controlled companies or in China, which has dismal records on environmental protection and working conditions.
“The mining operations required to build wind and solar facilities would involve removing and crushing hundreds of billions of tons of rock and ore, causing major habitat losses and widespread pollution,” said the report. “It would also create serious human health impacts, especially in countries that do not have modern equipment and health and safety protections.”
The Green New Deal nonbinding resolution, introduced in February 2019, calls for achieving 100% renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030 and zero carbon emissions by 2050, an aggressive goal that supporters such as Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, have described as necessary to “avert climate catastrophe.”
The Heartland study by senior policy adviser Paul Driessen argued that the cure would be worse than the disease, given the scale of the solar and wind farms that would be necessary to replace coal, oil and natural gas in power generation.
A 2018 Harvard University study found that wind turbines would need to cover one-third of the Lower 48 states to meet current electricity demand, and a 2019 Heartland report concluded that the same could be achieved with 19 billion solar panels, which would cover an area the size of New York and Vermont.
Harvard professor David Keith said he still supports the transition to renewables. “Wind beats coal by any environmental measure, but that doesn’t mean its impacts are negligible,” he said.
“The transition to wind or solar power in the United States would require five to 20 times more land area than previously thought, and if such large-scale wind farms were built, would warm average surface temperatures over the continental United States by 0.24 degrees Celsius,” the university press release said.
Roping off vast tracts of land for sprawling solar and wind farms has also drawn concerns about the impact on wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy estimated that the annual loss of birds from wind turbines in 2012 was 573,000. That number could soar as the number of windmills increases.
“More than 1.4 million bird deaths are projected by 2030 or earlier if the U.S. meets its goal of producing 20 percent of electrical energy with wind. If that figure reaches 35 percent, as new Department of Energy projections suggest, up to 5 million birds could be killed annually,” the conservancy said.
Birds, bats and insects can also land in the crosshairs of the “solar towers” used by utility-scale projects to track the sun.
“When the insects, birds and bats fly through these beams, they are ignited in midair, creating a plume of smoke, or streamer,” said a 2017 analysis by Black & Veatch. “The animals may be killed by the heat, by the force of falling to the ground, or by a waiting predator.”
Environmentalists have long sought to block U.S. mining operations while decrying the damage overseas. In Inner Mongolia, rare earth mining and iron ore processing have contaminated the soil and driven away farmers.
“There’s not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous for the environment,” Greenpeace China’s Jamie Choi said in a 2011 report. “Ores are being extracted by pumping acid into the ground, and then they are processed using more acids and chemicals.”
The cobalt used for batteries in laptops, smartphones and electric cars is mined primarily in Congo, where an estimated 40,000 children “work alongside their parents and suffer under inhumane working conditions while digging for this cobalt,” the Heartland report said.
While there are U.S. reserves of strategic minerals, anti-mining activists have fought to block mining exploration in Alaska and Western states, forcing U.S. dependence on China and other countries with weaker environmental protections, the study said.
The Heartland Institute is no fan of the Green New Deal. Mr. Driessen issued a report in December arguing that the resolution’s ambitious solar and wind mandates would kill threatened species and disrupt wildlife.
The Green New Deal is unlikely to become law anytime soon. A month after the resolution was introduced, the Senate voted 0-57 against considering it. All Republicans voted against it, and most Democrats voted “present.”
Even so, the idea of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy has been widely advocated by Democrats, including presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden, who has called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“The terrible toll the Green New Deal would wreak on the environment is a reality its advocates must address,” the Heartland report said.