Novethic: Why does energy transition have an even greater environmental impact than activities generated by oil extraction?
Guillaume Pitron: Energy transition was imagined above-ground because we completely ignored the cost in terms of raw materials. However, to extract a single kilogram of lutetium (one of the 30 most rare elements on earth), 1,200 tons of rock must be extracted. To separate them, we need large amounts of water, hydrochloric acid, and an enormous amount of energy produced mainly from fossil fuels. According to the Blacksmith Institute, which publishes a list of the most polluting industries, it appears that the oil industry is less and less pollutant while mining activities (coal included) are increasingly so. Thus, we are getting rid of oil – and with good reason - for a solution that is even more pollutant.
Are mines as environmentally polluting as we think?
A mine is a real visual shock, a city derrick is nothing in comparison. We were able to approach mines in China and witnessed lakes full of toxic effluent discharge coming from Mongolian refineries. It's a scene from Dante's Inferno. Everything is polluted there: the soil, the air, the groundwater. Heavy metal-laden waters are dumped into artificial lakes that overflow regularly, polluting rivers, such as the Yellow River. In the Baotou region, the world's rare earth capital, this translates to cancer villages. From one end to the other on the rare metals production chain, almost nothing has been made to respect even the most basic ecological and sanitary standards.
How could we overlook this aspect?
Simply because the environmental and social consequences of this metalliferous extraction are not felt at home. In the 1980s, we ended our [the French] mining industry - extraction and refining - precisely because it was dirty. The most illustrative example in France is the Rhône-Poulenc company (now Solvay), one of two rare metal chemical companies in the world. The company supplied rare earth metals to Australia and managed the refining process on [French] territory. But the company was accused by NGOs of releasing radioactive elements in La Rochelle Bay, thus they looked to China.
This was a hypocritical choice according to you ...
Concealing the dubious origin of metals in China has given green and digital technologies a good reputation. It is ecological whitewashing and certainly the most incredible greenwashing operation in history. Because we knew very well the cost to access clean, rare metals, we chose to relocate our pollution and also our savoir-faire by allowing strategic industry to leave. A choice that we will pay dearly for since we are now almost entirely dependent on China, a country which does with rare metals what the Saudis have done with oil since the 1970s. This lack of vision and short-term thinking is maddening.
Would the solution would be to open mines elsewhere, including France ?
Metal needs will explode. A new rare earth mine will have to be opened every year by 2025 to meet the need for it. The demand for cobalt, for example, should multiply by 24 between 2013 and 2030. It will therefore be necessary to open mines at all levels. Barack Obama has already laid the legal foundation for the exploitation of metals found in asteroids! In France, there should be a strategic, but also environmental, interest in reopening mines because our regulations are stricter and better applied than in China. It would also allow the entire industry to create a finished product ‘100% Made in France’. I'm not saying that we should not proceed with ecological transition, but we must try to make it the least dirty possible.
Interview by Concepcion Alvarez @conce1