Sunday, January 24, 2021

Toxic secrets behind your mobile phone: Electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels... how our so-called green world depends on the mining of rare metals which is a filthy, amoral industry totally dominated by China

Past the suburbs of the Chinese city of Baotou, below a quadruple carriageway, a lonely path led me to an embankment bristling with pylons, each with a security camera watching for intruders.

This is how I reached the Weikuang Dam – an artificial lake into which metallic intestines regurgitate torrents of black water from the nearby refineries. I was looking at ten square kilometres of toxic effluent. After observing this immense, disintegrating landscape, my guide and I decided to move before the security cameras alerted the police to our presence.

A few minutes later, we arrived in a village called Dalahai on another side of the artificial lake. Here, the thousands of inhabitants breathe in the toxic discharge of the reservoir as well as eating produce, such as corn and buckwheat, grown in it.

Cancer affects the local population and many villagers have died. The hair of young men barely aged 30 has suddenly turned white. Children grow up without developing any teeth.

One villager, a 54-year-old called Li Xinxia, confided in me despite knowing it’s a dangerous subject. He said: ‘There are a lot of sick people here. Cancer, strokes, high blood pressure… almost all of us are affected. We are in a grave situation. They did some tests and our village was nicknamed “the cancer village”. We know the air we breathe is toxic and that we don’t have that much longer to live.’

The provincial authorities offered villagers compensation to relocate but these farming folk were reluctant to move to high-rise flats in a neighbouring town.

In short, it is a disaster area. And the reason? Our insatiable demand for rare metals.

For centuries, mankind mined just seven primary metals – iron, gold, silver, copper, lead, aluminium and mercury. But from the 1970s, attention turned to lesser-known rare metals found in terrestrial rocks in infinitesimal amounts which have superb magnetic, catalytic and optical properties.

Now, we are totally reliant on them for the manufacture of devices such as mobile phones, not to mention electric and/or hybrid cars which require twice as many rare metals as a traditional internal-combustion engine vehicle.

They are also a key component in wind turbines and solar panels. Some of these substances have exotic names: vanadium, germanium, platinoids, tungsten, antimony, beryllium, fluorine, rhenium, tantalum, niobium, to name but a few.

For eight years, I have researched these rare metals that are upending our world. Across four continents, men and women involved in the opaque and underground industry told me a dark tale.

By their account, the development of these substances has not done us, or the planet, any of the favours we would have expected from a supposedly greener and friendlier world – far from it.

Above all, our dependence on rare metals brings two very big problems. The first is that mining, refining and recycling them is immensely polluting, thereby giving the lie to the idea that our increasingly digital and electricity-powered life is greener than one reliant on fossil fuels.

The 40 different rare metals in your phone

Screen: The glass is an aluminosilicate which is strengthened with potassium ions. The touch screen has indium tin oxide in the transparent film to help conduct electricity. Rare earth element compounds are needed for the colours in the screen. Others reduce ultra-violet light penetration into the phone.

Electronics: Copper is used for wiring. Gold and silver form the micro-electrical parts. Tantalum is the major component of micro-capacitors, which stabilise the power supply and generally total more than 700. Nickel is used in the microphone. Alloys including the elements praseodymium, gadolinium and neodymium are in magnets used in the speaker and microphone. The vibration unit contains neodymium, terbium and dysprosium. Pure silicon goes into the chip. Tin and lead are employed to solder the electronics.

Battery: Most mobiles have lithium-ion batteries, made of lithium cobalt oxide for the positive electrode and graphite (carbon) for the negative. Some batteries have manganese. Casings are made from aluminium. Some cases are constructed with magnesium compounds. Or with plastics, some of which contain flame retardant compounds such as bromine.

Second, one country – China – has a near stranglehold on the production and supply of rare metals. The Beijing government is not just seeking to control the metals found in its lands but also to control the production of rare metals wherever they are found on the globe. It has used barely credible chicanery to position itself as the sole supplier. It’s as if Saudi Arabia, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, took it upon itself to control the reserves of the 13 other main petroleum-exporting countries.

BEFORE looking at these problems, we need to understand what makes rare metals so special.

While mineralogists have known of their existence since the 18th Century, they attracted little interest while their industrial applications remained undiscovered. But from the 1970s, their exceptional properties to make super-magnets began to be exploited.

Once processed, a minute amount of these metals emits a magnetic field that makes it possible to generate more energy than from the same quantity of coal or oil.

Magnets are now – to a vast majority of electric engines – what pistons have been to steam and internal-combustion engines. They have made it possible to manuacture billions of engines, be it for a motorbike, powering a train, making an electric toothbrush or mobile phone vibrate, operating an electric window, or sending a lift to the top of a skyscraper.

Without most of us realising it, our societies have become completely magnetised. Most crucially, rare metals allow us to generate clean energy as they cause the rotors of wind turbines to turn and in solar panels help convert the sun’s rays into electricity.

As a result, it is now possible to envisage a world without nuclear, oil-fired or coal-fired power plants. But that is merely the start.

Rare metals have a wealth of other properties that make them indispensable to myriad green technologies. They allow us to trap car-exhaust fumes in catalytic converters, ignite energy-efficient light bulbs, and design new, lighter and hardier industrial equipment, improving the energy efficiency of cars and planes.

Most surprising is how these metals have become indispensable to new information and communication technologies for their semi-conducting properties that regulate the flow of electricity in digital devices. Just look, for example, at all the rare metals in a smartphone and you can see how omnipresent they are. The fact is that we now use at least two billion tons of rare metals every year – the equivalent of more than 500 Eiffel Towers a day.

BUT while rare metals can produce green technologies, the savage irony is that mining and refining them are among the most polluting and wasteful processes on earth.

The 10,000 or so mines across China have played a big role in destroying that country’s environment. Pollution damage by the coal-mining industry is well documented. But barely reported is the fact that mining rare metals also produces pollution.

In 2006, about 60 Chinese companies producing indium – a rare metal used in the manufacture of some solar-panel technologies – released tons of chemicals into the Xiang River in Hunan, jeopardising the province’s drinking water and local people’s health.

Working conditions in the mines are appalling. But it is the refining process that causes the most pollution and harm to workers and nearby inhabitants.

In truth, there is nothing refined about it at all. It involves crushing rock and then using a concoction of chemical reagents such as sulphuric and nitric acid. ‘It’s a long and repetitive process,’ says a specialist. ‘It takes loads of different procedures to obtain a rare-earth concentrate close to 100 per cent purity.’

That’s not all: purifying a single ton of rare earths requires using at least 200 cubic metres of water, which then becomes saturated with acids and heavy metals. Very rarely will this water be treated at the plant before it is released into rivers, soils and ground water.

The Chinese could have opted for clean mining but didn’t. From one end of the rare-metals production line to the other, little in China is done according to the most basic ecological and health standards. So, as rare metals have become ubiquitous in green and digital technologies, the toxic sludge they produce has been contaminating water, soil, the atmosphere and the flames of blast furnaces – representing the four elements essential to life. The result is that producing rare metals has become one of the most polluting and secretive industries in China.

The pollution caused by rare metals is not limited to China. It concerns all producing countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplies more than half the planet’s cobalt. This element, indispensable to the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, is mined under conditions out of the Middle Ages.

One hundred thousand miners equipped with spades and picks dig into the earth. Given the African country’s inability to regulate its mining activities, the pollution of surrounding rivers and turmoil in the ecosystems are legion.

Research by Congolese doctors has found that the cobalt concentration in the urine of the local communities living near mines in Katanga province is up to 43 times higher than a control sample.

We see the same in Kazakhstan, a central Asian country producing 14 per cent of the world’s chrome – prized by the aerospace industry for the superalloys that improve the energy performance of aircraft. In 2015, researchers from South Kazakhstan State University discovered that chrome-mining was responsible for colossal pollution of the Syr Darya, the longest river in Central Asia. Its water had become unfit for consumption by the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, who are now even advised against using it for their crops.

Extracting minerals from the ground is an inherently dirty operation. But the way it’s been carried out so irresponsibly and unethically in the most productive mining countries casts doubt on the virtuous vision of those behind the energy and digital revolution.

A recent report by the Blacksmith Institute, a US environmental group, identifies the mining industry as the world’s second-most-polluting industry, behind lead-battery recycling.

Major users of rare metals rarely acknowledge their dependence on them. In Apple’s 2018 annual report, despite being a major consumer of rare metals, the words ‘rare earths’, ‘minerals’ or ‘metals’ did not appear. And Tesla, the biggest name in electric vehicle manufacturing, was discreet in its environmental report last year. Cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo were mentioned but nothing said of their environmental impact.

What the West has done, by moving the sourcing of its rare metals to China, is to relocate its pollution. We have knowingly and patiently created a system that allows us to move our ‘filth’ as far away as possible, and the Chinese have welcomed the initiative.

As a Canadian rare-metals industrialist said with great irony: ‘We can thank them for the environmental damage they have endured to produce these metals in our place.’

Beijing is well-versed in the power of such mineral sovereignty. When a student in France, Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader in the 1980s) worked in a foundry of the iron cookware firm Le Creuset. All but one of the past six presidents and prime ministers were trained in engineering – electrical, hydroelectrical, geology – and in process chemistry.

Consequently, and with the support of a stable authoritarian political system that values patient and consistent decision-making, they have laid the foundations of an ambitious policy to secure the nation’s supplies.

To put this stranglehold into perspective, look at OPEC, the oil producers cartel. For decades, its 14 members have been able to significantly influence oil prices, yet they represent ‘only’ 41 per cent of global production.

China has staked its claim on 95 per cent of global production of the coveted class of certain rare-earth metals. In the words of one expert: ‘It’s OPEC on steroids.’

So what does a nation do when it is so powerful?

Naturally, Beijing’s intentions become far more aggressive – reducing supply of rare metals in order to ramp up the price.

Experts noticed that China’s export quotas, set at 65,000 tons in 2005, began to drop a year later to under 62,000 tons. By 2009, Beijing had reduced this to 50,000 tons and official figures for 2010 put exports at only 30,000 tons.

The same trend was observed for all the rare metals disproportionally produced by China.

The World Trade Organisation’s analysis of the complaints against the Chinese was unequivocal: over the previous two decades, China had engineered a policy of systematic restrictions on rare mineral exports.

Notoriously, China is also expanding its rare-metals operations around the globe. It is a new world that China wants to fashion to its liking and has therefore begun its own hunt abroad for rare metals, starting in Canada, Australia, Kyrgyzstan, Peru and Vietnam.

The most prized location is Africa, and in particular South Africa, Burundi, Madagascar and Angola. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, China has built a railway line to open access to the cobalt-rich southern region of Katanga.

SO what is the solution? I support bringing back mining in the West. Not so much for the value, the additional tax revenues and the thousands of jobs it would create; nor for the strategic security of having our own supply chain.

Rather, my argument is on behalf of the environment. Reopening mines in the West would be the best possible decision we could make for protecting our planet.

Relocating our dirty industries to China and Africa has helped keep Western consumers in the dark about the true environmental cost of our lifestyles.

The effects of returning mining operations to the West would be positive. We would instantly realise – to our horror – the true cost of our supposedly green world. We can well imagine how having quarries ‘in our backyard’ would end our indifference and denial and drive our efforts to contain the resulting pollution.

Rare earths first? Or last?

Biden’s Green New Deal won’t work without mining, especially for rare earth elements

Duggan Flanakin

As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take the reins of government and launch their program to “transition” America away from fossil fuels, they need to consider some hard realities. Chief among them is that no Green New Deal can succeed without major increases in US mining and processing – unless they want to make America even more dependent on China and Russia.

Rare-earth metals are essential to 21st Century technologies, including smartphones, lasers, night vision systems, weapons guidance systems – and GND technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles. As British hedge fund veteran James Horrocks noted in a recent article, “It is easy to see why rare earths have become a pawn in the US-China trade war.”

China, Horrocks noted, has only a third of global reserves of rare earths, but in 2017 produced over 80% of the global supply of rare-earth metals and compounds, and its exports that year to the US accounted for 78% of the 17,000 tons of US rare-earth imports. Even rare-earth metals mined in the USA are processed in the People’s Republic – because China now owns the US deposit and we’d prefer to pay the cheaper prices associated with processing under China’s abominable pollution, wage and workplace safety rules.

Christopher Barnard, national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition, is but one of many who agree that a reliable, affordable domestic supply of rare-earth metals is critical to building a “green” economy. Last month Barnard warned that “the geopolitical, economic and environmental risks” inherent in near-total reliance on a potentially hostile power “can no longer be ignored.”

The Chinese near-monopoly (it was worse before Japan built a new supply chain after China blocked all rare-earth exports in 2010) is largely a creation of activist-driven US anti-mining policy. There are plenty of rare-earth deposits in the USA, but extracting them is not photogenic. Barnard laments the “regulatory minefield of labyrinthine local, state and federal rules” that has turned permitting into a two- to three-decades adventure in frustration.

Over the past decades, lawmakers have all but banned mineral exploration and development on minerals-rich federal lands. The few once-active rare earth mines are now long shuttered, largely due to high compliance costs. Mountain Pass, the sole US operating rare-earth mine, lost two years of production due to a 2016 bankruptcy and still sends its mined ore to China for processing.

To counter US dependence on Chinese imports, in September 2020, President Trump signed Executive Order (EO) 13953 declaring a national emergency in the mining industry. The order charged the Interior Department with increasing domestic production of rare-earth materials, to reduce America’s dependence on China for these building blocks for 21st Century technologies. EO 13953 built on his December 2017 EO 13817 that required the Interior Secretary to identify critical materials and reduce “the Nation’s vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals,” especially those from China and Russia.

Many of the recommendations in EO 13953 were incorporated into the Energy Act of 2021, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act that also funded pandemic relief. The new law requires the Energy Department to conduct a research and development program for advanced separation technologies for extraction and recovery of rare-earth elements and other critical materials from coal and coal byproducts. A coequal goal is to ensure mitigation of any potential environmental and public health impacts from these activities – which is always required for US operations, though not for those in or by China.

The new law further requires triennially updated lists of critical minerals, plus new curricula for colleges and universities to build a strong critical minerals workforce; domestic, publicly available resource assessments of critical minerals; analytical and forecasting tools to evaluate critical minerals markets; new alternatives to, recycling of, and efficient production and use of critical materials; and more. Finally, the law requires that the Director of National Intelligence submit to Congress a regular report of Chinese investments in minerals.

In addition, during Trump’s final days, the Bureau of Land Management (the other BLM) announced new decisions that took effect January 15 expanding potential mining operations on federal lands, adding mining to the list of industries that can receive fast-tracked permitting (critical to getting any new rare-earth mines operational), approving a new mine in Nevada for lithium (a critical element in electric vehicle batteries), and approving a land swap to ease final approval of an Arizona copper mine.

With these final acts, the Trump Administration will have laid the groundwork to let the “clean-energy-focused” new government have a shot at meeting the raw materials needs for the 21st Century technologies that President Biden has promised will drive tomorrow’s US economy. Of course, China may use its leverage to try to undercut any US producers, especially if President Biden lifts (or fails to impose) tariffs aimed at offsetting China’s unfair advantages from its unethical and dirty mining and forced labor practices.

Will Biden and Congress undermine all this? Anti-mining Democrats were quick to object to the last-minute BLM actions. Rep. Paul Grijalva (D, AZ), whose own approach to U.S. mining has been called “good for China, bad for America,” has said President Obama’s 2015 FAST-41 law, which greased permitting for utility projects, was “never intended … to cover the mining sector.”

But Rich Nolan, president of the National Mining Association, lauded the BLM move, stating that, “American mining is key to successfully repairing our nation’s infrastructure.” Previously, Nolan had reiterated his organization’s stance that “the very technologies essential to our recovering economy will be built on a foundation provided by mining. It’s now absolutely essential that smart policy recognizes this need and opportunity.”

The Biden campaign privately told US miners it would support boosting domestic production of metals required to make electric vehicles, solar panels and other products critical to his climate plans. But this would represent a shift from Obama policies that included “rigorous environmental regulations that slowed US mining sector growth.” It’s also total anathema to environmental pressure groups that support and advise Biden.

Green groups in Minnesota, Nevada and Arizona – along with some Native American tribes – have begun pounding the drums of dissent. For example, Save the Boundary Waters opposes a Twin Metals copper mine in Minnesota; the project already has federal permits but is facing court challenges. Spokesperson Jeremy Drucker complained, “Mining companies have been using EVs and climate change as a cover to push their own agenda: profit.”

Then there is Biden’s nomination of New Mexico Native American Deb Haaland to head up his Interior Department. Native American groups have opposed the fast tracking of approval of the Resolution Copper Mine, which could supply up to a quarter of growing US copper demand for 40 years. Native Americans say the mine would desecrate sacred lands. How will Haaland, and her boss, handle this touchy issue, given her ties to tribes opposing the mine and the vital role of copper to the GND?

One wonders how much influence VP Harris will have on Biden Administration planning and policy, since she is on record as opposing almost any new domestic mining operations. Put another way, who will really be in charge of our energy and economy?

The ultimate question is, Should America be dependent on China (and Russia) to supply the tools for the new economy? Or will the Biden-Harris Administration follow up on the Trump approach to rebuilding the US rare-earths mining and processing industry, to avoid near-total dependence on major human rights violators? In other words, will Biden-Harris put America’s clean energy future in Chinese hands?

Via email

Paris Agreement: a commitment to terminal decline

Within hours of his inauguration, Joe Biden announced that the USA was ‘back in the Paris Climate Agreement’. Donald Trump had pledged, in June 2017, that the USA would withdraw from the agreement – a slow process, which took the remainder of his term to complete. Climate activists worldwide are now celebrating, of course.

The past five years have seen many comparisons drawn between Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Though they were dismissed as ‘populism’ rather than the (attempted) reassertion of popular democracy, both ballot-box revolts shocked political establishments that had by 2016 grown overconfident and entitled. ‘Globalism’, as it is sometimes clumsily referred to by its detractors, had been given a bloody nose. But not a coup de grĂ¢ce. The epitome of this contempt for democracy comes in the form of climate environmentalism, which not only survived, but has also expanded since 2016.

The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement had nearly no effect on the ambitious architects of global ecological utopia. Climate advocates never learn anything from their setbacks since all dissent from their designs is rejected as ‘denial’. Accordingly, John Kerry, failed presidential candidate and now special presidential envoy for climate, tweeted that Biden’s announcement ‘restor[ed] America’s credibility and commitment – setting a floor, not a ceiling, for our climate leadership’. ‘Working together, the world must and will raise ambition’, he said.

The Paris Agreement requires member countries to propose their own levels of emissions reduction – or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). America’s INDC pledge, made by the Obama administration, is to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. Trump argued that this was a bad deal for Americans, and that it would lead to job losses, rising prices, loss of industry and the surrender of democracy to a global agreement. All of that is true, but it has been hidden from public debate by a mixture of green utopianism and the complexities involved in turning abstract emissions-reduction targets into tangible policies.

Greens of all kinds talk a very good game about ‘creating jobs’ and ‘climate justice’. But these claims remain unsubstantiated. In 2010, for instance, Gordon Brown’s government claimed that its offshore-wind energy plans would create 70,000 jobs in the sector. But despite the agenda facing almost zero political opposition, by 2020, there were just 11,000 jobs according to the industry’s own (favourable) analysis, as reported by the FT. The sector still enjoys absurd levels of public subsidy (many tens of thousands of pounds per job ‘created’), despite claims that wind power is now ‘cheaper’ than coal or gas generation. Promises of green jobs and less expensive energy never materialise, but this is never questioned.

Put simply, there is no translation from emissions-reduction targets to reality which is not going to hit Americans hard, especially those who live either in cities designed around the motor car,or in deep rural country. Americans pay on average less than half what Britons pay for petrol. But for how much longer?

Similarly, America’s industrial economy is in large part built on industry powered by cheap energy. Carbon-reduction targets, which will cause energy prices to multiply, were dreamt up long before anyone had any serious ideas as to how to realise them, and without consideration for ordinary people’s lives. The existing Paris commitments are bad enough, but these will be succeeded by new levels of ambition set at this year’s climate conference in Glasgow.

No doubt Biden takes his pledges seriously. But his election victory may not have provided enough political capital required to make these ambitions real. That victory was secured on a margin of some seven million votes, in a country of 328million people. A convincing win for a presidential candidate, yes, but not for the radical reorganisation of 328million people’s lives that his climate imperatives demand. No matter how much smoke a sycophantic, fawning media try to blow up Biden’s rear, the American public are going to notice the dire consequences of these policies eventually.

‘This is the most important transition from one president to another of my lifetime’, tweeted a dizzy Robert Peston. There’s a great deal of journalistic buzz about Joe Biden ‘healing’ the country from its trauma. Commentators are making facile historical comparisons with Abraham Lincoln – the president that steered a divided country through its civil war. But Lincoln rebuilt an independent USA, he did not cede its sovereignty to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In order to sustain the historical allusion, Trump stands accused of ‘racism’, ‘fascism’ and ‘white supremacy’. But while such unevidenced and hyperventilating claims may denigrate the former president, they do little to elevate Biden, and do significantly less to win over Americans to the climate cause. The drama is confected, and the promise of a green utopia is hollow.

It is the bottom line that counts. As Roger Pielke Jr has pointed out, the scale of America’s ‘transition’ to Net Zero is a task far greater than any of its historical political, industrial or military projects. It ‘would require the deployment of approximately 1,500 wind turbines, over approximately 300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050’. Even if such an ambitious project were ever realised, Biden’s climate agenda would yield no net benefit to ordinary Americans, except – perhaps, maybe, but probably not – slightly fewer wildfires, slightly fewer hurricanes, and slightly less sea-level rise, and only then if viewed from the perspective of climate statistics at century timescales. Yet it would saddle the public with tens or even hundreds of trillions in debt, skyrocketing costs of living, immobility and terminal industrial decline. The conditions for civil war, in other words. Maintaining the Paris Agreement and reaching Net Zero are tasks far beyond President Biden’s means.

Environmentalism is, as Tim Black points out on spiked, the mainstay of technocratic rule. With the election of Joe Biden, it may have won a major battle. But the climate wars have reached a new phase. Much of what has gone before has been mere fluff: abstract virtue signalling about targets, that most voters have yet to connect with their day-to-day experiences. As those targets are made real in the years to come, the consequences will be profound. If these global agreements and Net Zero ambitions are not watered down, the climate technocrats will make themselves a lot of enemies.

How The Free Market Can Protect And Preserve The Environment

In the ongoing debate over what to do about the environment, there seem to be two prominent views. One, that the government should intervene and steer the country toward a green future. The other, to do nothing.

Both are wrong, however, as both deny that the free market is capable of tackling climate change or other environmental concerns. Without a doubt, however, the free market can solve this crucial problem much more efficiently than the government can. Liberating the market from unfair subsidies, reforming tort laws, and allowing property rights to save our species and our lands are just some of the several ways this can happen.

Opponents of our current economic system claim it is a free market. There’s nothing free, however, about the chains of burdensome regulations and subsidies. Much of the environmental degradation we witness can be traced back to the billions of dollars of government kickbacks given to both the fossil fuel industry and farmers, a state of play that also prevents the proliferation of clean energy firms.

The Failings of Subsidies

This year, for instance, farmers were paid almost $50 billion in subsidies, an amount that accounted for a third of their income. These subsidies contribute to the overuse of farmland while hurting our wetlands and forests by increasing the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Furthermore, these subsidies increase prices on food and result in a reduced incentive to innovate.

But will eliminating farm subsidies hurt small farmers? Consider this: 70 percent of subsidies go to farmers of wheat, corn, and soybeans on typically big farms that don’t even need it. Once you include peanuts, cotton, and rice, the percentage of subsidies heading to Big Farming is 94 percent.

The vast majority of small farmers receive very little subsidies and vegetable, meat, and fruit farmers are almost entirely left out. In 2017, there were more than two million farms, of which 90 percent were small farms making less than $350,000 in annual gross cash farm income. To view this another way, 1.85 million farms receive almost nothing.

The fossil fuel industry receives far more in subsidies and the effects are similar. We give oil and gas companies almost $650 billion a year, which is enough for every adult to receive a stimulus of $2,600 a year. These subsidies encourage waste and distort the economy. Clean energy companies can’t be expected to compete when, at $200 billion, their industry is three times smaller than just the subsidies paid out to these corporations.

Where competition is nearly impossible due to government interference, is incredibly hard to have a free market where enterprising businesses can develop and eventually thrive.

Tort Law Reform Is Part of the Solution

Tort law reform would allow those who are hurt by environmental damage to receive compensation. This can be best exhibited in an example used by the economist Murray Rothbard: Suppose an airport is established and is quite noisy. The sound waves travel over the empty, unowned land. A housing development is built nearby and, later, the homeowners sue for noise pollution.

The airport can only pollute the land it owns, and any pollution it creates must be contained within its borders. Polluting land outside its borders is aggression and an assault committed on the homeowners. Therefore, with tort law, they’d receive monetary compensation and the airport would be forced with the choice to either innovate and reduce its noise output or continue paying those fines.

Under current tort law, however, small parties that pollute more are spared as the Environmental Protection Agency goes after bigger targets, resulting in high costs and legal delays. If we moved toward proportional liability where those more responsible pay more, increasing costs would push polluters towards reform.

Property Rights Are Key to Helping the Environment

The last element of using the free market to solve our current environmental dilemmas is to expand property rights. For this, the nation of Namibia serves as a shining example of how property rights can save species. When poaching was shrinking Namibia’s small number of black rhinos, the tiny African country allowed private landowners to breed their own black rhinos and protect them from poachers. In return, the landowners are paid for tourism and trophy hunting. Since 2013, the black rhino population has increased from 60 to 200.

South Africa has a similar problem with its white rhino population, so it too has encouraged the private ownership of wild rhinos. In 1982, a live rhino was worth 1,000 South African rand (about $1,000 at the then exchange rate of $1 equal to 1 rand) but a trophy was 6,000 rand (about $6,000), meaning there was little reason to keep them alive. In 1990, a live rhino was 49,000 rand (about $16,000 at the then exchange rate of $1 equal to 3 rand) while a trophy was 80,000 ($26,600).

Then, in 1991, a law was passed that allowed the private ownership of tagged animals. As it then made sense to keep and breed them, the white rhino population tripled by 2007. It makes sense. Why sell a trophy for 80,000 rand when a family of four rhinos is worth almost 200,000 rand and they can continue to produce more rhinos? To move away from rhinos to something more accessible, why cut down an apple tree for timber when the sale of its apples can make you far more in the long run or help feed your family?

If America implemented the system in South Africa and Namibia, it’d go a long way to saving our own endangered species. We did it with the nearly extinct North American bison and we can do it again. Our threatened species can be privately owned while our least-concern species can be wild and free.

Now, it is worth noting that, while some species would benefit from a South African/Namibian-style system like the polar bear or the red wolf, there are other species that people wouldn’t want to hunt or eat. So, what about creatures like the golden-cheeked warbler or the Chiricahua leopard frog?

Well, there are many reasons these species are endangered. The golden-cheeked warbler’s habitat is over-browsed by goats and white-tailed deer. One possibility — again lying in the realm of tort law — would see the owners of a specific population of warblers suing the owners of the deer and the goats that eat too much of their habitat and have them removed from that specific area. That allows the warbler to enjoy all the excesses of its ecosystem without the worry of competition from much larger creatures.

The Chiricahua leopard frog faces a different situation. One of the things that threaten it (besides climate change) is the chytrid fungus. If we allowed owning these frogs, the owner could move them to a safe marsh or wetland where no fungus could infect them. Private investment in efforts to develop a cure could fast track it just like what is happening with the coronavirus now.

The Freedom to Preserve

Ultimately, another beneficial move would be to extend property rights to the environment and not just the species that inhabit it. Yet, currently, it is illegal for someone to buy land sold for energy, grazing, or timber needs and not harvest, extract, or develop those resources. Energy leasing regulations force individuals to extract the oil or lose the lease, thus preventing anyone from buying land and protecting it.

The environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams and her husband, Brooke, tried to buy land they had no intention of developing, forming an energy company after purchasing 1,120 acres in Utah. Their lease was canceled by the Bureau of Land Management, however, for violating the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

Regulations like this and others prevent good Samaritans from keeping land from the fossil fuel industry. Like in Africa, if we allowed people to buy or lease this land and do whatever they wanted with it, our natural resources would be far better protected than they are today.

The solution to environmental problems doesn’t lie in the hands of the state, nor will things resolve themselves by doing nothing. To harness the undeniable power and benefits of the free market system, we must eliminate all unfair farm subsidies, ending the farming sprawl created by corporate farms that invade our forests and wetlands.

We must eliminate the subsidies that benefit the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of clean energy, putting them on equal ground.

We must reform tort law so that those responsible for damaging our environment pay for those damages. Finally, we must extend property rights so that our endangered species can survive and thrive and for our green good Samaritans to be able to buy or lease land to protect it from fossil fuel extraction. All of these measures would significantly reduce our carbon footprint while creating a powerful, modern economy where everyone prospers — a bright, green future for us, our children, and humanity.




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