Report: Mass Nickel Mining Probably Won’t Be Great for the Environment

— there are often serious implications regarding how it’s procured. As demand continues to grow, industry players will become increasingly reliant on regions lacking rigid environmental safeguards.

Global demand for nickel is estimated to increase six-fold by 2030, according to a recent analysis from the Financial Times. That’s great news for miners, especially considering the material presently costs $15,320 per metric ton. But it needs to be refined before being fit for battery production, and that creates massive amounts of waste. Most sources of ore have extremely low concentrations of nickel.

From FT:

Analysts predict that Indonesia will account for almost all of the growth in nickel supplies over the next decade, overwhelming output from new mines in Canada and Australia. But a number of Chinese-backed projects in the country plan to dump mine waste containing metals such as iron into the sea, in an area renowned for its unique coral reefs and turtles.

“It could undermine the entire proposition of trying to sell a consumer a product that is environmentally friendly, if you have this back story,” said Steven Brown, a Jakarta-based consultant and former employee at nickel miner Vale.

That presents a problem for carmakers such as Tesla and Volkswagen, which have pledged to soften the environmental impact of their batteries. “At some point it will happen where they can’t avoid Indonesian nickel,” said Mr Brown.

He went on to suggest that Indonesian nickel projects alone would create around 50 million metric tons of waste per year if the announced programs in North Maluku and Central Sulawesi areas are enacted. While some of the associated companies claim they have a plan to ensure waste is sent directly to the deepest parts of the sea to avoid contaminating coral reefs, others seem content to dump into the ocean and let the chips fall where they may. A few (mainly Western-owned) companies actually refuse to dump into open waters and have elected to store waste in dammed-off areas or underground. Yet the global status quo allegedly has most mining waste going into the nearest waterway because it’s substantially cheaper. And that’s to say nothing of the massive amount of energy (primarily stemming form fossil fuels) required to mine the ore and then refine it into a more useful substance.

Alex Mojon, an environmental consultant from the Swiss Association for Quality and Environmental Management tasked by the provincial government in Madang to investigate a mishap from 2019 at the Chinese and Canadian-owned Ramu nickel and cobalt processing plant in Papua New Guinea, reported harmful particles remained suspended in seawater rather than sinking to the bottom. This allows currents to carry them hundreds of miles to the beaches of the archipelago islands.

Bursting the green bubble is a favorite pastime at The Truth About Cars. While we’re just as worried about the environment as any rational individual, the push into green tech has largely been a blind one. The increasingly popular assumption that the world’s energy and pollution problems would end if we could just swap over to electric vehicles has always seemed slightly misguided. It isn’t that we shouldn’t seek alternatives to our dependency on fossil fuels; we absolutely should. It’s that there doesn’t seem to be much call for extending the same critical assessments toward “eco-friendly” solutions we routinely use against the oil industry.

We probably need to look at this from all angles and bring in the concept of conservation a bit more often, as it’s the only guaranteed method of minimizing pollution and material waste.

[Image: Putu Artana/Shutterstock]

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