Green Technology that Pollutes the Planet

Amy Oliver
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Posted: Dec 24, 2011 1:37 AM

By Amy Oliver and Michael Sandoval

In previous columns, we’ve exposed that “renewable” technology is neither renewable, nor clean, nor green because it relies upon rare earth elements—it’s also neither cost effective nor efficient but that’s another column. Currently the Chinese have a stranglehold over all phases of rare earth production, including mining, processing, and refining. China accounts for ninety five percent of the world market in rare earth elements (REEs).

With virtually no regulations or concerns over worker safety, the Chinese monopoly has resulted in an ecological disaster.  Sites such as those in Baotou, Inner Mongolia make the Love Canal, the impetus for the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Superfund,” look like Rocky Mountain National Park.

Finally, we’ve been able to quantify the pollution of some green technology sectors in a way that makes sense to the average American family sitting at their kitchen table.

The Math of Pollution

The U.S. Department of Energy, in studying the reductions of REEs available in the world market due to Chinese cutbacks, has identified the seventeen elements as “key” and “critical” to ongoing technological development, including use in electronic components for defense purposes, but also for the “clean” green energy sector.

The DOE’s efforts prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to examine the development of REE resources here in the U.S., paying particular attention to the economic feasibility but also the more important question of—you guessed it—environmental impact.

In its August 2011 study, “Investigating Rare Earth Element Mine Development in EPA Region 8 and Potential Environmental Impacts,” the EPA reported on several sites located in the intermountain West, from Idaho to Colorado, which could become only the second REE mining operation in the entire country.

The study also reported extensively on the possible sources of contaminants and waste byproducts associated with all mining, and especially those concentrated in REE-related extraction.

In the section titled “Potential Risks to Human Health and the Environment,” the EPA reports that:

“…every ton of rare earth elements produced generates approximately 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kilograms of flue dust. Additionally, sulfuric acid refining techniques used to produce one ton of rare earth elements generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of gas laden with flue dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid. Not only are large quantities of harmful gas produced, alarming amounts of liquid and solid waste also resulted from Chinese refining processes. They estimate at the completion of refining one ton of rare earth elements, approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about one ton of radioactive waste residue are produced. The IAGS reports China produced over 130,000 metric tons of rare earth elements in 2008 alone (IAGS, 2010). Extrapolation of the waste generation estimates over total production yields extreme amounts of waste. With little environmental regulation, stories of environmental pollution and human sickness remain frequent in areas near Chinese rare earth element production facilities.”

So for each metric ton of REEs produced, an equal amount of radioactive waste is also produced. At approximately 2,204 lbs, that’s about the weight of an average sedan. As for those 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water, just think of a swimming pool measuring thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide by six feet deep. That’s approximately 20,000 gallons of acid water. Just remember, China produces 95 percent of all REEs in the world—so that’s more than 130,000 swimming pools.

To further the perspective, each 3 MW wind turbine requires two tons of REEs for the permanent magnet that converts wind into electricity. So much for “clean.”

The EPA report continues:

“As discussed, mining and refining processes can introduce radionuclides, rare earth elements, metals, and other potential contaminants into the environment at unnaturally high rates. Once introduced into the environment, the potential contaminants can be redistributed through the three ‘environmental mediums.’ These three mediums include air, soil, and water. Living organisms depend on environmental mediums with stable chemical properties for their survival. The release of the possible contaminants from rare earth element production could alter the properties of the three environmental mediums.”

The Chinese have labeled areas around rare earth mines, like Baotou, as “cancer villages.” To call the situation a “human sickness” is like calling Hurricane Katrina just another rainstorm. The toxic bi-products literally kill everything – animals, vegetation, and people by contaminating the air, soil, and water.

Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt, crimes against the environment

A hybrid-owning friend labeled Amy’s 2001 Jeep Cherokee “earth cancer.” The assumption that a hybrid is eco-friendly has been one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of our time.

Let’s return to the EPA report:

“Permanent magnets represent the staple clean energy technology of future green economies. They constitute main components of lightweight, high powered motors and generators due to their production of a stable magnetic field without the need for an external power source. Permanent magnet motors power contemporary electric, hybrid electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, while permanent magnet generators produce electricity from wind turbines (USDOE, 2010). The key element derived samarium-cobalt permanent magnets dominate rare earth technology because they produce a magnetic field in a much smaller size. The samarium-cobalt permanent magnet also retains its magnetic strength at high temperatures making it ideal for clean energy and even military applications, including precision guided munitions and aircrafts (IAGS, 2010).

Permanent magnets work in conjunction with high efficiency rare earth based batteries to store energy in electric, hybrid electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (USDOE, 2010). Current generation hybrid electric vehicles use a battery with a cathode containing a host of rare earths including lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praseodymium, and cobalt (Kopera, 2004). Each hybrid electric battery may contain several kilograms of rare earth materials (USDOE, 2010). Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles require even greater storage capacity and higher power ratings than typical hybrid vehicles. In light of this, automakers will likely use the lithium ion battery, increasing demand for yet another key element. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory estimated one lithium ion battery contains 3.4-12.7 kilograms of lithium depending on proprietary design (USDOE, 2010).”

Through November 2011, 237,707 hybrid vehicles were sold in the U.S. with the Toyota Prius leading the pack with 119,459 vehicles sold this year.  Hybrid’s “green, clean” technology requires between 20 -25 pounds of rare earth elements, twice that of regular vehicles.

Thinking electric such as Chevy Volt? So far in 2011, auto manufacturers have sold 15,068 electric vehicles in the U.S., and each one requires 10 pounds of rare earth magnets.

That means that through the end of November, hybrids and electric vehicles sales consumed between 4,904,820 and 6,093,355 pounds of rare earths. That’s somewhere between 2,452 and 3,047 tons.

If processing one ton of rare earth elements produces approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about one ton of radioactive waste residue, then hybrid and electric vehicles alone produce between 183,900 and 228,525 cubic meters of acidic waste water and between 2,452 and 3,047 tons of radioactive waste.

A little conversion: one cubic meter is roughly 264 gallons. On the low end, that’s enough to cover nearly 150 football fields with toxic waste water a foot deep. Or put another way, the more than 48,550,000 gallons of fouled water from alternative vehicles is equal to the annual household usage of 445 families of four. That’s just one toxic byproduct. There are many more.

To add insult to ecological injury, these cars are expensive and don’t perform or handle very well.  And owners still need fossil fuels either to run them (oil, gasoline) or for the electricity to charge them (coal). So why on earth would anyone buy one?

In your face

Apparently hybrid vehicles owners don’t really want to save the world, they just want to look like they do. 

The New York Times reported in 2007 that the number reason why people buy the Toyota Prius is “it makes a statement about me.”

“‘I really want people to know that I care about the environment,” said Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, owner of a green 2006 Prius. ‘I like that people stop and ask me how I like my car.’”

And Mary Gatch of Charleston, S.C., explained, “’I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted to put out there…I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message.’”

 “The Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the first time ever,” said Dan Becker, head of the global warming program at the Sierra Club (and yes, a Prius owner).

Translation—what the fine folks quoted in the Times are really saying is, “My image as an eco-conscious consumer is more important than the actual images of environmental degradation no one ever sees.”

Of course, it also helps when green Kool-Aid drinking Hollywood celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Bill Maher make their planet-saving statements driving the Pacific Coast Highway in their eco-polluting hybrid.

Conspicuous conservation

It isn’t just hybrid owners that are sanctimonious eco-evangelicals. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explains that being green is a status symbol of both wealth and altruism.

“Given the relationship between self-sacrifice and status, costly signaling theory suggests that people might engage in costly pro-social behaviors such as environmental conservation particularly when they are motivated to attain status. Because the purchase of green products enables a person to signal that he is both willing and able to buy a product that benefits others at a cost to his personal use, activating a motive for status might lead people to engage in conspicuous conservation—public pro-environmental acts.”

It gets worse. Eco-evangelicals want to spend more not less. They simply can’t be trusted on cost effectiveness.

“Additional findings showed that status motives increased desirability of green products especially when such products cost more—but not less—relative to non-green products. In line with costly signaling theory, buying inexpensive green products can undermine a person’s ability to signal wealth. This finding suggests that green products such as the Toyota Prius might be selling well not despite their premium price tag but perhaps in part because such products are more expensive. Indeed, 40% of hybrid owners indicate that they bought a green car as an alternative to a traditional luxury car such as a BMW.”

They’ll have to be prepared to pay given China’s decision to further reduce the world supply of REEs. The New York Times characterized the jump in prices for just one common “green” technology—compact fluorescent lightbulbs:

“General Electric, facing complaints in the United States about rising prices for its compact fluorescent bulbs, recently noted in a statement that if the rate of inflation over the last 12 months on the rare earth element europium oxide had been applied to a $2 cup of coffee, that coffee would now cost $24.55.

In other words, forget reason, forget economics, forget the environment; we’ll pay more for everything – energy, a car, light bulbs, or hair products – if we think the world will know that we can afford to be green.

Not actually “green,” mind you.

National security versus “green economy”

Pollution aside, the U.S. relies upon these rare minerals for everything, including iPods, laptops, solar panels, windmills, alternative fuel vehicles, and advanced military weaponry.  While the demand and price have gone up, China has strategically limited the supply. It is building it’s own supply while cutting production to roughly 70 percent by 2015.

This situation has the federal government worried. The EPA reports that the Department of Energy is “concerned the rising demand for key elements in electronic and military sectors could hamper the growth of the U.S. ‘green economy,’ or an economy based on renewable energy.”

The real worry should be whether or not the world believes we can afford to waste money on “green” technology. Our reputation is at stake. What will the rest of the world think of us?

Even though estimates put total U.S. reserves around 13 percent of known REE resources worldwide, the first (and only) U.S. mine expected to be anywhere near production of REEs, Mountain Pass, was only just granted permission by the U.S. government this month to begin exploration, with actual extraction not set to begin until 2012. A second possible site located in Wyoming has been identified by the EPA as holding production potential, but is many years away from completing the myriad required impact statements and permit approvals. Among the biggest concerns surrounding the Wyoming site? Airborne radionuclides and waste water associated with the chemical refining process.

So for the next few years at the very least, China will continue to control the REE market while other countries, including the U.S., ramp up exploration and possible production of the elements and their known pollutants and waste material byproducts.

Blasphemy

The age of “conspicuous conservation” will have to compete with more important things such as national security, as much of our high tech weaponry requires rare earth minerals. The demand for “green” will also compete with our love of gadgets such as iPods and computers, and with those civilization-required things like lighting, batteries, and basic electricity.

The new “high efficiency light bulbs” require rare earths while old fluorescents did not—to make them more “visually pleasing.” At least consumers face a temporary reprieve of that particular government mandate, with the ban on “non-green” incandescent light bulbs commuted for at least a little longer.

While alternative vehicle owners, solar panel supporters, and wind turbine advocates may feel better about themselves, they’re actually polluting the planet with their “clean/green” technology. Advancing these policies is beyond irresponsible, especially when the foundation of the “clean” scheme is revealed.

This green hypocrisy has Mother Nature crying out for a separation of earth and state.

Amy Oliver Cooke is the founder of Mothers Against Debt (www. Mothersagainstdebt.com). She is also the director of the Colorado Transparency Project for the Independence Institute and writes on energy policy.  She can be reached at amy@i2i.org. Michael Sandoval is the Managing Editor of People’s Press Collective and a former political reporter for National Review Online.