Demand for rare-earth metals is skyrocketing, so we’re creating a safer, cleaner way to recover them from old phones and laptops


Shutterstock

Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo, Deakin UniversityRare-earth metals are critical to the high-tech society we live in as an essential component of mobile phones, computers and many other everyday devices. But increasing demand and limited global supply means we must urgently find a way to recover these metals efficiently from discarded products.

Rare-earth metals are currently mined or recovered via traditional e-waste recycling. But there are drawbacks, including high cost, environmental damage, pollution and risks to human safety. This is where our ongoing research comes in.

Our team in collaboration with the research centre Tecnalia in Spain has developed a way to use environmentally friendly chemicals to recover rare-earth metals. It involves a process called “electrodeposition”, in which a low electric current causes the metals to deposit on a desired surface.

This is important because if we roll out our process to scale, we can alleviate the pressure on global supply, and reduce our reliance on mining.

The increasing demand for rare-earth metals

Rare-earth metals is the collective name for a group of 17 elements: 15 from the “lanthanides series” in the periodic table, along with the elements scandium and yttrium. These elements have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties.




Read more:
Renewables need land – and lots of it. That poses tricky questions for regional Australia


The term “rare” refers to their even, but scarce, distribution around the world, noted after they were first discovered in the late 18th century.

These minerals are critical components of electronic devices, and vital for many green technologies; they’re in magnets for wind power turbines and in batteries for hybrid-electric vehicles. In fact, up to 600 kilograms of rare-earth metals are required to operate just one wind turbine.

White electric car plugged into a charger
Rare-earth metals are essential components of electric vehicles.
Shutterstock

The annual demand for rare-earth metals doubled to 125,000 tonnes in 15 years, and the demand is projected to reach 315,000 tonnes in 2030, driven by increasing uptake in green technologies and advancing electronics. This is creating enormous pressure on global production.

Can’t we just mine for more rare metals?

Rare-earth metals are currently extracted through mining, which comes with a number of downsides.

First, it’s costly and inefficient because extracting even a very small amount of rare earth metals requires large areas to be mined.

Second, the process can have enormous environmental impacts. Mining for rare earth minerals generates large volumes of toxic and radioactive material, due to the co-extraction of thorium and uranium — radioactive metals which can cause problems for the environment and human health.

Third, most mining for rare-earth metals occurs in China, which produces more than 70% of global supply. This raises concerns about long-term availability, particularly after China threatened to restrict its supply in 2019 during its trade war with the US.

E-waste recycling is not the complete answer

Through e-waste recycling, rare-earth metals can be recovered from electronic products such as mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles batteries, once they reach the end of their life.

For example, recovering them from electric vehicle batteries involves traditional hydrometallurgical (corrosive media treatment) and pyrometallurgical (heat treatment) processes. But these have several drawbacks.




Read more:
Clean energy? The world’s demand for copper could be catastrophic for communities and environments


Pyrometallurgy is energy-intensive, involving multiple stages that require high working temperatures, around 1,000℃. It also emits pollutants such as carbon dioxide, dioxins and furans into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, hydrometallurgy generates large volumes of corrosive waste, such as highly alkaline or acidic substances like sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid.

Similar recovery processes are also applied to other energy storage technologies, such as lithium ion batteries.

It’s vital to develop safer, more efficient ways to recycle e-waste and avoid mining, as demand for rare-earth metals increases.
Shutterstock

Why our research is different

Given these challenges, we set out to find a sustainable method to recover rare-earth metals, using electrodeposition.

Electrodeposition is already used to recover other metals. In our case, we have designed an environmentally friendly composition based on ionic liquid (salt-based) systems.




Read more:
Want more jobs in Australia? Cut our ore exports and make more metals at home


We focused on recovering neodymium, an important rare-earth metal due to its outstanding magnetic properties, and in extremely high demand compared to other rare-earth metals. It’s used in electric motors in cars, mobile phones, wind turbines, hard disk drives and audio devices.

Ionic liquids are highly stable, which means it’s possible to recover neodymium without generating side products, which can affect the neodymium purity.

The novelty of our research using ionic liquids for electrodeposition is the presence of water in the mix, which improves the quantity of the final recovered neodymium metal.

Unlike previously reported methods, we can recover neodymium metal without using controlled atmosphere, and at working temperature lower than 100℃. These are key considerations to industrialising such a technology.




Read more:
Rare metals play a strategic and essential role in health


At this stage we have proof of concept at lab scale using a solution of ionic liquid with water, recovering neodymium in its most expensive metallic form in a few hours. We are currently looking at scaling up the process.

An important early step

In time, our method could avoid the need to mine for rare earth metals and minimises the generation of toxic and harmful waste. It also promises to help increase economic returns from e-waste.

Importantly, this method could be adapted to recover metals in other end-of-life applications, such as lithium ion batteries, as a 2019 report projected an 11% growth per annum in production in Europe.

Our research is an important early step towards establishing a clean and sustainable processing route for rare-earth metals, and alleviating the pressures on these critical elements.The Conversation

Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo, Senior Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Blind shrimps, translucent snails: the 11 mysterious new species we found in potential fracking sites



An ostracod, a small crustacean with more than 70,000 identified species.
Anna33/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jenny Davis, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Charles Darwin University

There aren’t many parts of the world where you can discover a completely new assemblage of living creatures. But after sampling underground water in a remote, arid region of northern Australia, we discovered at least 11, and probably more, new species of stygofauna.

Stygofauna are invertebrates that have evolved exclusively in underground water. A life in complete darkness means these animals are often blind, beautifully translucent and often extremely localised – rarely living anywhere else but the patch they’re found in.

The species we discovered live in a region earmarked for fracking by the Northern Territory and federal government. As with any mining activity, it’s important future gas extraction doesn’t harm groundwater habitats or the water that sustains them.

Our findings, published today, show the importance of conducting comprehensive environmental assessments before extraction projects begin. These assessments are especially critical in Australia’s north, where many plants and animals living in surface and groundwater have not yet been documented.

When the going gets tough, go underground

Stygofauna were first discovered in Western Australia in 1991. Since then, these underground, aquatic organisms have been recorded across the continent. Today, more than 400 Australian species have been formally recognised by scientists.

The subterranean fauna we collected from NT aquifers, including a range of species unknown to science. A–C: Atyid shrimps, including Parisia unguis; D-F: Amphipods in Melitidae family; G: The syncarid species Brevisomabathynella sp.; H-J: members of the Candonidae family of ostracods; K: the harpacticoid species Nitokra lacustris; L: a new species of snail in the Caenogastropoda: M-N: Members of the Cyclopidae family of copepods; O: The worm species Aeolosoma sp.
GISERA, Author provided

Stygofauna are the ultimate climate change refugees. They would have inhabited surface water when inland Australia was much wetter. But as the continent started drying around 14 million years ago, they moved underground to the relatively stable environmental conditions of subterranean aquifers.




Read more:
Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source


Today, stygofauna help maintain the integrity of groundwater food webs. They mostly graze on fungal and microbial films created by organic material leaching from the surface.

In 2018, the final report of an independent inquiry called for a critical knowledge gap regarding groundwater to be filled, to ensure fracking could be done safely in the Northern Territory. We wanted to determine where stygofauna and microbial assemblages occurred, and in what numbers.

Our project started in 2019, when we carried out a pilot survey of groundwater wells (bores) in the Beetaloo Sub-basin and Roper River region. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is potentially one of the most important areas for shale gas in Australia.

What we found

The stygofauna we found range in size from centimetres to millimetres and include:

  • two new species of ostracod: small crustaceans enclosed within mussel-like shells

  • a new species of amphipod: this crustacean acts as a natural vacuum cleaner, feeding on decomposing material

  • multiple new species of copepods: tiny crustaceans which form a major component of the zooplankton in marine and freshwater systems

  • a new syncarid: another crustacean entirely restricted to groundwater habitats

  • a new snail and a new worm.

A thriving stygofauna ecosystem lies beneath the surface of northern Australia’s arid outback. We sampled water through bores to measure their presence.
Jenny Davis, Author provided

These species were living in groundwater 400 to 900 kilometres south of Darwin. We found them mostly in limestone karst habitats, which contain many channels and underground caverns.

Perhaps most exciting, we also found a relatively large, colourless, blind shrimp (Parisia unguis) previously known only from the Cutta Cutta caves near Katherine. This shrimp is an “apex” predator, feeding on other stygofauna — a rare find for these kinds of ecosystems.

A microscopic image of Parisia unguis, a freshwater shrimp.
Stefanie Oberprieler, Author provided

Protecting groundwater and the animals that live there

The Beetaloo Sub-basin in located beneath a major freshwater resource, the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer. It supplies water for domestic use, cattle stations and horticulture.

Surface water in this dry region is scarce, and it’s important natural gas development does not harm groundwater.

The stygofauna we found are not the first to potentially be affected by a resource project. Stygofauna have also been found at the Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia, approved by the federal government in 2019. More research will be required to understand risks to the stygofauna we found at the NT site.




Read more:
It’s not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine


The discovery of these new NT species has implications for all extractive industries affecting groundwater. It shows the importance of thorough assessment and monitoring before work begins, to ensure damage to groundwater and associated ecosystems is detected and mitigated.

Gas infrastructure at Beetaloo Basin
The Beetaloo Basin is part of the federal government’s gas expansion strategy.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

Where to from here

Groundwater is vital to inland Australia. Underground ecosystems must be protected – and not considered “out of sight, out of mind”.

Our study provides the direction to reduce risks to stygofauna, ensuring their ecosystems and groundwater quality is maintained.

Comprehensive environmental surveys are needed to properly document the distribution of these underground assemblages. The new stygofauna we found must also be formally recognised as a new species in science, and their DNA sequence established to support monitoring programs.

Different species of copepods from various parts of the world.
Andrei Savitsky/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Many new tools and approaches are available to support environmental assessment, monitoring and management of resource extraction projects. These include remote sensing and molecular analyses.

Deploying the necessary tools and methods will help ensure development in northern Australia is sustainable. It will also inform efforts to protect groundwater habitats and stygofauna across the continent.




Read more:
Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


The Conversation


Jenny Davis, Professor, Research Institute for Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Research associate, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mining companies are required to return quarried sites to their ‘natural character’. But is that enough?


Shaun Rosier, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand has more than 1,100 registered quarries. Some of these mined sites are small, rural operations, but a significant number are large and complex, and within a city’s urban boundaries.

As part of the resource consent application for a mining project, quarry operators are usually issued with a quarry management plan, which outlines what needs to happen to the landscape once mining has finished.

Most local government bodies require quarry operators to do little more than smooth the altered landscape, redistribute topsoil across these slopes, plant some new vegetation, and manage any onsite waterways to prevent surface erosion.

But restoring the ecology of an extracted site isn’t enough any more.

My research at the Horokiwi Quarry in Wellington explores how design-led remediation projects can restore the ecology of a mined landscape as well as creating new public landscapes that can be used for recreation.

An open quarry site
The southern half of the Horokiwi Quarry has been reshaped and the massive bench to the left entirely removed.
Author provided

Conditions of remediation

Quarry management plans currently pay attention to returning the topography of a mined site to a “natural” condition during the remediation. Quarries and mines extract material from the earth, and by necessity alter the surface dramatically.




Read more:
Afterlife of the mine: lessons in how towns remake challenging sites


Often a large amount of material has to be removed first to access the desired aggregate material or rare mineral. Once remediation begins, this material is spread across the site to create a natural appearance, suitable for revegetation. The landscape is smoothed over, pits filled in, and topsoil distributed.

Likewise, the revegetation strategy remains relatively simple. Most remediation projects rely on spraying a seed-fertiliser-mulch mix over these freshly contoured slopes. In difficult conditions, this is often paired with manual planting to establish cover for pioneer species.

These strategies typically use regionally specific plants, ideally sourcing the seed stock from the area to help establish a robust and appropriate ecology.




Read more:
The uranium mine in the heart of Kakadu needs a better clean up plan


Nature and culture

These processes are all used to restore a site back to a “natural character”, but what this means is left undefined. The Resource Management Act (RMA), under which mining resource consent applications have to be made, says miners have:

…a duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate any adverse effect on the environment arising from an activity.

While the RMA does not define this natural character condition that is to be preserved or restored, it provides some guidance in the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement.

Here, natural character is determined to be underpinned by natural processes, elements and patterns. But as some planners and designers have made clear, this is still an unclear position.

It relies on a problematic distinction between nature and culture, where nature is something different and unaltered from humans. Or, as US environmental historian William Cronon writes:

The place where we are is the place where nature is not.

Problematic results

Most remedial works are successful from a biological point of view, leading to full or partial restoration of ecological processes. For example, the limestone quarry at Cape Foulwind has been relatively successful in its biophysical remediation. But the site is close to local communities and on a major tourist route, and could play a bigger role as a public space.

On the other hand, the remediation of the Mikonui Valley mine, on conservation land on the West Coast, has arguably been a failure, described as a “moonscape” by conservationists. The company paid a bond to the Department of Conservation to allow it to mine on public land, but it has not remediated the land to an acceptable degree, and likely never will.

Behind this is the larger issue that remediation was only seriously considered at the end of the extraction process. Doing so left little room for other design options.




Read more:
Mining powers modern life, but can leave scarred lands and polluted waters behind


Another approach to remediation

Recent research has called for a different approach, especially for quarries and mines within urban areas where landscape architects are involved throughout the entire extraction process.

Using their knowledge and skill sets could bring the extracted landscape significantly closer to a desirable outcome. It would also allow for new spaces, including parks, housing, recreation or ecological reserves.

A design plan for a remediation of the Horokiwi Quarry near Wellington
A proposal for the remediation of the Horokiwi Quarry would turn it into a regional park, connected to the surrounding suburbs and the cities of Wellington and Lower Hutt.
Author provided

This is an important shift for urban quarry sites. Establishing a design process that works in parallel with the extraction process would allow sites such as the Horokiwi Quarry to play a role in the public life of a city.

This large aggregate quarry has a remaining lifespan of 20-30 years, and presents an ideal case to develop remediation techniques that can bring the most out of this landscape.

The design proposal builds on the experience of a landscape of extreme scale and mass. Facilities such as sports fields, gathering spaces, relaxation and a mix of pathways all feed off the experience of the landscape.

At the same time, new ecological sites are established where appropriate to create a different relationship between visitors and the landscape.

A quarry near Wellington
Pathways are designed to give visitors a sense of the scale of the quarried site.
Author provided

Turning post-extraction landscapes such as the Horokiwi Quarry into public spaces confronts us with their scale and otherworldliness. It can change how we relate to the environment.

We have to remediate these sites in a way that moves us to recognise our relationship with extraction and consumption. This might not be pretty, but it is necessary.The Conversation

Shaun Rosier, Practice-based PhD Researcher in Landscape Architecture, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can a mining state be pro-heritage? Vital steps to avoid another Juukan Gorge



Participants in the Wintawari Guruma Rock Art Research Project record rock art near Tom Price in the Pilbara region.
Jo McDonald, CRAR+M Database, Photo reproduced with permission WGAC, Author provided

Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia

The destruction of 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge sites in the Pilbara has created great distress for their traditional owners, seismic shockwaves for heritage professionals and appalled the general public.

The fallout for Rio Tinto has been profound as has the groundswell of criticism of Western Australia’s outdated heritage laws. A path forward must ensure a pivotal role for Indigenous communities and secure Keeping Places for heritage items. More broadly, we need more Indigenous places added to the National Heritage List, ensuring them the highest form of heritage protection.

In a state heavily dependent on mining, the model for this could follow the successful seven-year heritage collaboration I have been part of on-country with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) and Rio Tinto in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga).

As Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at the University of Western Australia, I am funded to undertake research supported by Rio Tinto’s conservation agreement with the Commonwealth.

This Rio Tinto funding enables research documenting the significant scientific and community values of the archipelago, feeding into the management of this estate by MAC, who represent the local coastal Pilbara groups. It also resources Indigenous rangers and trains undergraduate students.

The Murujuga conservation agreements, made between the Commonwealth and both Rio Tinto and Woodside, were negotiated when the archipelago’s one million-plus engravings and stone features were added to Australia’s National Heritage List in 2007.




Read more:
Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


Murujuga is one of only seven Indigenous rock art places on the National Heritage List. There are 118 listings in total in Australia (only 20 of them Indigenous). Murujuga is the only listed Indigenous site here with a conservation agreement requiring industry to fund heritage protection.

Rio Tinto does not have a similar agreement with the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, the Puutu Kunti Kurruma Pinikuru (PKKP) peoples — nor do any of the other Pilbara resource extraction companies with their host native title communities. These mining tenements are managed by a range of royalty agreements, which recognise native title rights but are flexible and require transparency.

Despite working closely with Rio Tinto, I have been dismayed by the Juukan incident and the fault lines it has revealed in Rio Tinto’s historically significant investment in heritage management and agreement-making with Aboriginal people.

PKKP this week expressed their distress at the company’s behavior. Clearly, there is much for Rio Tinto to improve. But similarly, the regulation process is seriously flawed.

A screenshot of a supplied video taken in 2015 showing one of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia before they were destroyed by Rio Tinto in May 2020.
PKKP AND PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.



Read more:
Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


Conserving Aboriginal heritage

Many of the changes in the WA Government’s new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 are welcome: in particular, the recognition of native title, allowing “stop work orders” if an Indigenous community says mining work was begun without their permission, and increased penalties for damaging heritage.

But Aboriginal groups, including many in the Kimberley and south-west WA, fear the onus for this regulatory process will be passed onto them and — despite being the appropriate people to manage their own heritage — they will not be adequately resourced to do so.

The number of heritage sites likely to be at risk in the future will number in the thousands, given the current footprint of mining is a mere 1% of the planned expansion over the next century. A new paradigm is needed in managing heritage. There needs to be a process of identifying regionally significant landscapes and earmarking them for conservation before future development footprints are determined.

And there need to be more conservation agreements like the Murujuga one, with industry-funding heritage and conservation rather than just mining clearance work.

In the Pilbara, for instance, there are three national parks, Karajini, Millstream-Chichester and Murujuga, where mining cannot occur. But more are needed in other native title areas. They need to be resourced so Aboriginal heritage rangers can manage them, with appropriate facilities for tourists.

Members of the Wintawari Guruma Rock Art Project recording contemporary values with traditional custodians, university researchers and Rio Tinto heritage personnel.
Jo McDonald CRAR+M Database reproduced with permission of Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation

Mining compliance surveys, which “manage harm” to heritage are a significant economy for many Aboriginal communities.

But a number of Pilbara Aboriginal Corporations, including Wintawari Gurama, with whom I have developed a rock art research project, don’t want to just participate in the mining economy, which is tantamount to destroying their heritage.

They want to train local rangers, and document, record and manage their own heritage estates, enabling elders and young people to earn a living on country.

A Murujuga Ranger recording rock art.
Jo McDonald CRAR+M Database reproduced with permission of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation

This approach is equally required in places like the Kimberley, where fracking could be the next resources “boom”.

Aboriginal communities need Keeping Places.

Across the Pilbara, items such as the 7,000 heritage items salvaged from Juukan Gorge, are being housed in locked shipping containers. Secure air-conditioned Keeping Places are an urgent requirement.




Read more:
Destruction of Juukan Gorge: we need to know the history of artefacts, but it is more important to keep them in place


These, too, could be funded by industry, becoming the focus of heritage tourism and ranger training, and hosting collaborative research on heritage, biodiversity and conservation.

Murujuga, which has been added to the World Heritage Tentative List, has a tourism management plan. A Living Knowledge Centre is planned, and additional interpretation facilities.

Ngajarli (Deep Gorge) bird track panel on Murujuga with evidence of industry visible in the background.
Jo McDonald CRAR+M Database reproduced with permission of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation

The state government and industry stakeholders are funding the Murujuga Rock Art Strategy, which will monitor and assess emissions from nearby industry. There are, however, concerning plans to introduce new industry in the adjacent Burrup Industrial Estate. This is an issue, too, for the federal government, which has ultimate oversight of heritage on the national list.

In WA, the state government asserts that heritage can co-exist with industry. But this will only be possible if the state recognises heritage is non-renewable — just like the mineral wealth of this country.The Conversation

Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A brutal war and rivers poisoned with every rainfall: how one mine destroyed an island



Locals living downstream of the abandoned mine pan for gold in mine waste.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Matthew G. Allen, The University of the South Pacific

This week, 156 people from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, petitioned the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over a copper mine that devastated their homeland.

In 1988, disputes around the notorious Panguna mine sparked a lengthy civil war in Bougainville, leading to the deaths of up to 20,000 people. The war is long over and the mine has been closed for 30 years, but its brutal legacy continues.




Read more:
Bougainville has voted to become a new country, but the journey to independence is not yet over


When I conducted research in Bougainville in 2015, I estimated the deposit of the mine’s waste rock (tailings) downstream from the mine to be at least a kilometre wide at its greatest point. Local residents informed me it was tens of metres deep in places.

I spent several nights in a large two-story house built entirely from a single tree dragged out of the tailings — dragged upright, with a tractor. Every new rainfall brought more tailings downstream and changed the course of the waterways, making life especially challenging for the hundreds of people who eke out a precarious existence panning the tailings for remnants of gold.

The petition has brought the plight of these communities back into the media, but calls for Rio Tinto to clean up its mess have been made for decades. Let’s examine what led to the ongoing crisis.

Triggering a civil war

The Panguna mine was developed in the 1960s, when PNG was still an Australian colony, and operated between 1972 and 1989. It was, at the time, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

It was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of what is now Rio Tinto, until 2016 when Rio handed its shares to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.

When a large-scale mining project reaches the end of its commercial life, a comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation plan is usually put in place.




Read more:
PNG marks 40 years of independence, still feeling the effects of Australian colonialism


But Bougainville Copper simply abandoned the site in the face of a landowner rebellion. This was largely triggered by the mine’s environmental and social impacts, including disputes over the sharing of its economic benefits and the impacts of those benefits on predominantly cashless societies.

Following PNG security forces’ heavy-handed intervention — allegedly under strong political pressure from Bougainville Copper — the rebellion quickly escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict that eventually engulfed all parts of the province.

By the time the hostilities ended in 1997, thousands of Bougainvilleans had lost their lives, including from an air and sea blockade the PNG military had imposed, which prevented essential medical supplies reaching the island.

The mine’s gigantic footprint

The Panguna mine’s footprint was gigantic, stretching across the full breadth of the central part of the island.

The disposal of hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings into the Kawerong-Jaba river system created enormous problems.

Rivers and streams became filled with silt and significantly widened. Water flows were blocked in many places, creating large areas of swampland and disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of people in communities downstream of the mine. These communities used the rivers for drinking water and the adjacent lands for subsistence food gardening.

Several villages had to be relocated to make way for the mining operations, with around 200 households resettled between 1969 and 1989.

In the absence of any sort of mine closure or “mothballing” arrangements, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the Panguna mine have only been compounded.

Since the end of mining activities 30 years ago, tailings have continued to move down the rivers and the waterways have never been treated for suspected chemical contamination.




Read more:
Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Long-suffering communities

The 156 complainants live in communities around and downstream of the mine. Many are from the long-suffering village of Dapera.

In 1975, the people of Dapera were relocated to make way for mining activities. Today, it’s in the immediate vicinity of the abandoned mine pit. As one woman from Dapera told me in 2015:

I have travelled all over Bougainville, and I can say that they [in Dapera] are the poorest of the poor.

They, and others, sent the complaint to the Australian OECD National Contact Point after lodging it with Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre.

The complainants say by not ensuring its operations didn’t infringe on the local people’s human rights, Rio Tinto breached OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The Conversation contacted Rio Tinto for comment. A spokesperson said:

We believe the 2016 arrangement provided a platform for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and PNG to work together on future options for the resource with all stakeholders.

While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to on-going security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.

We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant parties such as BCL and the governments of ABG and PNG.

A long time coming

This week’s petition comes after a long succession of calls for Rio Tinto to be held to account for the Panguna mine’s legacies and the resulting conflict.

A recent example is when, after Rio Tinto divested from Bougainville Copper in 2016, former Bougainville President John Momis said Rio must take full responsibility for an environmental clean-up.

And in an unsuccessful class action, launched by Bougainvilleans in the United States in 2000, Rio was accused of collaborating with the PNG state to commit human rights abuses during the conflict and was also sued for environmental damages. The case ultimately foundered on jurisdictional grounds.

Two people, one waist-deep in tailings.
Hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings were deposited in the rivers.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Taking social responsibility

This highlights the enormous challenges in seeking redress from mining companies for their operations in foreign jurisdictions, and, in this case, for “historical” impacts.

The colonial-era approach to mining when Panguna was developed in the 1960s stands in stark contrast to the corporate social responsibility paradigm supposedly governing the global mining industry today.




Read more:
Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws


Indeed, Panguna — along with the socially and environmentally disastrous Ok Tedi mine in the western highlands of PNG — are widely credited with forcing the industry to reassess its “social license to operate”.

It’s clear the time has come for Rio to finally take responsibility for cleaning up the mess on Bougainville.The Conversation

Matthew G. Allen, Professor of Development Studies, The University of the South Pacific

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.

The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.




Read more:
The NSW koala wars showed one thing: the Nationals appear ill-equipped to help rural Australia


Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.

Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.

A koala clinging to a tree branch
This female koala is under threat from the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion.
Lachlan Howell, Author provided

The Brandy Hill Quarry expansion

The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.

The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.

The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.




Read more:
View from The Hill: Barilaro keeps Nationals in the tent; koalas stay in limbo


The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.

The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.

A disaster for koalas

In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.

Male koalas will bellow during the breeding season to attract females.

The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.

During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.

What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.

The Koala Habitat Suitability Model from our independent report. The red boundary represents the Quarry expansion site containing high habitat suitability.
Map produced by S. A. Ryan using the Koala Habitat Information Base and arcGIS 10.6., Author provided

CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.

Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.




Read more:
Stopping koala extinction is agonisingly simple. But here’s why I’m not optimistic


This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.

Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.

Approved under the state’s weak environmental protections

It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.

Alarm over the weaknesses of NSW environmental protections has been raised by NSW government agencies including the Natural Resources Commission and NSW Audit Office.




Read more:
Our laws failed these endangered flying-foxes at every turn. On Saturday, Cairns council will put another nail in the coffin


The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.

Female and male koalas spotted 1 km from the quarry boundary. The male was observed bellowing 96 m from the female koala. Photo: Lachlan Howell.

The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.

Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.

But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.




Read more:
Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government


The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.

The koalas are in Sussan Ley’s hands

Sussan Ley will now assess the expansion under the EPBC Act. A recent interim report into the laws said they’d allowed an “unsustainable state of decline” of Australia’s environment.

Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.

Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.




Read more:
Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws


The Conversation


Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Super funds are feeling the financial heat from climate change


Amandine Denis, Monash University

The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.

This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.




Read more:
Coping with Western wildfires: 5 essential reads


New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.

A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.

And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.

UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.




Read more:
UniSuper take note: there’s no retirement on a dead planet


The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.

While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.

These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.

Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.

Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.

Managing risk

This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.

In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.

Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.

But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.

Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.

This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.

Charred remains at a home destroyed by fire in Berry Creek, California, September 10 2020.
Climate change is now an issue ‘distinctly financial in nature’.
Peter Dasilva/EPA

This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.

Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.

Creating the new normal

Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.

But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.

With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.




Read more:
California is on fire. From across the Pacific, Australians watch on and buckle up


As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.The Conversation

Amandine Denis, Head of Research, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These Aussie teens have launched a landmark climate case against the government. Win or lose, it’ll make a difference



Five of the eight young plaintiffs. From left: Ava Princi, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ambrose Hayes, Veronica Hester, Laura Kirwan.
Equity Generation Lawyers

Laura Schuijers, University of Melbourne

On Tuesday, eight young Australians aged 13-17 filed a class action seeking an injunction to prevent federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley approving a new coal project expansion.

They are bringing their case to the Federal Court. They argue if Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion in New South Wales is approved, it will contribute to climate change which endangers their future.




Read more:
‘A wake-up call’: why this student is suing the government over the financial risks of climate change


Saying the environment minister owes the young plaintiffs a duty of care is a novel approach. In their view, signing off on a new coal project will breach that duty. Such an approach to a climate change case has not been tested before in Australia, and would chart new territory if successful.

Although a legal victory would appear difficult on these grounds, the implications of this case are already significant. They show young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new ways to hold powerful people to account.

What is the case about?

The case concerns a proposal to construct an open-cut coal mine, about 25 kilometres north of the NSW town of Gunnedah. It’s an extension project, meaning it will expand a mine that has already been approved, increasing its coal production by about 25%, and emissions by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the life of the project. The coal would be exported.

Like many mining proposals, this one has been divisive. Farmers worry about competing for water, and the local community has expressed concern over the environmental record of the coal company.

Yet in August, the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the proposal, finding the expansion is in the public interest, given the forecast jobs and revenue. It has not yet received federal approval.

What are the teenagers arguing?

The young plaintiffs are not bringing their case under environmental law, which would be the traditional way to launch a legal challenge objecting to a coal mine.

Environmental law invites government decision-makers to balance competing concerns — such as economic benefits versus environmental impact — with no clear stipulation as to how much weight to give each relevant factor.

There is limited recourse to argue a decision is wrong because the positive and negative impacts were not given particular priority by a minister. This means decision-making on major projects is largely within the political realm.

Instead, the plaintiffs are arguing the environment minister shouldn’t approve the coal proposal because doing so would breach a duty of care owed by the minister to protect them from the harmful impacts of climate change. This includes more frequent extreme weather events, and destruction of the natural systems that support human life.

The case has parallels with a landmark Dutch case, where it was successfully argued in 2019 that the Dutch Government breached its duty of care to its citizens through inadequate action on climate change.




Read more:
These young Queenslanders are taking on Clive Palmer’s coal company and making history for human rights


For the Australian case to succeed, the Court will first need to consider whether a duty of care exists in Australian law. There is no statutory duty (under laws created by the parliament), so the Court would need to “find” the duty as existing in common law.

Then, the plaintiffs would need to establish that the duty would be breached by the environment minister signing off on the coal project.

Will it succeed?

Establishing both these things is likely to be very difficult in our legal context. From past cases, we know Australian courts have been reluctant to find a causal link between climate change and individual projects, even large mines. However, this link was found in a NSW case last year.

The court is likely to look closely at the particular relationship between the minister and the vulnerable young people, who will be strongly impacted by climate change but have no voting rights. It will consider whether they represent a particular class of individuals, in relation to which the minister has a responsibility.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers recently highlighted a case that potentially paves the way to support this idea. In 2016, the Federal Court found the immigration minister Peter Dutton owed a duty of care to a vulnerable refugee with a history of trauma, who was detained on Nauru.

One thing in the current case’s favour is that, similar to the Dutch case, the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary compensation. If they were, the difficulty for the courts to determine what future obligation the government might have to pay out young people would, almost undoubtedly, prohibit success.

What’s also interesting about this case, unlike the Dutch case or the famous Juliana case that was recently quashed in the US, is that it’s not asking the government for broad-scale policy action on climate change. It’s only concerned with one coal mine approval. This is a more straightforward remedy which a court could be more willing to grant.

Beating the odds

If the case successfully established a duty and that it was breached, this would open up the possibility future coal approval decisions would also breach the duty — somewhat of a Pandora’s box.

Although we will have to wait and see what the Court says, the suit will draw attention to the government’s climate policies, whether or not it succeeds.

If the case succeeds, it might compel the government to stop approving any coal mines that would significantly contribute to climate change. If it doesn’t, it will remind us that it’s up to the government to respond to the threats climate change poses, rather than the courts.

Either way, the teenagers in this case are part of a growing number of people willing to find creative avenues to pursue action, even if it means taking a long shot. And beating the odds is exactly how the law tends to evolve.




Read more:
Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws


The Conversation


Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan is closing its old, dirty power plants – and that’s bad news for Australia’s coal exports



Shutterstock

Llewelyn Hughes, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Last month, the Japanese government announced a plan to retire its fleet of old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030. And what happens to coal power in Japan matters a lot to Australia.

Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars’ worth of thermal coal to Japan in 2019 – about 12% of our total thermal coal exports.

In the short term, several new coal plants are being built in Japan to replace scrapped capacity. But there are signs investors are not flocking to invest in expensive new Japanese coal technology.

And in the long run, the investment environment for new coal technology is worsening. If Japan’s commitment to coal weakens, that will mean less demand for Australia’s exports.

Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka.
Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka. Japan is phasing out its old coal infrastructure.
Shutterstock

Japan’s changing coal fleet

Almost all Japan’s nuclear power stations remain shuttered ten years after the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government has positioned coal as a long-term hedge against the possibility the nuclear power restarts will not proceed as hoped.

However, Japan has also been criticised for its lack of ambition on plans to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Last month, the government signalled it will decommission about 100 inefficient coal-fired power units. It aims to reduce coal’s share of the power mix to 26% by 2030 – down from 32% in the 2018 financial year.




Read more:
How to transition from coal: 4 lessons for Australia from around the world


The big questions are: what are the prospects for Japan’s coal fleet, and what does this mean for Australia?

The Japanese government is supporting investment in newer plants, including some that use a high-pressure “gasifier” to turn coal into gas. But these types of plants are expensive to build. With a typical coal plant expected to operate for about 40 years, companies are wary of making huge outlays with relatively limited time to recoup the investment.

Reflecting this, last year Osaka Gas withdrew plans to build a 1.2 gigawatt (GW) coal plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Tokyo Gas, Kyushu Electric and Idemitsu also abandoned plans to build a 2GW coal plant in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. In total, 30% of planned investment in coal power has been scrapped since 2016.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria.
Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria. Japan’s phase-out of old coal plants raises questions over its demand for Australian coal in the long term.
Julian Smith/AAP

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important. Japan has big plans for offshore wind power, and renewable electricity is falling in price.

In Europe and elsewhere, such changing economics have helped drive falls in the number of hours that coal plants operate. Globally, final investment decisions for new coal plants fell from more than 100GW in 2010 to just over 20GW in 2018. Although it might take a little longer in Japan, there is no reason to expect things to be different there.

Crucially, these dynamics are underpinned by shifts in Japan’s electricity market to encourage more competition. Over time, that should mean companies find it increasingly difficult to pass the costs of expensive investments in coal technologies to final customers.




Read more:
Matt Canavan says Australia doesn’t subsidise the fossil fuel industry, an expert says it does


Machinery working in a coal pile
Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars of thermal coal to Japan in 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Dim prospects for coal

Mining company Glencore this month announced a plan to cut production from Australian coal mines, citing weak demand due to COVID-19.

The world will recover from the pandemic. But in the longer term, coal in Japan faces even stiffer headwinds – not least market competition and increasing renewables from offshore wind and other technologies.

This creates real questions about the appetite of Japanese companies to wage the increasingly risky bet that coal-fired power represents. Changes in Japan’s power market show the need for Australia to begin transiting to an economy less reliant on carbon-intensive exports.




Read more:
If we could design JobKeeper within weeks, we can exit coal by 2030. Here’s how to do it


The Conversation


Llewelyn Hughes, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.