What’s Worse for the Environment: Natural Gas or Rare-Earth Metals?

Projected demand for rare metals production required to meet Paris climate accord CO2 emission goals. Source: “Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity and generation in the Netherlands.”

by James A. Bacon

Tom Hadwin is one of the smartest, most well-informed commentators in Virginia on the subject of the electric grid, utility regulation and Dominion Virginia Energy. He sets a high standard for the discussion about energy policy in Virginia. He is calm, rational and fact-based, he refrains from ad hominem attacks and does not engage in partisan hysterics. It is a pleasure exchanging views with him, even when we disagree, and I would recommend readers with an interest in the future of the electric grid to read his thorough and thoughtful comments on Dominion’s 2020 Integrated Research Plan, which you can find below.

That said, Hadwin advances several propositions that are at best debatable. In this post, I wish to focus on one in particular: the way he frames his analysis to include the system-wide costs of drilling and distribution when calculating the environmental costs of natural gas and ignoring the system-wide costs of mining and processing rare-earth metals when calculating the environmental costs of solar panels and wind turbines.

Hadwin observes that many energy executives and financiers promoted natural gas as the “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future on the grounds that CO2 emissions from power-plant combustion are half that of coal. But he goes on to argue that it is not adequate to consider natural-gas combustion alone. One must take a holistic approach of natural gas drilling, fracking, and distribution as well as combustion. Writes Hadwin:

Firing generators with gas does reduce some of the problems associated with coal. However, producing gas using hydraulic fracturing has contaminated over one trillion gallons of fresh water. Climate risks have not been reduced by the shift to gas, according to peer-reviewed research. Methane leaks in the production zones, in storage locations, and along the pipeline transportation network offset the savings in CO2 releases that gas-fired plants offer. Twenty years after its release, methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas compared to CO2. Methane leaks have been measured and are greater than previously estimated. They are not large and many can be remedied, but a little methane goes a long way in contributing to climate effects.

I agree it is a valid point to consider the system-wide costs associated with natural gas. What Tom (and others) fail to do is consider the system-wide costs associated with renewable fuels.

Solar power requires the production of solar panels. Wind power requires the production of wind turbines. A report from the University Leiden, “Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity and generation in the Netherlands,” discusses the supply-chain issues associated with solar and wind from the European perspective.

Meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord would require the global production of some metals to grow by at least twelve-fold by 2050, says the report. The demand for neodymium, terbium, indium, dysprosium, and praseodymium stands out. Mining of these ores takes place in a few select countries, and refining is concentrated in even fewer countries. (One of them is China.) Supply cannot be expanded rapidly: opening a new mine takes 10 to 20 years.

More to the point of Hadwin’s argument, the study notes that “With ore grades declining, mining requires an increasing volume of water and energy. Furthermore, mining is often associated with significant environmental and social costs.”

The so-called rare-earth metals, of which there are 17, are not all that rare. The problem is that they do not appear in ores concentrated enough to extract economically. China accounts for 35% of the world’s reserves of rare earths and it has moved to obtain exclusive mining rights in African countries such as Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over and above the concerns arising from China’s control over supply, which it has used to bully other nations, are the environmental costs. Reports Earth.org:

It’s challenging to mine and process rare earths without harming the environment. The problems are related to the two primary extraction methods.

The first involves removing the topsoil, transporting it to a leaching pond, and adding chemicals (such as ammonium sulfate and ammonium chloride) to separate out the metals. The chemicals used in this separation process can create air pollution, cause erosion, and leach into groundwater.

The second processing method involves drilling holes into the ground, inserting PVC pipes and rubber hoses and pumping chemicals to flush out earth. The resulting slurry is then pumped into leaching ponds to separate out the rare-earth metal.

This method creates the same problems as with topsoil removal with the addition of the PVC pipes, rubber hoses and other sundry used by mining crews remaining littered in the mines.

Abandoned mines pose ongoing environmental hazards. Remaining chemicals can continue to leach into groundwater.

Less burdened by environmental standards, China has been ineffective at mitigating and repairing the environmental damage.

Further, as the Manhattan Institute observes, forecasts count the quantity of refined, pure elements required (typically measured in pounds) rather than the amount of rock that must be extracted (typically measured in thousands of pounds). Because rare-earth metals do not appear in high-density concentrations, mining operations must extract, pulverize and refine a high volume of rock to yield a small volume of metal. Thus, a 1,000-pound electric-car battery requires the extraction and processing of some 500,000 pounds of materials. “Averaged over a battery’s life, each mile of driving an electric car ‘consumes’ five pounds of earth.” By contrast, an internal combustion engine consumes about 0.2 pounds of liquids per mile.

All that mining and processing has an energy cost.

Bottom line: One cannot consider the “supply-chain” costs of natural gas combustion without also considering the “supply-chain” cost associated with the fabrication of solar panels and wind turbines. I couldn’t find any hard data for the energy costs of producing rare-earth metals, but they are significant. Until we get a better handle on the cost of ramping rare-earth production twelve-fold, it is premature to conclude that renewable energy sources are better for the environment than natural gas.

Click to access Hadwin-Comments_Dominion-2020-IRP-1.pdf

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37 responses to “What’s Worse for the Environment: Natural Gas or Rare-Earth Metals?

  1. Who are Constant Tedder, Floortje van der Grinten, Owen Mulhern and why should I believe them about rare earth metal issues in general?

    What is their expertise?

    • I’m not going to reply to Larry’s inane question. But by using reply I keep my place in line….

      Don’t forget disposal costs, Jim. Neither solar panels nor turbines last forever. They may last fewer than 30 years before either very expensive efforts to recycle or store. All full lifecycle costs matter, if cost matters. It doesn’t to many people. The response is usually “How can you put a price on virtue?”

      The nukes are about to extend their lives to 80 years.

      • Not inane at all to ask the qualifications of those who purport to be knowledgeable about issues.

        We have way too many folks masquerading as “smart” people these days so we should know their expertise.

        In this case, I think there are some other folks out there who do have the background to offer insight.

        It was not that long ago that we were talking about peak oil – and before fracking – how scarce natural gas was and now look.

        When a market for something expands – so do the efforts to supply that market and in some cases – like CFCs – it leads to ther materials that can do the same job.

        On “disposal costs” – does anyone think taking down a retired as plant or coal plant or nuke has costs lower than taking down turbines or solar panels?

        As bad as some of the enviros are on “hope” for things like batteries – the “anti” solar/wind folks are just as bad.

        How many posts have we seen here basically attacking wind and solar as fuels? Several dozen by my count.

        If we can frack gas, do you think we can find the materials needed for wind/solar and also dispose of then similar to gas/coal/nuke plants?

        • Nope. Inane is the right word.

          • “Inane” is what you say when you don’t even recognise the guy Bacon is promoting as a knowledgeable “smart person” saying that we are running out of rare earth metals…

            Check the credentials on this guy. Are they too “iane”?

            Why do ya’ll do this? Just cite someone because you like what they say – no matter their qualification and expertise other than they are a “smart person”?

    • Larry’s rhetorical strategy is to always shift the burden of proof onto the other guy. Raise any number of inane objections, and then ask for ever higher orders of proof.

      I tell you what, Larry, if you don’t accept the authority of three Dutch professor working for Leiden University, why don’t you come up with some evidence that their views are tainted? Or better yet, come up with some hard evidence to suggest that their account is biased?

      The fact is, these guys want to combat climate change, but they are hard-headed realists about what it takes to do so successfully. If you’d consulted their study, you’d see that they suggest a number of strategies for getting around the problem of scarce rare-earth metals. But it’s so much easier to impugn the authors, your usual tactic.

      • Jim – there are competent and authorotative people who do have knowledge on this subect. Why do you pick people who don’t have the credentials or knowledge to make your claim?

        My “strategy” is merely to ask that you use authorotative sources or at least acknowledge when you do not.

        I just think it borders on disengenous to portray this issue in this way using people as if they are authorotative and knowledgeable on a subject when they are not.

        There ARE people who ARE. Why not use them?

        The first think I do is check the source – who are they. What is their field, what else have they written on – and do they have an agenda, etc.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Willis Mountain in Dillwyn, VA is getting smaller and smaller. Kyanite is used in ceramics, plumbing, and electronics. Supposedly good for memory loss, better dreams, and healing.

    ?w=595&h=395

    • Thats’s impressive James… Reminds me of arid land I see out west and glad it’s not radioactive!

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I have a soft spot for lonely monadock mountains in the Piedmont that date back to the days of Pangea.

        • Not mountaintop removal. Mountain removal. Reminds me of the mostly-iron ore mountain we could see from Grand Terrace, CA in the San Bernardino Valley, disappearing for the same reason.

    • It’s also, and used to be predominantly, used in asbestos. Kyanite isn’t just used in ways that help us. Asbestos installed years ago costs huge sums today to remove it for health reasons.

  3. Once again government selecting winners and losers… and of course they will select which and how much “science” to base it on. ..
    Need to get rid of all of the subsidies…
    PS,, Larry the Google says,,,, – like CFCs – it leads to other materials that can do the same job.
    Larry … their are substitutes for CFC’S but they certainly do not do the same job, and not at the same price,,, they are less efficient and require higher operating pressures, yes that would require more energy usage than if we were using good old R12 and R22…and heavier everything to withstand higher pressures..
    Engineers didn’t just accidently select them as refrigerants years ago…. they were selected because of efficiency, availability, cost … technical terms like glide slope apply here… tradeoffs for whatever reason are not free,,, there are costs involved…

    • Winners and losers? Do you mean like the Price-Anderson Act which became law on Sept. 2, 1957, to cover liability claims of members of the public for personal injury and property damage caused by a commercial nuclear power plant accident. The legislation helped encourage private investment in commercial nuclear power by placing a cap, or ceiling, on the total amount of liability each nuclear power plant licensee faced in the event of an accident. Over time, the “limit of liability” for a nuclear accident has increased the insurance pool to more than $13 billion.

      and none the less.. CFCs seem to do the job and I don’t see any huge cost increase either. We adapt when we can or must.

      Do you remember catalytic converters and all the fru fru about the “precious metals” platinum, palladium and rhodium that they needed? Haven’t heard much about them lately either but they have helped to even fruther reduce emissions from vehicles…

      And this talk about how much “dirt” has to be processed to yield these metals! geezy peezy… has anyone looked at what coal took or cooper or other metals like bauxite or any number of “ores”? Fracking? Every taken a look at how that works?

      • Larry:

        Catalytic converter theft is a big problem in some places. Apparently the scrap value on some of them is upwards of $400.

        That buys a lot of heroin and meth.

    • I’m pretty sure that the mullet crowd has figured out that you can use propane in place of R12 and R22.

  4. “ammonium sulfate and ammonium chloride”

    You know what the basic feedstock is for most ammonia-based compounds? CH4 – methane aka natural gas.

  5. This is a good post, Jim. You raise a legitimate issue–if one is comparing costs, one must be comparing oranges and oranges. If one is including supply chain costs for one source of energy, one should include the supply chain costs of all sources.

    I ran across a similar problem with the question of whether to use paper bags or plastic bags at the grocery store. I had opted for paper bags, when available. Then I became aware of research that that demonstrated that the production of plastic bags was better for the environment, when all costs were considered. So, that leaves the question of disposal. Disposal of plastic of bags is more problematic than it is for paper bags.

    So, the same problem is applicable for energy production. Which is cheaper–after taking into account all the supply chain, environmental damage, and social costs? If solar and wind are more expensive, then it comes down to whether the reduction of CO2 and climate change is worth the extra cost.

    Beyond the issue of climate change, there is the issue of sustainability that helps make the case for renewable energy. The world will run out of fossil fuel at some point. It is already becoming harder and more expensive to find new sources of some fuels.

    By the way, your post is another example of the benefit of reading this blog. I had never heard of the rare earth metals you listed!

    • Another thing that is missing is the analysis of who pays and who benefits. Unless one believes that climate change causes everything from indigestion to epilepsy, one must look at the big-ticket items. The largest impact seems to be the rising sea levels, such that the largest benefit would be slowing the rise in sea level. That would benefit landowners of seacoast, properties affected by tidal changes and properties in flood plains.

      We also need to keep in mind that sea levels have been rising for hundreds of years without regard to climate change. So at a bare minimum, anti-climate change measures should not include any effort or costs to reverse those increases in sea level not caused by increases in greenhouse gas emissions. To do otherwise is just transferring wealth from the masses to the few, most of whom are likely to have a lot more wealth than the masses.

      Also, we must ask what obligation do these landowners affected by rising seas caused by greenhouse gas emissions have towards society. At a bare minimum, they would certainly have an obligation not to make matters worse and to engage in mitigation strategies of their own.

      It would seem unreasonable to allow empty land in an area likely to be flooded in the future to be built upon. One can even make a good argument that existing structures should be grandfathered such that the owner cannot tear one down and replace it or even make major improvements that increase the size of the structure’s footprint. If climate change is so important, shouldn’t society place substantial limits on coastal real estate? And, if not, why not?

  6. One of the bright-line divides (I think) on renewables and non-renewables is one’s belief about how much a threat Global Warming is or is not.

    Without over-generalizing, those who don’t believe there is serious/unacceptable damage to the earth from burning fossil fuels will tend to think of them as poison that will continue to harm the climate and they must be removed.

    Those who do not buy the planet-harming predictions don’t think that fossil fuels are really harming the climate and that renewables are not only expensive and unnecessary but also unreliable.

    That’s the basic argument in dozens of posts in BR over the last few years.

    There is a 3rd group now that believes that “some” harm will be done but not catastrophic and we need to not be spooked into doing dumb things.

    The “rare metals” issue came to the fore long before renewables with the advent of Smart Phones and electric cars and other things… consider the word “lithium” as an operative word.

    Here’s one article:

    Lithium-ion Batteries: “Rare Earth” vs Supply Chain Availability

    https://www.batterypoweronline.com/news/lithium-ion-batteries-rare-earth-vs-supply-chain-availability/

    • OK, Larry, you want to know the authors’ credentials. I’ll do the work you’re too lazy to do.

      Pieter van Exter — Pieter leads Metabolic’s circular industries team, supporting companies in their transition to a sustainable state by undertaking analysis and developing strategies based on advanced systems thinking. Metabolic’s corporate goal is “to transition the global economy to a fundamentally sustainable state.”

      Sybren Bosch, MSc (Copper8) is a senior consultant with Copper8, which works on achieving “a sustainable impact in the manufacturing and construction industry.”

      Branco Schipper — also works for Metabolic

      Dr. Benjamin Sprecher (CML) — assistant professor at the University of Leiden, with a specialty of extracting raw materials from waste streams.

      Dr. René Kleijn (CML) — is a professor of environmental at the University of Leiden, has published extensively in metal supply constraints for a low-carbon economy.

      These people are environmentalists, Larry. But unlike the policy wonks who drive policy in the United States, they want to create a sustainable world that actually works. These Dutchmen (and women) are doing the hard work that American environmentalists should be doing.

      But go ahead, question the authors’ credentials without knowing a darn thing about them. If that’s your response to the post, it’s pretty pathetic, just your old worn-out ploy of saying the authors are biased, which then relieves you of the responsibility of showing how they are wrong.

      • I DID do the homework Jim and that’s WHY I asked about credentials.

        Why did you post something as authorotative when it is largely opinion?

        That’s more and more a “strategy” here.. post what a “smart person” says and treat it as fact..because it sounds “logical” to you and appeals to your own biases!

  7. Jim,
    Gee! You toss bouquets all over Tom Hadwin and then you bash him in the teeth! What a guy!

  8. But you calumniate my motives and question my competence!

    • which is pretty much standard operating procedure in BR these days when the folks on the right disagree…

      just read the responses to many of your posts… not on the merits just plain old Ad Hominems…

  9. Ad hom is what happens to the other guy

  10. “Tom Hadwin is one of the smartest, most well-informed commentators in Virginia on the subject of the electric grid, utility regulation and Dominion Virginia Energy. He sets a high standard for the discussion about energy policy in Virginia. He is calm, rational and fact-based, he refrains from ad hominem attacks and does not engage in partisan hysterics.”

    At the risk of more hominem attacks and partisan hysterics upsetting Jim’s hyper sensitivities, and as regards matters of serious consequence, I disagree with most everything Tom Hadwin has had to say on energy policy on this blog. I consider his policies to be highly partisan, totally anti gas, nuclear, and anti fossil, while blindly pro-renewable to the point of absurdity. I believe that had we adopted his policies 1o years ago, we would today as a nation confront a energy disaster, similar to the one California now confronts. A gross and growing failure of energy supply at an ever increasing cost on consumers, the California economy, and its environment that quite literally is going up in flames. The reasons for California’s abject energy failures are simple and well known. The State has prematurely substituted proven technologies (nuclear and gas) for highly inefficient, expensive, and unreliable technologies (wind and solar). In short California has combined a religion (wind & solar) with crony capitalist greed to create and build a failed energy policy and grid. This gross failure threatens now to spread through out America today as the new oligarchy of environmentalists, leftist politicians and crony capitalists have signed onto a joint venture worthy of Satan, one designed to make mountains of money at public expense while it does great damage not only to our economy and our national security but to our environment as well. Just like has already happened in California, for all to see. These groups now are working hard to shut down our national conversation on the subject, and to hide the facts behind it from the American people. Hence, I largely disagree with Jim Bacon on most of these subjects was well, if only because he is so lost in the weeds of the conversation, he can’t see the burning forests, and never has, best I can discern.

    I have expressed these views at length on this blog for years. A most recent and highly intelligent podcast edition of these issues can be found below. I (along with Steve Haner) also suggest Mike Shellenberger’s new book Apocalypse Never.

    See:
    https://www.facebook.com/QuilletteM/videos/1433518183508982/

  11. I do not agree with Tom on his extreme views of energy choice and eco-stewardship. I do share some of Tom’s criticism of the the way state-run monopoly utilities work.

    Overall, this brings up the message by Michael Moore in Planet of the Humans, that liberal American’s political choice of energy winners does not really solve any eco-problems.

  12. Since negative external costs have been forbidden to be included in cost benefit analyses of fossil fuels for decades in Virginia, it’s interesting to see the demand to consider them for renewable sources. I’d rather see us include all costs of all sources and am disappointed to see demands to include negative externalities as a way to knock down renewables. Bring them up when you’re willing to include them for all sources.

    • How about making landowners owning property in areas that are affected by a rising sea levels, changing tides or other related flooding pay for the value of the positive externalities? What about making it a federal crime to buy and sell interests in emission credits or related items unless they are themselves substantial emitters/producers of greenhouse gasses? Removing the tax-exempt status of any non-profit that hires a lobbyist (in-house or outside agent)?

  13. TH correctly notes that natural gas extraction imposes external costs, and Jim’s basic response is correct also, let’s compare apples to apples. On balance however, renewables are better even on that scale and many of the raw material extraction issues with renewables generation lead t0 recyclable hardware components, not to one-time (irreversible) injecti0n of pollutants into the atmosphere and watertable.

  14. When Marxism died and nobody cried,
    there were those who faced it with dread.
    “Wealth doesn’t transfer all on its own”
    the global elitists all said.
    So a new plan was hatched to steal the cash
    from those who produce in the west.
    Global Warming’s the name of the zealot’s new game,
    and history tells us the rest.

  15. Rare earth eliments. What is all the fuss about?
    REE do not have to be mined. They don’t need chemicals, acids or solvents to process them. They are available freely in stockpiles of red mud. And other mine tailings like coal. Some four billion tons of Red Mud alineare stockpiled globally, growing everyday.

    Why reinvent the wheel? Why mine these elements and cause more damage to the environment?

    This waste red mud, has many valuable metals and should be made a commodity not a waste.

    The USA has millions of tons of red mud and would break the strangle hold China has over the USA and the rest of the world. So do other countries, but not limited too.

    Australia. France. Ireland. Spain. India. Dubai. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Suriname. USA. USA Virgin Isles. Montenegro. Hungary to mention just a few.

    One site in the USA has 150,000,000 tons of red mud this contains between 3000 and 285,000 tonnes of each element along with over 75,000,000 tons of iron oxide, and other valuable materials such as TiO2 and Al2O3.

    It dose not take a rocket scientist to see this global opportunity exists. Who is going to take it? I for one am.

    • yes, but then folks can’t mount more attacks against wind and solar.. they got to have that boggeyman to show how bad wind/solar are. And like we don’t use far more of those metals for things like hybrid cars, cell phones, power equipment, etc…

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