How the Big Energy Companies Plan to Turn the U.S. into a Third-World Petro-State
The “curse” of oil wealth is a well-known phenomenon in Third World petro-states where millions of lives are wasted in poverty and the environment is ravaged, while tiny elites rake in the energy dollars and corruption rules the land. Recently, North America has been repeatedly hailed as the planet’s twenty-first-century “new Saudi Arabia” for “tough energy”—deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands, and fracked oil and natural gas. But here’s a question no one considers: Will the oil curse become as familiar on this continent in the wake of a new American energy rush as it is in Africa and elsewhere? Will North America, that is, become not just the next boom continent for energy bonanzas, but a new energy Third World?
Once upon a time, the giant U.S. oil companies—Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Texaco—got their start in North America, launching an oil boom that lasted a century and made the U.S. the planet’s dominant energy producer. But most of those companies have long since turned elsewhere for new sources of oil.
Eager to escape ever-stronger environmental restrictions and dying oil fields at home, the energy giants were naturally drawn to the economically and environmentally wide-open producing areas of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America—the Third World—where oil deposits were plentiful, governments compliant, and environmental regulations few or nonexistent.
Here, then, is the energy surprise of the twenty-first century: with operating conditions growing increasingly difficult in the global South, the major firms are now flocking back to North America. To exploit previously neglected reserves on this continent, however, Big Oil will have to overcome a host of regulatory and environmental obstacles. It will, in other words, have to use its version of deep-pocket persuasion to convert the U.S. into the functional equivalent of a Third World petro-state.
Knowledgeable observers are already noting the first telltale signs of the oil industry’s “Third-Worldification” of the U.S. Wilderness areas from which the oil companies were once barred are being opened to energy exploitation and other restraints on invasive drilling operations are being dismantled. Expectations are that, in the wake of the 2012 election season, environmental regulations will be rolled back even further and other protected areas made available for development. In the process, as has so often been the case with Third World petro-states, the rights and wellbeing of local citizens will be trampled underfoot.
Welcome to the Third World of Energy
Up until 1950, the U.S. was the world’s leading oil producer, the Saudi Arabia of its day. In that year, the U.S. produced approximately 270 million metric tons of oil, or about 55 percent of the world’s entire output. But with a postwar recovery then in full swing, the world needed a lot more energy while America’s most accessible oil fields—though still capable of growth—were approaching their maximum sustainable production levels. Net U.S. crude oil output reached a peak of about 9.2 million barrels per day in 1970 and then went into decline (until very recently).
This prompted the giant oil firms, which had already developed significant footholds in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, to scour the global South in search of new reserves to exploit—a saga told with great gusto in Daniel Yergin’s epic history of the oil industry, The Prize. Particular attention was devoted to the Persian Gulf region, where in 1948 a consortium of American companies—Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Texaco—discovered the world’s largest oil field, Ghawar, in Saudi Arabia. By 1975, Third World countries were producing 58 percent of the world’s oil supply, while the U.S. share had dropped to 18 percent.
Environmental concerns also drove this search for new reserves in the global South. On Jan. 28, 1969, a blowout at Platform A of a Union Oil Company offshore field in California’s Santa Barbara Channel produced a massive oil leak that covered much of the area and laid waste to local wildlife. Coming at a time of growing environmental consciousness, the spill provoked an outpouring of public outrage, helping to inspire the establishment of Earth Day, first observed one year later. Equally important, it helped spur passage of various legislative restraints on drilling activities, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. In addition, Congress banned new drilling in waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida.
During these years, Washington also expanded areas designated as wilderness or wildlife preserves, protecting them from resource extraction. In 1952, for example, President Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Range and, in 1980, this remote area of northeastern Alaska was redesignated by Congress as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ever since the discovery of oil in the adjacent Prudhoe Bay area, energy firms have been clamoring for the right to drill in ANWR, only to be blocked by one or another president or house of Congress.
For the most part, production in Third World countries posed no such complications. The Nigerian government, for example, has long welcomed foreign investment in its onshore and offshore oil fields, while showing little concern over the despoliation of its southern coastline, where oil company operations have produced a massive environmental disaster. As Adam Nossiter of the New York Times described the resulting situation, “The Niger Delta, where the [petroleum] wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates.”
As vividly laid out by Peter Maass in Crude World, a similar pattern is evident in many other Third World petro-states where anything goes as compliant government officials—often the recipients of hefty bribes or other oil-company favors—regularly look the other way. The companies, in turn, don’t trouble themselves over the human rights abuses perpetrated by their foreign government “partners”—many of them dictators, warlords or feudal potentates.
But times change. The Third World increasingly isn’t what it used to be. Many countries in the global South are becoming more protective of their environments, ever more inclined to take ever larger cuts of the oil wealth of their own countries, and ever more inclined to punish foreign companies that abuse their laws. In February 2011, for example, a judge in the Ecuadorean Amazon town of Lago Agrio ordered Chevron to pay $9 billion in damages for environmental harm caused to the region in the 1970s by Texaco (which the company later acquired). Although the Ecuadorians are unlikely to collect a single dollar from Chevron, the case is indicative of the tougher regulatory climate now facing these companies in the developing world. More recently, in a case resulting from an oil spill at an offshore field, a judge in Brazil has seized the passports of 17 employees of Chevron and U.S. drilling-rig operator Transocean, preventing them from leaving the country.
In addition, production is on the decline in some developing countries like Indonesia and Gabon, while others have nationalized their oil fields or narrowed the space in which private international firms can operate. During Hugo Chávez’s presidency, for example, Venezuela has forced all foreign firms to award a majority stake in their operations to the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Similarly, the Brazilian government, under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, instituted a rule that all drilling operations in the new “pre-salt” fields in the Atlantic Ocean—widely believed to be the biggest oil discovery of the twenty-first century—be managed by the state-controlled firm, Petróleo de Brasil (Petrobras).
Fracking Our Way to a Toxic Planet
Such pressures in the Third World have forced the major U.S. and European firms—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total of France—to look elsewhere for new sources of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately for them, there aren’t many places left in the world that possess promising hydrocarbon reserves and also welcome investment by private energy giants. That’s why some of the most attractive new energy markets now lie in Canada and the U.S., or in the waters off their shores. As a result, both are experiencing a remarkable uptick in fresh investment from the major international firms.
Both countries still possess substantial oil and gas deposits, but not of the “easy” variety (deposits close to the surface, close to shore or easily accessible for extraction). All that remains are “tough” energy reserves (deep underground, far offshore, hard to extract and process). To exploit these, the energy companies must deploy aggressive technologies likely to cause extensive damage to the environment and in many cases human health as well. They must also find ways to gain government approval to enter environmentally protected areas now off limits.
The formula for making Canada and the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century is grim but relatively simple: environmental protections will have to be eviscerated and those who stand in the way of intensified drilling, from landowners to local environmental protection groups, bulldozed out of the way. Put another way, North America will have to be Third-Worldified.
Consider the extraction of shale oil and gas, widely considered the most crucial aspect of Big Oil’s current push back into the North American market. Shale formations in Canada and the U.S. are believed to house massive quantities of oil and natural gas, and their accelerated extraction is already helping reduce the region’s reliance on imported petroleum.
Both energy sources, however, can only be extracted through a process known as hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking,” or just plain “fracking”) that uses powerful jets of water in massive quantities to shatter underground shale formations, creating fissures through which the hydrocarbons can escape. In addition, to widen these fissures and ease the escape of the oil and gas they hold, the fracking water has to be mixed with a variety of often poisonous solvents and acids. This technique produces massive quantities of toxic wastewater, which can neither be returned to the environment without endangering drinking water supplies nor easily stored and decontaminated.
The rapid expansion of hydro-fracking would be problematic under the best of circumstances, which these aren’t. Many of the richest sources of shale oil and gas, for instance, are located in populated areas of Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. In fact, one of the most promising sites, the Marcellus formation, abuts New York City’s upstate watershed area. Under such circumstances, concern over the safety of drinking water should be paramount, and federal legislation, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, should theoretically give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to oversee (and potentially ban) any procedures that endanger water supplies.
However, oil companies seeking to increase profits by maximizing the utilization of hydro-fracking banded together, put pressure on Congress, and managed to get itself exempted from the 1974 law’s provisions. In 2005, under heavy lobbying from then Vice President Dick Cheney—formerly the CEO of oil services contractor Halliburton—Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which prohibited the U.S. EPA from regulating hydro-fracking via the Safe Drinking Water Act, thereby eliminating a significant impediment to wider use of the technique.
Since then, there has been a virtual stampede to the shale regions by the major oil companies, which have in many cases devoured smaller firms that pioneered the development of hydro-fracking. (In 2009, for example, ExxonMobil paid $31 billion to acquire XTO Energy, one of the leading producers of shale gas). As the extraction of shale oil and gas has accelerated, the industry has faced other problems. To successfully exploit promising shale formations, for instance, energy firms must insert many wells, since each fracking operation can only extend several hundred feet in any direction, requiring the establishment of noisy, polluting and potentially hazardous drilling operations in well-populated rural and suburban areas.
While drilling has been welcomed by some of these communities as a source of added income, many have vigorously opposed the invasion, seeing it as an assault on neighborhood peace, health and safety. In an effort to protect their quality of life, some Pennsylvania communities, for example, have adopted zoning laws that ban fracking in their midst. Viewing this as yet another intolerable obstacle, the industry has put intense pressure on friendly members of the state legislature to adopt a law depriving most local jurisdictions of the right to exclude fracking operations. “We have been sold out to the gas industry, plain and simple,” said Todd Miller, a town commissioner in South Fayette Township who opposed the legislation.
If the energy industry has its way in North America, there will be many more Todd Millers complaining about the way their lives and worlds have been “sold out” to the energy barons. Similar battles are already being fought elsewhere in North America, as energy firms seek to overcome resistance to expanded drilling in areas once protected from such activity.
In Alaska, for example, the industry is fighting in the courts and in Congress to allow drilling in coastal areas, despite opposition from Native American communities which worry that vulnerable marine animals and their traditional way of life will be put at risk. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in the Chukchi Sea, an area important to several such communities.
And this is just the beginning. To gain access to additional stores of oil and gas, the industry is seeking to eliminate virtually all environmental restraints imposed since the 1960s and open vast tracts of coastal and wilderness areas, including ANWR, to intensive drilling. It also seeks the construction of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to transport synthetic crude oil made from Canadian tar sands—a particularly “dirty” and environmentally devastating form of energy which has attracted substantial U.S. investment—to Texas and Louisiana for further processing. According to Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the preferred U.S. energy strategy “would include greater access to areas that are currently off limits, a regulatory and permitting process that supported reasonable timelines for development, and immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.”
To achieve these objectives, the API, which claims to represent more than 490 oil and natural gas companies, has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to sway the 2012 elections, dubbed “Vote 4 Energy.” While describing itself as nonpartisan, the API-financed campaign seeks to discredit and marginalize any candidate, including President Obama, who opposes even the mildest of version of its drill-anywhere agenda.
“There [are] two paths that we can take” on energy policy, the Vote 4 Energy Web site proclaims. “One path leads to more jobs, higher government revenues and greater U.S. energy security—which can be achieved by increasing oil and natural gas development right here at home. The other path would put jobs, revenues and our energy security at risk.” This message will be broadcast with increasing frequency as Election Day nears.
According to the energy industry, we are at a fork in the road and can either chose a path leading to greater energy independence or to ever more perilous energy insecurity. But there is another way to characterize that “choice”: on one path, the U.S. will increasingly come to resemble a Third World petro-state, with compliant government leaders, an increasingly money-ridden and corrupt political system, and negligible environmental and health safeguards; on the other, which would also involve far greater investment in the development of renewable alternative energies, it would remain a First World nation with strong health and environmental regulations and robust democratic institutions.
How we characterize our energy predicament in the coming decades and what path we ultimately select will in large measure determine the fate of this nation.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources just published by Metropolitan Books. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here. Klare can be followed on Facebook.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Cross-posted with permission from TomDispatch.com.
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.