A phalanx of billionaires are backing a new mining initiative in Greenland, in what they hope will boost access to minerals used to manufacture electric cars. It’s significant news in a country that has not always celebrated natural resource exploration. And it has some environmental scientists concerned.
The source of the billionaire money is an initiative founded by Bill Gates, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, whose investors include Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, Ray Dalio, and Michael Bloomberg. Gates founded Breakthrough Energy in 2015 as a vehicle for combating climate change, and it has raised $2 billion to date, including a $1 billion funding round completed earlier this year. The organization has invested in dozens of startups in the sustainable energy space.
The Greenland project is a joint venture between a publicly traded British firm, Bluejay Mining, and KoBold Metals, an American company that is paying $15 million for a majority stake in the operation. Breakthrough Energy is one of KoBold’s principal investors; the venture capital mega-firm Andreessen Horowitz is also a backer.
KoBold says its use of artificial intelligence enables it to mine in a more environmentally friendly way. Through machine learning, it targets high quality ore deposits that require less intrusive methods to extract. Bluejay Mining spends multiple years on environmental and social assessments before it can access a drilling site.
“You are going into these pristine areas that are not going to be the same.”
Some researchers remain concerned. “Essentially, they’re right on top of the ocean,” says Jeffrey Welker, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has spent more than two decades studying the Arctic ecosystem of western Greenland. “That creates potentially some environmentally or ecologically dangerous situations with any contamination of that fjord … Any disturbance to that marine system through any activity could be catastrophic for that community.”
Kevin Krajick, senior editor of science news at the Earth Institute, wrote a book called Barren Lands about diamond mining in the Canadian tundra. “Carbon dioxide emissions are a global impact,” he says. “When you open these mines in these really remote places, it’s arguably a more local impact…On the other hand, you are going into these pristine areas that are not going to be the same.”
The concerns illustrate the complex tradeoffs facing environmental activists and investors. Shifting from gas-powered to electric cars requires scarce minerals used for batteries and computer chips. But those minerals are not always cleanly extracted.
As The New York Times reported in May, consumers often greatly underestimate the environmental toll required to produce electric vehicles. One lithium mine in Nevada that the newspaper highlighted has drawn scrutiny because it will pollute some groundwater for up to three centuries, “while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.”
“Our new clean-energy demands could be creating greater harm, even though its intention is to do good,” Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, told the Times.
Amnesty International has documented cases of human rights violations in overseas mine facilities used by battery companies, including use of child workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“The glamourous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage,” said Mark Dummett, a researcher at Amnesty International, in a 2016 report.
Natural resource extraction has been hugely controversial in Greenland as well. Last spring, the nation of 56,000 people headed to the polls in part to weigh in on the future of an enormous mineral deposit. In the end, the left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit party carried the day, a boon for environmentalists. Authorities reportedly plan to ban uranium mining in the country, and have stopped issuing new licenses for offshore oil exploration.
As for electric cars, there are no easy answers. “As a general thing, mining is often a messy business, so the benefits of providing commodities needed for (in this case, green) technology, with attendant jobs, profits and tax income, have to be balanced against environmental impacts,” says Peter Kelemen, a professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. “This is best done on a relatively local basis, in countries that are willing and able to enact and enforce effective environmental regulations.”
There isn’t much time for debate. A report released on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was decidedly bad news for humans.
The report, which United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called “a code red for humanity,” found that certain elements of global warming are already irreversible.
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable,” Guterres added. “Greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”