Mining, entropy and sustainability

Fossil fuels, like many mined resources, are “non-renewable,” which means they are used faster than replenished (as far as human-time scales are concerned).

But the extraction and consumption of non-renewables (NRs) also creates pollution (“negative externalities”) at local and global scales.

Mining scars the landscape and produces toxic tailings. Fracking releases methane and pollutes water. Oil drilling pollutes aquatic and land ecosystems. Even getting “on site” means plowing through remote,  sensitive ecosystems. Fossil fuel consumption contributes to climate chaos by increasing GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.

The NR industry tries to “offset” damages with various wheezes, i.e.,

  • Restoring landscapes by shifting earth back into holes or filling ponds of tailing water
  • Cleaning process water before it’s released back into ecosystems
  • Scrubbing GHGs from the atmosphere via carbon capture and storage (CCS) or other technologies.
  • “Protecting” landscapes elsewhere (on paper).

The trouble with ALL of these techniques is that they defy the laws of physics, as far as 100% remediation is concerned, for two reasons:

  1. The production of NRs requires energy, and “remediation” also requires energy. Thus, there’s no way to “reset” the situation to its ex-ante state.
  2. The consumption of NRs releases energy (often the point) as well as pollution. Recapturing or removing that pollution (via CCS or DAC, etc.) will take energy, so there’s no way to “suck it all back in” without using even more energy than was generated in the first place, due to entropy.

Why does this matter? Because many industry lobbyists seem to promise that it’s possible to find/extract/use NRs and then clean up the consequences while still remaining profitable.

Although it’s true that 100% remediation is possible from an engineering perspective, it’s also true that such activity cannot occur without adding more energy and work, which makes any 100% goal (e.g., “green growth”) physically (entropy) and financially (fixed costs plus operating costs) impossible.*

These are just facts, but they are not openly discussed. We need to talk about “minimizing damages” instead of pretending it’s possible to “remediate, restore, recapture or offset.”

My one-handed conclusion is that NRs are very useful, but let’s not forget about the damages from their production and use. So the choice is between sustainable but unprofitable or profitable but unsustainable. Choose one.

*Here’s an excellent summary (2015) [pdf] of the many barriers to achieving more-than-symbolic circularity, and here’s an OECD report (2019) [pdf] on the same topic, with far more detail.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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