Whose backyard is best?

There’s a huge market at the moment for rare earth elements that are prolific in our favorite electronic devices.  Most of these are mined in the developing world, with significant proportions in China or Malaysia.  This not only means that these countries are making a killing on our insatiable need for new iPhones, it also means that the elements are extracted with their health and safety standards, and their environmental regulations.  Compared to ours in the US, these are all far less stringent.

So imagine how nice it would be to have some of these things mined in our territory, under our regulations.  Mining companies are dreaming big, especially in Alaska.  High prices of these rare earths have made formerly marginal ore into a serious investment, and in particular, mining companies are dying to extract some 2 billion tons in Pebble Mine.  However, our environmental groups are appropriately skeptical and the pushback has already begun.  Some EPA regulators in Region 10, which serves Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and 267 Indian Tribes, published a guidance document about the potential environmental hazards of mining in this pristine area, concluding that the risk is too high to even consider a true mining permit application from the Pebble Mine companies.

The only problem with this document is that it sets a fairly broad precedent for stifling private development in privately held land without even giving the parties a chance to describe their intended operations or mitigation measures.  Pebble Mine claims that its will implement the most environmentally friendly mining techniques ever used (quite the claim, but perhaps not that difficult given the haphazard approach often taken in the past and in other locations).  Don’t they deserve to have EPA at least evaluate their proposal?  For example, the Cadiz EIR was full of suspect science — it should become obvious if that’s the case in Pebble Mine, too.

The other issue is the idea of global environmental protection.  If this mine is rejected, we further rely on rare earth sources with lax (by our standards) regulations in foreign countries we don’t necessarily want to support.  I caution any true environmentalist against rejection of American industry and manufacturing on the basis of environmental impacts, without at least considering where those displaced activities will relocate.  Is preservation of our local environment a higher good than preservation of a local environment in another part of the world?  That’s a tough question.


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