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April 26 2012


Mine Markers Threaten Birds Out West

A cooperative effort is under way to remove PVC pipes that claim the lives of millions of birds each year in the western United States.

April 18 2012


April 10 2012


A Sacred Peak With Rich Ore Deposits

Tribes in northwestern Montana hope to turn public opinion against the "hollowing out" of a spiritual site, Chicago Peak, where a copper and silver mine is planned.

March 15 2012


On Our Radar: The Dead Zone in the Gulf

Environmental groups say they want tougher wastewater rules to combat practices that have turned the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico into a "sewer."

January 09 2012


Salazar Signs Grand Canyon Mining Ban

The interior secretary says that jobs in tourism and outdoor recreation far outweigh the potential loss of employment from limiting mining in the region.

December 27 2011


November 30 2011


On Our Radar: Mining Dispute in Peru

A deputy environment minister resigns to protest the Peruvian government's backing for the vast Minas Conga project, which seeks to produce 680,000 ounces of gold and 235 million pounds of copper annually

November 04 2011


September 02 2011


Hit Movie Red Dog and Its Mining Industry Funding

WERE all used to a bit of product placement in today’s movie industry.

The latest mobile phone is pinned to the ear of an international spy. A popular brand of beer is gulped by an anti-hero. The latest sports car roars through a street chase.

This embedded marketing is as much a part of a trip to the cinema these days as overpriced sugary drinks and stale popcorn (also overpriced).

But a new feel-good movie from Australia, set in a small mining outpost, has eyebrows raised due to its substantial in-kind and financial support from the same said mining industry.

Red Dog, starring American Josh Lucas, is set in the 1970s in tiny Dampier in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region. The film is based on real life exploits of a stray dog which roamed the area, hitch-hiking between settlements and bringing people together as it traveled.

The characters, who work for Hamersley Iron (an actual company and wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto), are roguish and likeable. The cinematography sweeping across the red Pilbara landscape is momentous. Already the largest grossing Aussie-made film for 2011, Red Dog managed to take more than Hollywood blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) in its opening weeks. Now a UK and US release are in the offing.

The film itself is well and truly focused on the exploits of the dog and is based on Louis de Bernières's depiction of the legend in his short novel Red Dog.

So who gave what to the film?

The movie’s budget has been widely reported as standing at about $8 million – small fry in the world of big screen cinema.

About $3m came from the Australian Government-funded film development organisation Screen Australia, according to its annual report [pdf]. 

International mining giant Rio Tinto gave the filmmakers free accommodation, food and access to mining sites and the use of a freight train. The company even got to see the script, although there’s no suggestion they changed it.

Director Kriv Stenders told industry magazine Encore about the importance of the support.

Without that we couldn’t have made the movie and we were incredibly supported by them, it was overwhelming – they were welcoming and excited. The mining industry has been misaligned recently; it was a chance for them to remind Australians that this is a part of Australia, an amazing, vital part. We were really paying tribute and honour to the pioneers who built the place.

Major gas company Woodside, currently awaiting Australian Government approval for a $30 billion gas hub in Western Australia, also provided “funding, logistical support and a handful of acting extras”, according to the company's Trunkline newsletter.  

Mining equipment company Westrac, which sells the world-famous yellow and black CAT earth movers, was also a supporter. Somewhere along the line, one of the companies even loaned out the use of their helicopter for aerial shots. The film’s producer, Nelson Woss, told The Australian

We basically show the heartbeat of the Australian economy - we show the mines, we show the trains that take the ore to the conveyor belts, we show the conveyor belts and the crushers then we show the ships being loaded and the iron ore being taken to China.

An online Q&A by the Australian Film Institute asked Stenders to respond to claims the film was “a massive public relations exercise” for mining in Australia.

What we tried to do with the film is actually make Australians aware of the history of the place and of the industry. And people can criticise it all they want. I mean the film isn’t really about that. It’s about the formation of a community, and an incredible part of our history. 

But there is plenty of product placement in the film. The name "Hamersley Iron" is on the front of the seemingly endless iron ore train and on the side of the staff bus. The Hamersley logos are on the hard-hats of the workers who hang around sheds, drink in the bar and stand next to the CAT-branded heavy earth movers. Hamersley developed the mining outpost of Dampier where the story is set, but you don't see the workers doing any actual mining. 

There’s also the sporadic appearance of a tussle-haired lady in a Woodside company uniform. She drives a Woodside company vehicle.

During the closing scenes, there’s a large billboard with the Woodside and Rio Tinto logos in clear view.

There’s been no deliberate attempt to hide the fact that mining companies were behind the film, although casual movie-goers would be unaware.

The company logos do appear in the small print of the movie poster and if you hang around long enough (as I did), the film acknowledges their support at the end of the closing credits. Some company executives even get a mention. 

The film wasn’t instigated by the mining industry but from early on, there's evidence the industry knew it was getting behind something which would show it in a positive light.

When the industry backing was made public early last year, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh said it was “an exciting opportunity to showcase our industry”.

Respected Australian movie critic David Stratton rejected the idea that the movie was a propaganda piece. But one less generous online reviewer put it this way

In a time of a mining tax debate in the current Australian political zeitgeist, this PR stunt does feel like a relationship based in mutual exploitation.
Red Dog trailer

June 10 2011


Massey Energy Is Not The Only Mountaintop Removal Mining Villain

This week, hundreds of protesters are marching to Blair Mountain in West Virginia to call for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. The march commemorates the Battle of Blair Mountain – one of the most significant labor battles in American history, and one of the few times in history when a sitting U.S. president threatened to use air strikes against American citizens. The group Appalachia Rising organized the march to draw attention to the practice of mountaintop mining, which is destroying large swaths of the Appalachian Mountains. Blair Mountain was added to a list of historic U.S. sites back in 2008, but due to pressure from the coal industry, the mountain was removed from the protected list and could now be subjected to mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) entails blowing the tops off of entire mountains in order to extract the coal seems within. The method became popular when coal companies realized that they could produce two and a half times as much coal per worker hour by removing the tops of mountains, rather than traditional coal mining methods. As a result, some states have reduced the number of coal workers by as much as 60%, while output and profits have remained steady.
In addition to the obvious loss of mountains, the practice is riddled with environmental dangers. In order to  extract the coal, the areas around the mountain are clear-cut, destroying wildlife habitat and leading to soil erosion. The waste products from the coal extraction also leak into water supplies, contaminating them with mercury, lead, sulfur, and other dangers chemicals. It is estimated that by the end of 2012, a staggering 2,200 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains will have been destroyed thanks to mountaintop removal mining.

Massey Energy, which was recently acquired by Alpha Natural Resources, has been the poster-child for mountaintop removal for years. And rightfully so. Massey / Alpha are responsible for the vast majority of MTR mining occurring in Appalachia. The company was fined $20 million in 2008 for violating the Clean Water Act, and has an abysmal safety record, including its infamous reputation for operating “recklessly” at the Upper Big Branch mine, which resulted in the deaths of 29 mine workers at the mine last year. On top of that, their former CEO Don Blankenship is a self-admitted union buster who has given millions of dollars to Republicans and the Tea Party movement who favor letting the industry do as it pleases.

But as bad as Massey’s corporate reputation is, they aren’t the only villains in this tragic story. As media reports have focused on the deeds of Massey, the other mountaintop removal mining companies have been let off the hook, operating under the radar of most activists and the media. Here are a few of the other companies that are destroying Appalachia and other parts of America with MTR:  

1. Arch Coal – Boasting that they supply more than 15% of America’s coal, Arch sold 2.1 million tons worth of MTR coal last year. Arch's annual revenues top $1 billion, making them the nation’s second largest coal producer.

2. CONSOL Energy – Recently forced to pay $5.5 million in damages in West Virginia for their mountaintop mining activities, and to spend another $200 million on pollution control.  Actively working with the U.S. Department of Energy on coal technologies, including coal-to-liquid technologies.

3. International Coal Group – Currently battling a lawsuit from the Sierra Club for selenium pollution in Kentucky that is a direct result of their mountaintop removal mining activities.  

4. James River Coal CompanyForced to pay tens of thousands of dollars for damages to homes and a Church from their mountaintop mining activities.

5. Patriot Coal – Operates 14 different mountaintop removal sites throughout Appalachia and Illinois.

Together with Massey, these six companies account for more than half of all of the mountaintop mining activities in America.

April 07 2011


Help NRDC Oppose Rio Tinto’s Pebble Mine

A message from Robert Redford: This British and Australian-based mining giant has a shocking and well-documented record of toxic contamination that spans the globe: from Indonesia to Bolivia to Utah. Now, as one of the major backers of the proposed Pebble Mine, it is threatening to destroy one of our greatest natural treasures: the Bristol [...]

March 21 2011


Pew Report Highlights Importance Of Canada’s Boreal Forest For Water Reserves and Climate

A new Pew Environment Group report [PDF] confirms the importance of Canada's Boreal forest in safeguarding public health and the climate. The report details many benefits the 1.2 billion acre forest delivers to human health and wildlife, including protecting freshwater reserves and animal habitat, as well as preventing the effects of global warming. The decades of research behind this study also reveals that the forest’s health is increasingly at risk due to rapid industrial development, namely mining and gas extraction. 

For those unfamiliar with Canada’s Boreal forest, it is recognized as an ecological marvel, boasting half the world’s lakes larger than a square kilometer in size; 5 of the world’s 50 largest rivers; almost 200 million acres of surface water; and the world’s single largest remaining unpolluted fresh water body, Great Bear Lake.

The forest contains 25 percent of the world’s wetlands, and has more surface water than any other continental-scale landscape. It is the most intact and preserved forest on the planet, safeguarding biodiversity and food supplies, and contributing to the culture and history of many nearby communities.

Although it is less well known for its role as a massive carbon sink, the forest plays a vital role in regulating the climate and diminishing the effects from global warming. <!--break-->
According to the Pew report:

The wetlands and peatlands store an estimated 147 billion tonnes of carbon, more than 25 years worth of current man-made emissions, and the delta of the Mackenzie River alone stores 41 billion tonnes.


The input of fresh water from boreal rivers to the Arctic and other northern seas is critical to forming sea ice, which cools the atmosphere and provides the basis for much of arctic marine biodiversity.

Though it protects all other forms of life from negative climate change impacts, the forest’s nurturing capacity is already suffering from these same effects. Waterways are losing ice, wetlands are drying up and higher winter flows and lower spring and summer flows in river systems are forcing species to adapt their spawning patterns. We still do not know enough about what these changes may mean down the road.

The combined value of the numerous environmental, health and social benefits of the Boreal forest are worth an estimated annual value of around $700 billion [PDF].

Despite all the advantages this pristine environment offers, industrial development is increasingly destructive. Already in Canada, nearly 68% of wetlands in southern Ontario and 70% of wetlands in the Prairie Provinces have been lost. The threat to the forest is intensifying with 728,000 km² (180 million acres) already impacted by forestry, road building, hydropower, mining, and oil and gas extraction.

Canadians are reliant on the boreal forest for their health and the health of future generations. Yet the decline of this vast ecological treasure is becoming a reality. If the pace of development continues, humans, animals and plant life will have to deal with fewer protections against global warming, harsher climates, scarcer food, the loss of culture, and plenty of polluted water – with freshwater increasingly rare.

Read the Pew report [PDF] here: A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, The World’s Waterkeeper.

See video



February 17 2011


Tallying Coal's Hidden Cost

In public health impacts alone, coal dependence costs the United States economy $140 billion to $242 billion per year, a Harvard study suggests. Much of this burden is borne by mining communities in Appalachia.

December 27 2010


In the Job-Starved West, a Debate Over Uranium's Legacy

Is uranium a victim of emotional prejudice or a dangerous and unwelcome energy source?

October 18 2010


COP10 – The opening shot

Press release.

The initiatives relating to business and biodiversity are here to stay. From the press release, it is the very first topic mentioned:

The Nagoya meeting will be the place where stakeholders from all over the world will meet to discuss the ways they will work to meet the biodiversity challenges of the future. Among the important activities:
- A Business and Biodiversity Initiative will be considered at a high level dialogue between chief executive officers of companies and ministers at the margins of Messe Nagoya. More than 500 companies from 13 countries are expected.


The very first shot. Impressive. If we can get this right, it has the potential to be huge – but what does “get this right” mean? What governance structures, what property rights, what regulations?

How can it work? How can we make it work for those companies willing to take the plunge and for the people on the ground as well?

October 14 2010


September 27 2010


September 15 2010


Meanwhile, in China

If you follow Rob Elliott’s excellent Globalisation and the Environment, you are probably aware of some of the complexity in the relation between trade and environmental issues. In short, on the one hand WTO rules imply that environmental and sustainability concerns offer no ground for trade sanctions, while on the other environmental concerns are often used as an excuse for sounding the trade war drums or try to impose sanctions. Other issues and drives frequently come into fore as well (with predictable consequences), giving trade a bad name with environmentalists (and vice-versa).

Arguments between China and the US usually start with the latter accusing the former of not following environmental rules (usually on the issue of Climate Change) and  threatening sanctions (which are not possible under WTO rules), with the Chinese more or less ignoring the Americans. That, in the same speech, a senior economic official would mention that China would both curb pollution and act to reduce its trade imbalance with the US is significant.

China will introduce stricter rules to reduce industrial pollution, a senior economic planning official said.

Zhang Xiaoqiang, a vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, also told a meeting of the World Economic Forum in this northern port city that China was willing to import more from the United States.

Strange things are afoot; usually that senior official would politely tell the US policy makers to get stuffed.

However, it is China who now is starting its own trade sanctions, namely export restrictions on rare metals. Here’s the narrative:

China’s decision to slash export quotas of rare earth elements was a necessary step to protect the country’s environment, commerce minister Chen Deming said.

Mass extraction of rare earth will cause great damage to the environment and that’s why China has tightened controls over rare earth production, exploration and trade,”

(…) following a nationwide campaign to consolidate the sector and clamp down on illegal production. China has been steadily reducing export quotas since 2005 for rare earth elements, which consist of 17 metals

So, concerns over the impact of extraction industries. OK, that could be reasonable. What are the results?

Overseas buyers have expressed concern about China’s policies to restrict rare earth exports, which have driven up global prices, but Chen said China had no choice and its own market would also suffer as a consequence.

Rare earths are in increasingly short supply as world demand surges, with industry officials predicting a global shortfall of 30,000 to 50,000 tonnes by 2012.

This could be serious if China held significant market power for these goods; and it does:

China invested heavily in rare earth extraction technology in the 1990s and now controls more than 95 percent of recoverable reserves

It has sought to strengthen its control over the global market, urging its biggest producer, the Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth to build strategic stockpiles.

China’s leading rare earth miners are also discussing setting a unified pricing mechanism in order to boost China’s global pricing power.

In other words, what China is doing is, having taken control of a very significant and strategic resource, keeping it to itself. You want to have an electronics component factory in India, Taiwan or Indonesia? Sure. It’ll cost you, though, because the materials for those components are in short supply, under Chinese control. So you end up building that factory in China, further increasing your trade deficit.

Make no mistake: the centralised decision-making system in China means government there can indeed plan to introduce such restrictions strategically, as it controls the extraction and production histories. And, all the while, they use the environment as a scapegoat. That makes everyone outside China worse off.

Punchline: how do you accommodate recalcitrant members of the International Community in the wider picture for environmental protection?

August 21 2010


Seal products ban, part 3

Canada welcomes court suspension of EU seal ban | Reuters.

As predicted here (and grumbled about here), the EU seal ban has been suspended.

The court decision came in response to a request by the Canadian Inuit group for an injunction against the EU ban, which arose over concerns of brutality in the seal hunt.

“The operation of the conditions restricting the placing on the market of seal products … is suspended,” said the ruling, signed in Luxembourg.

It was not immediately clear how long the ban might be put on hold. Canada’s Inuit leader Mary Simon said she hoped the decision would push the EU into scrapping its plans.

Not entirely sure of the reasons for the suspension (the EU court being involved makes me think it is, as suspected, simply illegal). It’s a good think altogether when the rule of law is respected, despite what the EU may say.

Note that this is only a temporary suspension, and that the WTO will still pronounce on the matter. Inevitably, their ruling will be the same.

In a related development, officials said on Thursday that Ottawa has asked the World Trade Organization to establish a dispute settlement panel in hopes of overturning the seal ban.

Canada argues that the EU action is misinformed and violates European WTO trade commitments. Ottawa says it is defending Atlantic communities that rely on the seal trade for survival.

The EU promised to defend its decision, which it said does not discriminate against Canada as it prohibits seal from other countries as well.

To further expand on the reasons why I personally disagree with this: the EU wouldn’t dare ban seal hunting if it was practised anywhere inside its economic space; if Norway was an EU country, there would be no ban.

Further, the EU won’t ban trade in other, endangered species – such as some rare tropical timbers, African fish, or (until recently) bluefin tuna. Likewise, trade in diamonds and rare earths for key electronic components is brisk, despite the fact they are frequently mined in African regions, by slave labour, and with profits feeding further conflict. Why is this so? One probable reason is it is difficult to monitor such products – why would you want to create a law you can’t enforce? Seal products probably come 100% from approved merchants working with legal poachers. As a result, they are perfectly labelled upon reaching EU borders – making it very easy to get tough on them. Another probable reason is it doesn’t really matter – the values involved are certainly diminutive, and the number of people inside the EU upset by matters is sure to me small.

Punchline:Too easy a political gain to pass on.

July 23 2010


Tough love, perhaps?

Britons need more incentives to cut emissions: MP | Reuters.

As Marginal Damage tries to focus ever more on the Ecosystem Services agenda, Climate Change is still very much on the radar. I was amused to read the proposal, which sound very good to economist-trained ears.

Charging drivers for using UK motorways based on their emissions output and time of travel could encourage the uptake of cleaner vehicles and cut emissions, Yeo said in a pamphlet on climate change.

The “overdue” privatization of UK motorways could also fund more investment in better roads and the development of high-speed rail.

“The income from motorway tolls could offer a return to private investors and pave the way for the Treasury to receive a big capital receipt from the sale,” Yeo said.

Other measures such as personal carbon trading could also be introduced, whereby people are allocated emissions credits on an equal per capita basis.

People surrender the credits for traveling by air or domestic energy use. Those who want or need to emit more than their personal allocation can buy extra credits while those who do not use their full allowance can sell the credits for cash.

“People have got to get used to making low-carbon choices. If they have a direct incentive to do so, they will think about it,” Yeo said.

Britain’s local council tax could also be varied to reward households that invest in making their homes energy efficient.

All good, rational measures, full of sense. Will they, won’t they? Well, here is Portugal everybody is making a big fuss about the user-pays-principle for road use (still the SCUT problem). I am also reminded that, back in Australia, Kevin Rudd got kicked out of the PM seat for trying to apply two measures that environmental economists would applaud: carbon trading and a tax on exports of minerals (a sort of Hartwick Rule). In plain words: people don’t want to pay for what’s been free all along.

The pressure builds…

Punchline: the difficult interception of economics and politics

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