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“It’s absolutely ironic. But to save the planet, we are going to need more mines.” Government geoscientist
Around Australia new mining operations are being established and old sites, shuttered decades ago, are being brought back to life. These miners aren’t digging for coal or gold, they’re hunting for other lucrative commodities – known as critical minerals.
“Critical minerals (are) everything you use for electric vehicles, for transport, for manufacturing. We’re really at the start of what could be a new mining boom.” Minerals lobbyist
If you own a mobile phone, if you power your home with renewable energy or drive an electric vehicle, then these minerals are already playing a key part in your life.
And they will play a vital role in all our futures.
But there is a hidden cost?
“We have to decide as a country. How valuable is a place and is it worth risking for mining?” Research scientist
On Monday Four Corners investigates the new critical minerals mining boom and finds Australia is in the box seat to exploit a surge in worldwide demand.
“Australia is still the luckiest country. Last century we were the luckiest because we had all the coal and a huge amount of natural gas… what we know the future needs is things that Australia also has in spades.” US energy policy adviser
From lithium mines in WA and the NT, to cobalt operations in NSW and tin mining in Tasmania, these critical minerals are not just making major profits, they’re playing a part in the super power rivalry between America and China.
“China has always known the value of critical minerals. We are moving into a period now of geopolitical competition, everybody is looking for leverage. The Chinese are quite explicit about that.” China analyst
With China dominating the control and supply of these critical minerals, many nations are keeping a close eye on Australia’s mining operations in the hope of breaking China’s dominance.
“We have met with heads of state, senior cabinet officials and global businesses…They all want to break this stranglehold.” Mining CEO
But environmentalists are concerned that hard fought environmental protections are being put at risk in this new type of gold rush.
“It’s not saving the planet. That’s ridiculous. That is green spin, green extractivism, coming out of the mining industry.” Environment activist
This fascinating film reveals the tensions, and the big decisions Australia will have to make to enable the production of these vital minerals without inflicting further harm on our increasingly fragile environment.
“It’s a confounding issue for the environmental movement. There’s absolutely no doubt that we have to move to mining of critical minerals, if we are going to address the climate crisis… At the same time, we need to be absolutely sure that we are not repeating the mistakes of the past.” Environment lawyer
Digging In, reported by Angus Grigg, goes to air on Monday 9th May at 8.30pm. It is replayed on Tuesday 10th May at 11.00pm and Wednesday 11th at 10am. It can also be seen on ABC NEWS channel on Saturday at 8.10pm AEST, ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners.
9 May 2022
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: This is what the future looks like.
A fully electric car, that’s cheap to recharge and promises to emit zero carbon emissions.
But powering this Tesla requires more than electricity.
You need a hefty 200 kilograms of minerals like copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel.
And those minerals have to come from somewhere.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:Critical minerals are absolutely essential to support the transition to renewable energy.
It’s absolutely ironic, but to save the planet, we are going to need more mines.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Top of the list are 35 so called ‘critical minerals’ which will help power the clean energy revolution.
PROF JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCE, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: Ideally, we have a battery in every house and big panels of batteries everywhere, which means cobalt, nickel, rare earths, lithium, they are immensely needed for the future.
These are all critical to a green economy, so these are called green metals.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: The world is scrambling to secure supply of these metals which are mostly controlled by China.
RICHARD MCGREGOR, SENIOR FELLOW, LOWY INSTITUTE: China has always known the value of critical minerals.
We are moving into a period now of geopolitical competition, everybody is looking for leverage.
The Chinese are quite explicit about that.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Mineral rich Australia is in the drivers’ seat to challenge China’s dominance.
TANIA CONSTABLE, CEO MINERALS COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA: Rare earths, critical minerals, everything you use for electric vehicles, for transport, for manufacturing, we’re really at the start of what could be a new mining boom.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Not everyone is convinced.
Environmentalists fear some of Australia’s most pristine wilderness is facing a major new threat.
Do you accept that we may need a short spike in mining in the next 10, 15 years to allow us to save the planet?
BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTALIST: No, it’s not saving the planet. That’s ridiculous. That is green spin, green extractivism coming out of the mining industry.
PROF JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCES, ANU: There’s no question we have some tough decision to make and this view that the green view is anti-mining is naïve, because if we’re going to go green, we’re going to have to get a bunch of these critical metals and we’re going to have to do it smartly, and we’re going to have to produce a lot of them.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Broken Hill is the birthplace of BHP … And just like the world’s biggest miner …. this historic town is shifting to the minerals needed for clean energy.
Behind me they are building a new mine … not for coal but for cobalt to take on an industry dominated by China.
Tonight, on Four Corners we examine how cutting carbon emissions will require one of the biggest increases in mining the world has ever seen and how going green means getting our hands dirty.
TITLE: DIGGING IN
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:On the outskirts of Canberra is a futuristic building …. dedicated to Australia’s natural resources.
In these aisles are thousands of samples of minerals found all around the country.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:You can think of this as the national archive of all the geological material we have collected over decades things like rocks and drill core and the interesting thing is that many of these drill cores and rocks that we have in here could contain critical minerals or information about them that will set us up for the future.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Allison Britt is a geologist at the government agency, Geoscience Australia.
Right now, she’s focused on what are known as critical minerals.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:So, a critical mineral can be described as an element metallic or non-metallicthat’s got two characteristics, one, it’s absolutely essential for modern technologies, our economies, or even our national security and two, there’s a risk, either real or perceived, that its supply chains could be disrupted.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Control of these minerals will determine who leads the next industrial revolution … dominated by the switch to green power.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:So generally speaking in today’s world, you can’t make a modern wind turbine without rare earths, you can’t make a solar panel without high purity quartz and you can’t make an electric vehicle battery without vanadium, manganese, graphite, cobalt, and lithium.
So, as you can see from those examples critical minerals are absolutely essential to support the transition to renewable energy.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: How much is demand set to grow over the coming decades for these critical minerals?
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:You look at the numbers they’re predicting, and you think, oh, that can’t be right, these are staggering numbers.
So, the International Energy Agency’s report looks at the stated policy scenario, what countries have said they’re going to do and they’re predicting that our cobalt use will be up six times, our graphite eight times, and lithium an amazing 13 times.
And that is just the conservative numbers.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: This is not some abstract concept almost every piece of technology you own like your iPhone, an Apple computer, your TV relies on these minerals.
And that demand is only going to grow.
SAUL GRIFFITH, FOUNDER & PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, REWIRING AMERICA:If we would like to continue and have a familiar lifestyle, cars, houses et cetera, really there only one answer and that’s to electrify pretty much all of the end-use things that we do, electrify the cooking, electrify the water heating, electrify the vehicles and we got to power that with a huge amount of renewables.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:It’s absolutely ironic, but to save the planet, we are going to need more mines.
You wouldn’t think it possible; you wouldn’t think that’s sensible, or reasonable, but that’s actually the fact of the matter.
We will need more mines to save the planet.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: King Island … off the northern coast of Tasmania is a favourite of foodies and golfers.
It has a global reputation for its cheese and beef, oysters, kelp, and crayfish.
It’s remote, rugged and going green.
The wind turbine behind me is helping to power King Island.
To build one of these turbines requires eight and a half tonnes of critical minerals like copper, zinc and nickel.
That’s three times more minerals than a coal fired power station needs to generate the same amount of energy.
It just shows the sheer volume of minerals we need to dig up.
And one of the most valuable minerals is found right here on the island.
This tungsten mine shuttered 30 years ago is about to reopen.
In February, politicians and shareholders flew in for the reopening and the compulsory turning of the sod.
It was an unlikely setting for a tutorial in strategic affairs …. but that’s just what guests received from their local member.
GAVIN PEARCE, LIBERAL MP: Recently in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, in China, our navigation rights in the south China sea, has brought a geo-political increase in tensions around the world.
We need as a country, as a government, we need to have a very good grip on where our minerals, our resources and our vital pieces of equipment are because we don’t want them held by a particular regime or used against us.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Johann Jacobs is head of the Australian company, Group Six Metals, which owns the mine.
JOHANN JACOBS, EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, GROUP SIX METALS: Certainly, the geopolitical situation that has emerged over the last couple of years is certainly very important for the way that we have financed the mine and been able to get it to the point where we are now under construction.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Once back in production the mine will produce tungsten … classified by the US and Australia as a critical mineral.
It’s one of the 35 minerals now seen as vital for economic and national security.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA: Tungsten is a great metal. It’s really hard. It’s super heat resistant, and it’s also very good at conducting electricity and so, we put it in our computer chips and our electronic components because it will not overheat.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: China currently controls 80-percent of the world’s tungsten.
This pit will provide an alternative source and fearing Beijing’s dominance the US is taking a keen interest in the mine.
How many meetings would you say you’ve had with the representatives from the US Embassy here?
JOHANN JACOBS, EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, GROUP SIX METALS: Probably three over the last 12 months, and those discussions are continuing. At this stage, they don’t have any financial interest, but they certainly are very keen to see us progress and develop the mine because it’s another supply chain that, from a friendly nation.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:For locals on King Island the mine is less about great power rivalry and more about jobs.
MAX SUMMERS: I’ve been here all my life, so I was here when the mine had its heyday and we had a few thousand people on the island, and it was a really vibrant community, so yeah I’m all for it.
People come they want to see the cows they want to taste the cheese and they want to see a little community doing well, even out of mining, I think.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: The nearby town of Grassy was hit hard by the mine’s closure in the 1990s.
Back in the day the Grassy Club was a favorite of thirsty miners.
Now, even on a Friday afternoon, it’s hardly packed.
JULIE ARNOLD, KING ISLAND MAYOR:So the people went, the infrastructure went, and then the housing gradually fell apart as well. So, it became a ghost town.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Julie Arnold is the Mayor of King Island and like many locals is eager to see the mine get started.
JULIE ARNOLD, KING ISLAND MAYOR: We really think that we’re probably on the cusp of a bit of a boom. So, the club will get a boost, uh, hopefully our football team will get a boost and we’ll have more people to play football.
But the social life will change quite immensely, the economic life, so we have vacant shops, hopefully some of those will reopen because it’s secure now.
60 extra jobs when we have 1,600 people, that is a big boost for us, and it just, it just gives a, a bounce to the whole economy and the whole feel of the island, so we are really pleased the mine’s opened.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Around Australia mineral deposits lie buried, there’s now a race on to find them.
TANIA CONSTABLE, CEO MINERALS COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA: One of the biggest opportunities we have to meet net-zero by 2050 at a global level is for Australia to be producing as many minerals as we can to help with that global effort.
To do that, we need to make sure that exploration is occurring in Australia.
PROF JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCES, ANU:We’re going into a mining boom right now.
Exploration is at an all-time high.
If you look at the labs that analyse the samples for exploration geologists, they’re backed up for six months.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Using technology invented at the Australian National University, Professor John Mavrogenes and his students are analysing rock samples to see what critical minerals they contain.
PROF JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCES, ANU: We’re really having a red hot go all over the country at finding these things, and we’re doing it better than we used to do. It’s smarter, more focused and it’s including all the critical metals, things that we didn’t look for 10 years ago, like tin and tungsten and lithium.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Not everyone is so enthusiastic about Australia’s latest mining boom.
In north-western Tasmania, it’s fuelling new conflicts on old battlegrounds.
In the Tarkine rainforest there is open hostility from conservationists towards two new mining projects.
BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTALIST: This should be national park. This should be a World Heritage, part of the great Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Veteran campaigner Bob Brown is leading efforts to stop Australian company Venture Minerals from building a tin mine at Mount Lindsay.
BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTALIST:This is part of the exploration license for Venture Minerals, have already put more than a hundred drill holes into this catchment and so the whole of it is available for them to put more drill holes in and in future mine.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: What’s so special about the Tarkine?
BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTALIST: The Tarkine is one of the great last unprotected wild areas on the planet and here we have in Australia, 100,000 hectares of the largest temperate rainforest of this type left on the planet and it’s facing death by 1,000 cuts.
The Tarkine is facing threats like it never did before.
Now, 90% of it is under mineral prospecting licenses.
ANDREW RADONJIC, MANAGING DIRECTOR, VENTURE MINERALS:Obviously Bob is very focussed on his area in Tasmania, which is fine, but this is a global problem and what we are trying to have is a global solution.
So, what we are saying we will have a small, temporary impact where we are, we’ll be having a much longer lasting global impact producing responsible tin.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Venture’s managing director Andrew Radonjic says the benefits of the small, underground mine they are proposing … will far outweigh the costs.
Tin isessential for electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines.
ANDREW RADONJIC, MANAGING DIRECTOR, VENTURE MINERALS:If you want to help achieve and battle climate change, then, you know, building a mine like Mount Lindsay in areas, which like ours, which are old mining areas, minimizes footprint, using electric, green power and putting techniques there.
Then, then I think the world be a better place for it and we can achieve those targets.
We’re trying to achieve Australia’s emissions targets by what we’re doing here at Mount Lindsay.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: There’s plenty of tin in the world.
But about 90 percent of it comes from countries like Indonesia, where tin deposits on land have been so heavily exploited that workers have started strip mining the ocean floor.
ANDREW RADONJIC, MANAGING DIRECTOR, VENTURE MINERALS:It’s not good mining practices. There’s no rehabilitation, no modern mining techniques like, like we employ in Australia.
So, so that’s, that’s the issue is that the tin is sourced from areas which, you know, archaic mining practices are still employed today.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Ventures say they’ll have a small footprint. They say that they have compromised in going underground rather than having an open pit. Doesn’t that show that they’re prepared to compromise and have a low impact mine?
BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTALIST: Venture is not here to give us electric cars or computers, Venture is here to get that publicly owned tin from under that forest to make money. That’s, that’s what runs it, I’m aware they’ll come up with all sorts of green arguments, but they don’t wash.
PROF JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCES, ANU: There’s no question we have some tough decision to make and this view that the green view is anti-mining is naive because if we’re going to go green, we’re going to have to get a bunch of these critical metals and we’re going to have to do it smartly, and we’re going to have to produce a lot of them.
We have to decide as a country. How valuable is a place and is it worth risking for mining?
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Half an hour from the proposed tin mine … protesters have set up camp.
They are fighting to stop another mine expanding into the Tarkine wilderness.
SCOTT JORDAN, CAMPAIGNER, BOB BROWN FOUNDATION: We are just, I guess, always surprised at how many people will come here and stand up for the forest, knowing that this will mean a criminal record. It will mean fronting court. It will mean the name in the papers, but, but they’re willing to stand up for the wilderness.
SUSIE AULICH, TARKINE CAMPAIGNER: This is incredibly important thing to do for Tasmania. This is ancient rainforest it is not a place to build a toxic waste dump.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:The move towards renewables has increased demand for the lead, zinc and copper produced by the 85-year-old mine, in the town of Rosebery.
STEVEN SCOTT, GENERAL MANAGER, ROSEBERY MINE: We mine and produce zinc, lead, and copper concentrate and that contributes to the electric vehicles and, and other areas such as solar panels, wind turbines, those sorts of things that support, obviously, renewable energies.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:The mine was bought by Chinese resources giant MMG 13 years ago.
It was part of a global buying spree by China’s state-owned enterprises to secure supply of critical minerals from Africa to South America and here in Tasmania.
RICHARD MCGREGOR, SENIOR FELLOW, LOWY INSTITUTE: We are moving into a period now of geopolitical competition, everybody is looking for the leverage.
The Chinese are quite explicit about that. It informs their policies on technology, it informs their policies on military competition, and of course it totally underwrites their policies on critical minerals.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: When the Rosebury mine was purchased few people outside the industry took note of the sale.
RICHARD MCGREGOR, SENIOR FELLOW, LOWY INSTITUTE:If you look at the gradually tightening supervision of just about any Chinese investment into Australia in recent years, we won’t even let a Chinese dairy company buy a Japanese drinks company in Australia.
The idea that a state-owned Chinese mining giant would be allowed to come to Tasmania to buy a mine like that these days, I just think would not pass muster under the Labour Party or the Liberal Party.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: To stay in the game MMG wants to clear 280 hectares of forest for a pipeline and new tailings dam.
The general manager, Steven Scottsays the mine and its 500 jobs would cease to exist without a new dam.
STEVEN SCOTT, GENERAL MANAGER, ROSEBERY MINE: We can’t run without it. Essentially, if you don’t have anywhere to put that material, then, uh, you can’t mine.
We’re working in a sustainable mine that’s been here coexisting in the same place for 85 years with a really good environmental performance record and we improve on that all the time.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: But documents obtained by Four Corners show one of MMG’s existing tailings dams has been leaking contaminated water for almost five years.
In a letter to Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authorityfollowing “several complaints”, the mining company conceded there was a “pressing need to rectify” the problem.
That was more than two years ago, and the dam continues to leak. EPA records show that on 18 occasions since 2018 contaminated water has discharged into the river.
MMG says these are “legacy issues” and they have significantly improved management of the dam.
BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTALIST: The Tarkine is really a global test case. If we can’t protect this in wealthy, modern, nature-loving Australia, how can we ask the people in the Amazon or the jungles of Borneo or the Congo to look after their forests, when they’re in much more dire straits than us?
We should protect this, not just for the future of humanity, but for the wildlife that’s in it.
ALLISON BRITT, DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:This is a mineral called allonite and it’s a rare earth mineral
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: There’s a group of critical minerals you may never have heard of but they’re essential for the technology of modern life.
Seventeen metals known as rare earth elements.
ALLISON BRITT, DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA: Rare earths are used in an enormous range of modern technologies your mobile phone, your laptop, your flat screen TV, almost any modern technology you can think of.
One of their most important uses is that they make some of the strongest permanent magnets that we know off and these are very, very important for renewable energy.
You can have a magnet that is quite small and light and yet it’s powerful enough to run the motor in an electric vehicle or the turbine of a giant windmill.
ALLISON BRITT,DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:That’s the beauty of rare earths, you only need a small amount of them to make technologies more effective.
So just like adding a bit of salt and pepper to your meal, they make the, really bring the flavour out, a small amount of rare earths can do the same thing for technology.
PROF JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCES, ANU: This business was so dominated by China for so many decades that nobody really paid attention.
About 10, 12 years ago, they restricted supply and the prices went up and everybody started looking around, and we found that we have at least three or four major deposits of rare earths in Australia.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Australian company, Lynas is the only major rare earths producer outside China.
It mines at this site at Mount Weld in Western Australia and sends the raw product to Malaysia for processing.
Rare earths are dirty to process and the waste often contains low levels of radiation.
PROFESSOR JOHN MAVROGENES, RESEARCH SCHOOL OF EARTH SCIENCE, ANU: One of the problems that people see is that the high temperature roasting of rare earth minerals to get the rare earth elements out is rather dangerous because it’s high temperature and it’s rather messy because in parts of Asia, we’ve left all kinds of remnant material around.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Lynas has been the target of massive protests in Malaysia with the local community worried about toxic waste from the processing plant.
ROD CAMPBELL, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE: The establishment of the processing facilities in Malaysia was really controversial.
There was huge public opposition in Malaysia to that.
There were previous rare-earths processing facilities in that area that had not gone well and the proposal for another foreign company to come and do it here again did not go down well at all and I think the opportunity that was lost was it could have been done in Australia and if we’d started 10 years ago to really get serious about processing some of these critical minerals in Australia, and we’d started with Lynas, then imagine where we could have been today.
UPSOT: One of the biggest challenges the world has is to address climate change but we’re ready to accept that challenge
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Two of the world’s biggest miners, BHP and Rio Tinto, have spent the last decade getting out of coal and promoting their investments in the minerals required for green energy.
Both have struggled to get major projects approved … as local communities have taken to the streets in the US and Europe.
ROD CAMPBELL, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE: I think a particularly interesting case is what’s happening in Serbia at the moment, where Rio Tinto are proposing a big lithium mine and from my understanding, it’s a specific type of lithium that’s particularly valuable for a productive farming area in Serbia.
And that’s encountered huge public opposition, it’s influenced local politics there, and my understanding is the government has cancelled the project.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:The US has declared securing access to critical minerals a major national priority.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced new projects that would compete with China’s control of cobalt, lithium, rare earths, and other critical minerals.
UPSOT, Joe Biden, President of the United States: China controls most of the global market in these minerals and the fact that we can’t build a future that’s made in America if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials that power the products of today and tomorrow.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:The US is now looking to Australia to fill the supply gap.
RICHARD MCGREGOR, SENIOR FELLOW, LOWY INSTITUTE: If you talk to people in Washington and Tokyo, they’re really comforted, in fact, quite thrilled to have a mineral rich country like Australia and a friendly country like Australia able to ramp up production in these areas, because if you’re looking for alternatives to China, you can’t do that in many countries around the world.
So, for Australia, it’s absolutely a fantastic opportunity economically, and frankly, strategically as well.
SAUL GRIFFITH, FOUNDER & PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, REWIRING AMERICA:Australia’s is still the luckiest country. Last century we were the luckiest because we had all the coal and a huge amount of natural gas, and not only could we supply our own economy, we built giant export industries selling those things to the world.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Saul Griffith’s company Rewiring America advised the US Government on its electrification policy.
SAUL GRIFFITH, FOUNDER & PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, REWIRING AMERICA: What we know the future needs is, is things that Australia also has in spades.
So, we need copper, we need aluminum, we need steel to make the wind turbines, we need lithium, we need nickel, we need cobalt and Australia is first, second, third or fourth in the world in terms of reserves and production of all of the critical things for this century.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: He says it could be an economic bonanza for Australia.
SAUL GRIFFITH, FOUNDER & PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, REWIRING AMERICA: There’s an incredible news story here for Australia, which is, we will be the provider of clean metals to the world, and we’ll make money doing it.
If we’re aggressive about that for all our critical materials, our export industry could be 10, 20, 30, 40 times larger than our current fossil fuel exports, in terms of net revenue to Australia. The opportunity really is that large, we just need to embrace it.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Australia has rapidly become the world’s largest producer of lithium, currently the most sought after of the critical minerals.
The International Energy Agency projects demand could rise by up to 4000 percent over the next two decades.
ALLISON BRITT, DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA: Lithium is, it’s almost flavour of the month, but it’s going to be flavour of the decade, flavour of the next two decades, because it’s such a fundamental component of the battery.
The batteries that we’re using in our electric vehicles, or for storing electricity in general.
I mean, they’re even called lithium-iron batteries for a reason.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:Australian miner Core Lithium is the newest player, building its mine on a flood plain 80 kilometres outside Darwin.
After signing a supply deal with Tesla, the stock price has almost doubled.
The company is now worth more than 2 billion dollars and that’s before its mined a single tonne of lithium.
PAULINE CASS:The waters very, very milky, and murky, its meant to be clear flowing.
Pauline Cass is an environmental scientist and community advocate.
PAULINE CASS:The mine is only in the very, very early stages and we are already seeing this consequence. Its polluting and contaminating the fresh waterways, as well as the harbour with this sediment.
DR KIRSTY HOWEY, CO-DIRECTOR, ENVIRONMENT CENTRE OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY:Unfortunately, already what appears to be happening is that the topsoil and gravel from that mining site is already discharging into a Creek and then into Darwin Harbour.
There are troubling signs that’s already occurring.
We’re concerned about that because technically we believe that may constitute an offence under the water act.
There’s a prohibition on pollution of any waterway in the Northern territory.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:The company plans to mine here for seven years and has promised to partly rehabilitate the site.
Locals are sceptical the Territory government will hold Core Lithium to account.
DR KIRSTY HOWEY, CO-DIRECTOR, ENVIRONMENT CENTRE OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY:There’s a gold rush mentality from government as there often is for new resources projects.
It raises a lot of questions for me about the nature of the kinds of deals that are being done in the rush to feed the boom for electric vehicles and the renewables industry more broadly.
PAULINE CASS: Our government has absolutely rolled out the red carpet.
You can just feel the excitement vibrating off them, we’re going to get rich.
But we’ve seen so many boom-and-bust things happen here.
There’s always the next big thing.
We are going to get rich on this and then no one gets rich, except for the clever people that grab the money and run and leave us with the mess to clean up.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:They want global tech companies to take responsibility for how the minerals they use are mined.
DR KIRSTY HOWEY, CO-DIRECTOR, ENVIRONMENT CENTRE OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY:In my view Tesla should know what’s happening on the ground. That would be good corporate practise. It’s extremely important that companies such as Tesla ensure that all of these credentials are ticked off on to the highest standard.
SAUL GRIFFITH,FOUNDER & PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, REWIRING AMERICA:Global supply chains are very complicated things and, I think you could probably make a statement that no company really knows where all of its sourced materials are coming from today, that’s how complicated it is.
I don’t believe that Apple, Tesla, Samsung, Panasonic are yet demanding enough of the providers, they certainly will tell good stories, but I don’t think anyone can claim a clean supply chain in 2022.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER:As the boom gathers pace … the Minerals Council of Australia has successfully lobbied the Federal Government … to speed up development approvals for new mines.
The changes would cut back on the need for environmental approvals at both the state and federal level.
TANIA CONSTABLE, CEO, MINERALS COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA:The faster we can get environmental approvals secured, the better it is for mining, and that means that we will bring the mines of the future forward.
That means that we will be able to supply the critical minerals that are necessary at a global level and here in Australia.
Australia is one of the highest regulated countries in the world for mining.
What we need to do better in Australia is make sure that that regulation makes sense, for the Commonwealth and the states to work together so that we don’t have more regulation, we have better regulation, and that means streamlined regulation.
DR KIRSTY HOWEY, CO-DIRECTOR, ENVIRONMENT CENTRE OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY:Our concern is that what the Morrison government is proposing to do is to actually diminish what protections are actually available under federal environmental law rather than enhancing protections for the environment.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: No place is more synonymous with mining than Broken Hill …the birthplace of the Australian resources industry.
Now this historic town is looking to reinvent itself as a centre for critical minerals and battery making.
UPSOT:We’re influencing decisions being made in Europe, in Washington DC, in London. All those places are looking at this project as one part in solving the geo-political risk for electric vehicle.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Australian company Cobalt Blue is setting up a cobalt mine and processing plant.
At this open day, it’s selling its vision to curious locals and shareholders, as they tuck into a sausage sizzle.
Joe Kaderavek is the CEO.
JOE KADERAVEK, CEO, COBALT BLUE HOLDINGS:To promote this project we have met with heads of state, senior cabinet officials and global businesses, they all want Broken Hill to win they all want to break this stranglehold on the cobalt market we are a big part of that win.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: They are promising to deliver ethically sourced, low emissions cobalt.
JOE KADERAVEK, CEO, COBALT BLUE HOLDINGS:Within the battery material sector and in particular cobalt, the majority of that cobalt is produced by one country, which is the Democratic Republic of Congo and is processed by China, approximately 90% of that product is processed through China.Mines are unregulated or self-regulated, if you like, in conditions that frankly wouldn’t meet the barest minimums of Western safety standards.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: Australia has a long history of digging up minerals and shipping them offshore … this will be the first time cobalt is processed locally.
JOE KADERAVEK, CEO, COBALT BLUE HOLDINGS:So, this the final step of converting cobalt rock into a commercial battery ready product.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: What does cobalt do for a battery?
JOE KADERAVEK, CEO, COBALT BLUE HOLDINGS:Cobalt provides stability and promotes a better performing longer life battery.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: The company says it will produce enough cobalt to power 5 million electric vehicles.
JOE KADERAVEK, CEO, COBALT BLUE HOLDINGS:So, we will effectively double Australian domestic production once we’re in operation, we’ll be making a battery ready material and that’s not done anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere so that’s a unique change.
It’ll also allow us domestically to step both Cuba and Russia and become the number two global producer of cobalt.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: As construction begins at the mine site … Cobalt Blue is in talks with big European car makers.
It’s been given major project status by the federal government and granted $15 million.
JOE KADERAVEK, CEO, COBALT BLUE HOLDINGS:I think that the focus on critical minerals from the Commonwealth Government is embedded now in their foreign policy.
Certainly, from what we’re seeing is that both Commonwealth and state governments are helping us find commercial partners, helping us make those introductions and I think at a federal level, they’re removing the barriers that we otherwise would’ve had to get into production and then incentivizing through grants and through loans to get into production.
I think it’s a very exciting time.
ANGUS GRIGG, REPORTER: As the world seeks to speed up action on climate change, Australia has the opportunity to provide the minerals needed for green power.
We could underwrite decades of future prosperity but the trade-offs between the environment, local communities and miners require some tough decisions.
ALLISON BRITT, DIRECTOR, MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA:This is an opportunity for Australia, because we have very strong laws in this country, around the environment, both at federal and state level.
We’re very, very good at mining, you could call us a mining superpower and if Australia doesn’t step up and provide some of this material to the world, it’s going to be done by other countries who might not take their mining responsibilities as seriously as we do.
DR KIRSTY HOWEY, CO-DIRECTOR, ENVIRONMENT CENTRE OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY:It’s a confounding issue for the environmental movement.
There’s absolutely no doubt that we have to move to mining of critical minerals if we are going to address the climate crisis and therefore, the environmental movement has to, of course, support these kinds of mines and mining of critical minerals.
At the same time, we need to be absolutely sure that we are not repeating the mistakes of the past and that best practice is adopted in every single mine.
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