This mining executive fights to protect the environment – Advice Eating

IDuring her 16-year career in the mining industry, Renee Grogan has struggled with hostile environments, arduous working conditions and the perception that women do not belong on a mine campus – let alone in a mining company boardroom. But their biggest battle has just begun: getting climate-conscious car buyers to care as much about the metals being broken down into their new electric vehicle (EV) batteries as they do about their CO2 emissions. “Consumers generally don’t know what their metal footprint is like,” says Grogan, co-founder and chief sustainability officer of California-based Impossible Mining, a battery metals mining start-up. “But if you’re driving an electric car because you think you’re doing something good for the world, don’t you want to make sure your car battery isn’t making things worse?”

As demand for electric vehicles increases, so does the need for the metals used in their batteries, including nickel, cobalt, copper and lithium. With land-based mines already operating at full speed and dogged by allegations of environmental and human rights abuses, mining companies are looking to the Pacific, where trillions of potato-like nuggets of nickel, cobalt and manganese are scattered across the floor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Mining in the region could begin as early as next year once the International Seabed Authority (ISA) begins issuing licenses. According to mining companies investing in seabed metals, the polymetallic nodules could be siphoned off with minimal environmental impact. Marine biologists disagree, arguing that the complex underwater environment has not been adequately explored to understand the potential impacts. More than 600 marine scientists and policy experts have signed a statement calling for a moratorium on underwater mining until more research is done. BMW, Google, Samsung and Volkswagen, among others, have supported similar moratoria.

Grogan starts in a different place. Banning seabed mining, she says, will only shift environmental pollution to land-based metal mining, which destroys ecosystems while leaving a toxic legacy of tailings ponds (water structures designed to store residual materials from mining processes) and pollution runoff from refineries. A better alternative, argues Grogan, would be to set a new standard for responsible battery mineral mining wherever it occurs. To help drive that cleaner future, Grogan launched an initiative to push for an independent standards body that would require mining companies to avoid destroying marine and land habitats, eliminate toxic waste, conserve biodiversity, protect communities protect, conserve fresh water sources and keep carbon neutral. Her BetterEV seal, she says, could eventually become as recognizable as “organic” and “fair trade” for food and consumer goods. It is, she admits, a mammoth enterprise. But given enough consumer pressure, mining companies could be encouraged to try. “Thousands of innovations are just waiting in the wings. We just need a nudge,” says Grogan.

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Grogan’s own startup is developing sea robots that would hover above the sea floor to pluck individual nodules of metal from the sea floor, rather than sucking them up along with biodiversity-rich sediments like other mining companies do. The AI-equipped robots can be programmed to recognize and leave in place marine life such as sponges or worms that live on individual nodes. Impossible Mining is also scaling new technologies in metal refining that use specially engineered bacteria to break down nodules into their component parts without using energy-intensive heat or harmful acids that leave behind toxic waste. Prototypes for both technologies are being trialled and Grogan expects both to be fully operational within the next year. “If we are the first company to show that these standards can be met, the others will have no choice but to follow. They will compete, they will innovate, and then the industry as a whole will be better off for the planet.”

A label of consumer-centric standards would put welcome pressure on mining companies to do better, says Andrew Friedman, seabed mining project manager at Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ocean Conservation Campaign. But voluntary label accreditation is no substitute for strict regulation. “While some of the consumer base is busy thinking about their supply chain, ultimately it’s regulatory standards that will have the biggest impact on how the industry behaves,” he says.

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The Metals Company, a Canada-based startup, argues that a publicly available label is unnecessary as the ISA is already in the process of creating underwater mining code that includes stringent environmental, reporting and oversight requirements. But Grogan says it was actually a subpar application by the Metals Company and its partner country Nauru to the ISA for approval to test their polymetallic nodular collector system that sparked their idea. The environmental impact statement, she says, is disingenuous and incomplete, an opinion widely held among scientists, conservationists and other national governments. According to Friedman, Naurus’ initial assessment “contained virtually no baseline biological data. An environmental impact statement that does not describe marine life in the environment is not an environmental impact statement.” After concerns were raised by several ISA parties, Nauru submitted a revised statement with some biological data, but did not allow further comment from stakeholders. “I was so angry that a mining company could be so disrespectful with their environmental impact assessment approach,” says Grogan. “That’s when I realized that if we could get the message across, market forces — consumer sentiment — could actually be the stronger voice.”

In a male-dominated industry, Grogan is used to being the only woman in the boardroom and not hearing her voice. She can’t count the number of times she’s been asked to get tea or coffee or directed to the back of the room despite being a co-founder of a mining company. “I literally have to fight for a seat at the table,” she says. But she enjoys the fight. “When the dinosaurs say it can’t be done, I have to smile. In three years I will remind them that they didn’t want to be part of this change. It’s exhausting and excruciating, but…this is my chance to change the industry I grew up in.”

Correction, April 18:

In the original version of this story, the name of the Pew Charitable Trusts was misrepresented. It’s the Pew Charitable Trust, not the Pew Charitable Trust.

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