It’s often a pleasure to write about the intersection of geology and sustainable development. Learning about ways in which earth science can positively impact the path towards a more sustainable world reinforces my perception of geology as a science that can really make the world a better place in the upcoming decades. However, that sunny perspective occasionally slips when I remember that earth science has for several centuries also informed the most polluting industries on the planet – industries that are deeply unsustainable. Fossil fuels, and the extractive industries more broadly, rely fundamentally on geological knowledge; perhaps we as geologists need to reckon more carefully with our role on both sides of the sustainability coin.
A conversation I had last week serves as an illustrative example. At a meeting with some geotechnical engineers from Canada, we fell to discussing the impacts of natural hazards – landslides in particular – on oil pipelines. One of the engineers explained that in British Columbia alone, around 100 million dollars is spent annually to mitigate the risk of damage to pipelines from geological hazards. That number astonished me, and my first reaction was of horror; how could this much money be poured into maintaining and supporting the oil industry, particularly in Canada where it is in part supported by the wildly unsustainable tar sands mining?
At the same time, without geologists acting as experts to mitigate the risk from natural hazards, the pipelines could be destroyed and the oil spill out into the ecosystem. The devastating impact from oil spills does diminish the social license of a fossil fuel company to operate, but even a number of high profile spills has not prevented drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, nor the tar sands mining itself. So are the geologists involved in assessing a pipeline to prevent natural hazards helping a fossil fuel company – and as such slowing the transition to sustainable energy – or reducing damage to pipeline-adjacent environments?
Even the transition to sustainable energy entails a lot of ‘necessary evils’ that will be supported by geologists. Renewable energy has a vast need for rare earth elements, particularly to create solar panels and batteries. These elements must be extracted, since even with a fully circular economy we would still need to scale the mining of rare metals by several dozen times to provide enough renewable energy to fully replace fossil fuels . Rare earth elements, including Neodymium that is integral to batteries, are often found in conjunction with radioactive elements, meaning that the mining process produces extensive dangerous waste. This is not to mention the natural hazard risks associated with mining tailings dams that have collapsed on a number of occasions in recent years.
Mining for both rare metals and fossil fuels also present opportunities for corruption and abuses, as the ore deposits and oil fields are often located in or near developing countries, which may lack the capacity to effectively negotiate fair and sustainable contracts with mining and oil companies. This kind of systemic abuse is part of the so-called ‘resource curse’, where countries with large natural resource reserves tend to have lower economic development than others without. While not inevitable, this effect has major implications for sustainability in those countries that provide resources.
Given the rapid pace of the transition needed from fossil fuels to renewable energy – according to many researchers we should be aiming to be fossil free by mid-century – there isn’t much time to transform the mining practices to avoid these issues, and we likely must accept that mining will be a vital part of the process. The expertise of geologists will be essential to develop these mining operations, as well as mitigating the impacts. Geologists may wish to keep their hands clean when it comes to sustainability – but they may be needed to offset the worst of it, instead.
If you’re an earth scientist with an interesting in achieving a more sustainable world, like me, then it is worth asking where you see yourself in that transition. We often think that supporting the extractive industries that have allowed us to use resources at a rate faster than we can sustain is the wrong step to achieving the SDGs, but is it better to work within or alongside them to improve their practices and limit the damage they can do? Geological knowledge will be needed by these companies; I’d argue it’s better if the people providing it are aware of the implications for sustainability.