This Mining Executive Is Fighting to Protect the Environment

Itn her 16-year career in the mining industry, Renee Grogan has battled hostile environments, arduous work conditions, and the perception that women don’t belong at a mine site—let alone in a mining-company boardroom. The biggest struggle she has to overcome is getting climate-conscious car-buyers to pay as much attention as carbon emissions about how their new electric-vehicle battery (EV) metals are mined. “Consumers don’t generally know what their metal footprint looks like,” says Grogan, the co-founder and chief sustainability officer of California-based Impossible Mining, a battery-metal mining startup. “But if you are driving an electric car because you think you are doing good for the world, wouldn’t you want to make sure your car battery isn’t actually making things worse?”

As demand for EVs rises, so too does the need for the metals that go into their batteries—nickel, cobalt, copper, and lithium, among others. Land-based mining operations are at their peak and are being accused of human-rights and environmental abuses. Mining companies now look to the Pacific Ocean for potential sources of metals. There, trillions upon trillions of tiny nuggets containing nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese can be found scattered across the Clarion-Clipperton Zone floor. Once the International Seabed Authority starts granting licenses, mining in this region may begin as soon as next year. Mining companies that invest in seabed metals claim the nodules of polymetallic minerals can be swept up easily with little environmental impact. Marine biologists disagree, arguing that there hasn’t been enough research on the complex undersea environment to understand the potential impact. A statement signed by more than 600 policy and marine experts calling for an end to undersea mining, until further research has been done. Similar moratoriums have been supported by Google, Samsung and Volkswagen among other companies.

Grogan’s journey begins in a new place. Grogan says that banning seabed mining would only move the burden of environmental damage to land-based mineral mining. Land-based mining is also harmful to ecosystems. It leaves toxic residues in tailings ponds, water facilities built to store materials leftover from mining operations, and polluted runoff from refineries. Grogan believes that a better solution would be for every location to establish a responsible standard in battery-mineral extraction. Grogan is launching an initiative to promote a standards body independent of mining companies that will require them to prevent habitat destruction at sea or on land, to eliminate toxic waste, conserve biodiversity, keep freshwater supplies, and maintain carbon neutrality. Her BetterEV label, she says, could eventually become as recognizable as “organic” and “fair trade” are for food and consumer goods. She admits that it is a huge undertaking. Mining companies may be encouraged to experiment if there is enough consumer pressure. “There are thousands of innovations waiting in the wings. We just need a push,” says Grogan.

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Grogan’s own startup is developing marine robots that would hover above the ocean floor to pluck individual metal nodules from the seabed, rather than vacuuming them up along with biodiversity-rich sediment as other mining companies do. These robots are AI-equipped and can recognize the sea life living within individual nodules. Impossible Mining also plans to expand its technology in metal refining. These new technologies use specially engineered bacteria, which breaks down nodules into the component parts without using harmful heat or toxic acids. Grogan anticipates that both prototypes of both technology will be fully operational by the end of next year. “If we are the first company that shows those standards can be met, then the others have no choice but to follow. They will compete, they will innovate, and then the industry as a whole is doing better for the planet.”

A consumer-facing standards label would add welcome pressure on mining companies to do better, says Andrew Friedman, the project lead on seabed mining at the Pew Charitable Trust’s campaign for ocean conservation. However, voluntary accreditation of standards labels isn’t a replacement for strict regulation. “Even if a segment of the consumer base is engaged with thinking about their supply chain, it’s ultimately the regulatory standards which will have the most influence on industry behavior,” he says.

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Metals Company, a Canada-based start-up, argues that a label that is public is redundant because the ISA is currently in the process to establish an undersea mining law that incorporates robust environmental reporting, oversight, and reporting requirements. Grogan claims it was a poor application to the ISA by the Metals Company, and Nauru as a partner, to obtain a permit for the polymetallic nodule collector system to be tested. According to Grogan, the initial environmental impact report was inaccurate and incomplete. It is a sentiment that has been widely shared among conservationists and scientists as well. Friedman says Nauru’s initial assessment “included virtually no biological baseline data. An environmental impact statement that doesn’t describe the marine life in the environment is not an environmental impact statement.” After several ISA parties raised concerns, Nauru submitted a revised statement with some biological data, but did not allow for further comments from stakeholders. “I was so angry that a mining company could be so disrespectful of the approach to assessing environmental impact,” says Grogan. “That’s when I realized that market forces—consumer sentiment—might actually be the stronger voice, if we could get the message out.”

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

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