#170: Ernest Scheyder | The War Below

Mining The Cobalt, Lithium, Copper & Rare Earths That Will Dictate The 21st Century

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War Below - Ernest Scheyder

There is a perennial trade off between the competing interests for whether we dig stuff from out of the ground…  or if we just let it be…

Is the damage to the beauty, environment, and culture worth the riches in minerals, building materials and energy that it costs to extract?

There are plenty of instances where that trade off has clearly come at cost to nature, but then as well, perhaps even more where the environmental trade off has been worthwhile….

After all, we live in a built environment. The sheer quantities of sand mined every year to fuel the concrete that we interact with scars permanently riverbeds, creates water scarcity and pollutes so much of the world. Australia alone has dug out thousands, if not millions of tonnes or iron ore to then sell to a China who goes onto build, in the worst case, ghost cities that no one inhabits. Oil, the great carbon slick that we’ve so feverishly extracted from the earth has offset the carbon cycle under which we evolved… and depending who you believe, that single cost to the environment may end up being the end of us. 

But then as well, that same oil, that same concrete, that same iron ore and that same everything else has also enabled the innovation and prosperity from which our growing population benefits. 

In 1900 there were 1,600,000,000 billion people… today, theres over 8,000,000,000. That’s an insane growth which has an immense hunger for the very same stuff which ruins our environment. 

And so… as you can see, a rather tricky trade off, and the central one which Ernest Scheyder runs directly towards in the ‘War Below’...

The electrification of the economy is on the one hand very good. It means we can move away from consuming the carbon rich oil into our atmosphere… but it also means that we are going to need way more other stuff from the under the ground than we currently even know about. It will require mining 100’s of more sacred sites and 100’s of more beautiful vistas. 

Copper, lithium, cobalt and literally 100’s of other rare earths are all necessary components of batteries, electric cars, trucks, boats, even leaf-blowers… and this for a scale for 8 billion, soon to be 9 billion people…

If a sacred religious sight is built atop enough copper to secure your domestic supply… should you mine it?

If thousands of tonnes of lithium is built under a unique flower, almost certain to go extinct if you extract… should you do it?

And if you decide to play by environmental rules while everyone doesn’t… are you doing what’s right in the short term at the cost of whats best in the long?

These questions consume the book, and as well, this conversation.

So here is a veteran energy journalist for Reuters, and author of the War Below… Ernest Scheyder.

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Here is a transcript of the opening exchange from the conversation…

How did it feel getting Daniel Yergin’s endorsement?

Ernest Scheyder
I was really fortunate that he took the time to read the book and to provide some nice feedback on an early draft and to share his thoughts on the book. Obviously, an expert in the field of energy broadly wrote the seminal book on the oil and gas industry, several seminal books on the oil and gas industry. And to have his feedback on The War Below was great because the entire energy economy, of course, is shifting. It's still going to use a lot of oil and natural gas, but increasingly we're going to be needing a lot more copper and lithium and other critical minerals. So it really behooves us all to have a broad conversation about where we want to get those critical minerals. And Dan and his work at CiroWeek and S &P are key parts of those conversations.

Have you spent much time with him?

Ernest Scheyder
So I do sort of like many energy journalists live at the SaraWeek conference every year. And I use that word on purpose, live, because it tends to be five days in a row, sometimes six or seven, depending where you're at this hotel for about 12, 13, 14, 15 hours a day, just sort of running a ragged. And that's a testament to the high caliber of speakers and guests that Dan and his team get for Sarah Week. So.

We all sort of tend to embed there as we live there for the better part of a week. But he's also a great compensator on various energy changes, whether that's in geopolitics or in technology or in other areas. And so I, fair to say that he is someone widely respected and looked up to in the space for his well -earned expertise.

So the book it's about this ongoing debate of trade -offs for whether we should pull these resources out of the ground. And can you please present both sides of the argument and all the complexity for why it's actually not so simple of a question.

Ernest Scheyder
Sure. So the book is called The War Below, Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives. And at its core, the book is an exploration of choice. You know, my firm belief, Ryan, is that you get to ask your audience one question when you write a book. And the question that I'm asking here of the audience is, what are the choices that we're willing to make if we want to go green, if we want this energy transition, if we feel that climate change is serious and we need electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and other...

green energy devices to help fight climate change. And on top of that, if we also want all of the electronic gadgets and gizmos that are increasingly powered by lithium ion batteries and other critical minerals, cell phones, laptops, et cetera, then we have to be having the discussion about where we want them. And the book builds off of my work in my day job at Reuters, where I wrote about a lot of proposed minds in the United States and elsewhere that were facing various degrees of opposition due to one reason or another.

And the more I reported on these areas, I started to see a cohesive thread for a narrative emerge. Because in my previous life, I used to cover the oil and gas industry, and I think a lot of folks would fall into what I would say is pretty much just two camps. Either you tend to be okay with extracting oil and natural gas, or for various reasons, you might say, no, we've got to stop it, whether that's for climate reasons or other reasons. But with critical minerals, 98, 99 % of the people that I would interview in my day job,

would be broadly supportive of just the need for these critical minerals. The tension rose around where do we actually want to get them? And so they're in light of very interesting area that I thought as a journalist, as an author to push into here. Are there some places that are too special to mine? What are the standards for mining in places where we think it's okay to mine? Who should be able to say yes or no to a certain project, whether that's for indigenous reasons or ecological or environmental reasons? What are the...

deciding factors here. And we're not having this broad discussion right now. And so I really wanted the reader, especially in the United States, but more broadly, us as citizens of the world, to be really rustling with these topics. And so that's what I bring to the book. The book goes through several proposed projects across the United States and the world that would supply lithium and copper and nickel and cobalt and rare earths that are so vital for the energy transition. But they all face various levels of opposition.

Due to one degree or another. And I purposely don't take a stance on whether or not these forms of opposition are right or wrong. That's not my job, I don't think, here. But what it is my job to do is to bring to the reader the human stories or the people that are affected by the choices we're making or, more commonly, the choices we're not making right now. We just sort of assume we show up to a store and the product will be there without thinking through the very long supply chains that helped bring it to us. And.

I think, Ryan, if the coronavirus pandemic taught us anything, it's that these really long supply chains probably are not feasible anymore at all. I mean, it was four years ago this month that we discovered as a world, and especially here in the United States, that very few places made masks, that sort of most basic of medical equipment yet necessary during the pandemic. And I think that's just one product. And you extrapolate it across the millions of electronic devices that are powered by all these critical minerals, and you start to see the huge implications for the supply chain.

And it's about so much more than just electric vehicles. I think too often people just sort of take the issue and are like, oh yeah, I don't own an EV. I'll never buy one. Why does this affect me? Well, I'll tell you what, you probably got a cell phone. You probably got a laptop. You probably have a bunch of other lithium ion powered devices in your house and you don't even realize it. And these are just sort of basic goods, nevermind things that help us fight climate change. So that was all the stuff that sort of, you put it into a pot and that was what I hit boil on in the stove, if you will, to help.

really build this cohesive narrative. And I was really fortunate to be able to spend time with folks on all sides of this issue here and point out for the reader that there's more than one side when it comes to this critical mineralist debate. There's folks that might be supportive of a mine, but not want it here, or they might be broadly supportive of the energy transition, but they say for indigenous rights reasons, we shouldn't have this project here. And they're all different angles. And so what I wanted to do with the book is tell the human story as well here because...

Human beings are complex and it's important to not demonize or caricature one side or another or any of the sides. But I really wanted to paint for the reader who these people are, show them 3D warts and all so that folks can help form their own opinion about these complex areas.

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