Mining projects for the energy transition

Anna Triponel

June 24, 2022
Our key takeaway: The rush for energy transition minerals and metals is spurring many countries to “fast-track” mining projects in order to keep up with growing market demand for these commodities and respond to the rising urgency of dealing with the climate crisis. Yet, the majority of these mining projects are located on the lands of indigenous peoples and other land-connected peoples, and they in turn face the highest vulnerability to the adverse impacts of mining projects. In order to meet growing demand for transition metals and respect human rights, governments and companies should put renewed focus on implementing human rights-compatible mine permitting processes and on strengthening safeguards like meaningful community consultation and obtaining consent. 

John R. Owen, Deanna Kemp, Jill Harris, Alex M. Lechner and Eleonore Lebre published Fast track to failure? Energy transition minerals and the future of consultation and consent (forthcoming July 2022), in Energy Research & Social Science. The paper presents findings showing the extent to which the world's energy transition metals and minerals (ETM) projects “will intersect with Indigenous Peoples' and Peasant lands – the lands of people who under existing United Nations-level declarations have explicit consultation and consent rights.”

  • Fast-tracking of resource extraction projects: An anticipated rush for energy transition metals and minerals (ETM) is spurring governments to “fast-track” projects in an effort to capitalise on economic spoils while acting to meet climate commitments in line with the Paris Agreement. Per the authors, “major energy transitions have [historically] involved change over decades, or centuries” but they are concerned that, in the face of growing pressures to obtain minerals for the climate transition, “in the near-to-medium term, project approval and permitting regimes for large ETM projects, including critical minerals and REE [rare earth elements], could be compressed or removed. The driving question is: whether, and to what extent, community consultation and consent will be compromised in the process?” To mitigate both business risk and social risk, some mining companies are seeking to invest in so-called “safe jurisdictions,” which are “notionally defined as liberal western democracies in OECD countries with predictable systems of law and order, above average human development indices and a track record of supporting large-scale extractive projects.”
  • “Safe jurisdictions” are not always so safe after all: By comparing the geographic locations of major ETM deposits against the local landscape for human rights—specifically the rights of indigenous and land-connected peoples (“peasants”)—the authors found that many indigenous peoples and peasants are at risk of losing their land and livelihoods regardless of where they live. For example, “31% of ETM projects are located on or near Indigenous Peoples’ lands in the so-called safe jurisdictions in OECD countries,” yet existing inequality and discrimination in such countries often means that indigenous peoples are far more vulnerable to human rights impacts than non-indigenous peoples. Their vulnerable status also makes it more likely that states and project developers will inadequately respect their rights, especially the right to free, prior and informed consent: “Access to quality education, information, technical expertise, and state support bear heavily on whether FPIC can be obtained. … The flow-on effects of fast-tracking project development are easily identified: FPIC processes are kept to a desktop minimum, so markets are supplied with resources in a timely manner, and the discourse on consent rights receives a procedural nod, allowing resource developers to take full advantage of local context vulnerability.” In light of this, the authors believe that “the ‘safety’ of a jurisdiction should not be limited to state processes that favour mining companies but extend to the ability of people to engage in project development processes with their rights and interests properly safeguarded.”
  • Implications for a just transition: The authors outline several implications of their findings. First, the authors call for a “re-thinking” of the language of “safe jurisdictions”; such a designation may account for governance safeguards for business, but may fail to account for safeguards for people. In addition, they caution against the narrative of “critical minerals,” noting that a rush to invest is more likely to pose risks to people. The paper also “reveals the inherent difficulty of analysing energy justice at the source of supply” and calls for more attention to “the scale and complexity of vulnerability at the source of mineral supply.” Without implementing better safeguards for people in parallel to sparking the energy transition, the authors fear that “[g]lobal priorities will prevail, and the mining industry will re-produce the conditions of social vulnerability faster than it has in the past. Indigenous Peoples and Peasants will find themselves at the mercy of a blind form of globalization, while the local effects of the energy transition are systematically overlooked.”

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