I'm a degreed librarian with over 30 years of experience as an environmental information professional. I'm currently the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator and also manage the Center's strategic communications.
This month’s discussion will be on the circular economy and will feature Deborah Dull, founder of the Circular Supply Chain Network and the author of Circular Supply Chains: 17 Common Questions (How Any Supply Chain Can Take the Next Step). She is VP at Genpact and their Global leader of sustainable supply chains. Prior to that, she was at Zero100, GE Digital, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Microsoft. Deborah holds Supply Chain & Operations Management degrees from Western Washington University (BA) and the University of Liverpool (MSc), with a thesis focused on the digital supply chain.
On December 30, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (collectively Agencies) announced the issuance of a final rule defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a key term in the Clean Water Act (CWA). That phrase, which serves as the definition for “navigable waters” in the statute, effectively establishes the boundaries of the Agencies’ regulatory authority under the CWA. The rule was published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2023, and will take effect 60 days thereafter.
As previously discussed, during the Trump administration, the Agencies promulgated a rule that defined WOTUS more narrowly than previous iterations of the rule, substantially reducing the waters subject to CWA protections and EPA authority under that statute. The new rule establishes a broader definition of WOTUS, although seeking to reflect certain Supreme Court decisions, the new rule is not as broad as the earlier (pre-2015) WOTUS rules. However, with the Supreme Court’s decision still pending in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, a case in which the Court will decide the types of wetlands that are within the statute’s scope, and the litigation already filed in the Southern District of Texas challenging the new rule, uncertainty remains regarding the new rule’s applicability.
As companies race to expand renewable energy and the batteries to store it, finding sufficient amounts of rare earth metals to build the technology is no easy feat. That’s leading mining companies to take a closer look at a largely unexplored frontier – the deep ocean seabed.
A wealth of these metals can be found in manganese nodules that look like cobblestones scattered across wide areas of deep ocean seabed. But the fragile ecosystems deep in the oceans are little understood, and the mining codes to sustainably mine these areas are in their infancy.
A fierce debate is now playing out as a Canadian company makes plans to launch the first commercial deep sea mining operation in the Pacific Ocean.
The Metals Company completed an exploratory project in the Pacific Ocean in fall 2022. Under a treaty governing the deep sea floor, the international agency overseeing these areas could be forced to approve provisional mining there as soon as spring 2023, but several countries and companies are urging a delay until more research can be done. France and New Zealand have called for a ban on deep sea mining.
As scholars who have long focused on the economic, political and legalchallenges posed by deep seabed mining, we have each studied and written on this economic frontier with concern for the regulatory and ecological challenges it poses.
What’s down there, and why should we care?
A curious journey began in the summer of 1974. Sailing from Long Beach, California, a revolutionary ship funded by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes set course for the Pacific to open a new frontier — deep seabed mining.
Widespread media coverage of the expedition helped to focus the attention of businesses and policymakers on the promise of deep seabed mining, which is notable given that the expedition was actually an elaborate cover for a CIA operation.
The real target was a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk in 1968 with all hands and what was believed to be a treasure trove of Soviet state secrets and tech onboard.
Manganese nodules are roughly the size of potatoes and can be found across vast areas of seafloor in parts of the Pacific and Indian oceans and deep abyssal plains in the Atlantic. They are valuable because they are exceptionally rich in 37 metals, including nickel, cobalt and copper, which are essential for most large batteries and several renewable energy technologies.
These nodules form over millennia as metals nucleate around shells or broken nodules. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone, between Mexico and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, where the mining test took place, has been estimated to have over 21 billion metric tons of nodules that could provide twice as much nickel and three times more cobalt than all the reserves on land.
Mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone could be some 10 times richer than comparable mineral deposits on land. All told, estimates place the value of this new industry at some US$30 billion annually by 2030. It could be instrumental in feeding the surging global demand for cobalt that lies at the heart of lithium-ion batteries.
Yet, as several scientists have noted, we still know more about the surface of the moon than what lies at the bottom of the deep seabed.
Deep seabed ecology
Less than 10% of the deep seabed has been mapped thoroughly enough to understand even the basic features of the structure and contents of the ocean floor, let alone the life and ecosystems therein.
Between 70% and 90% of living things collected in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone have never been seen before, leaving scientists to speculate about what percentage of all living species in the region has never been seen or collected. Exploratory expeditions regularly return with images or samples of creatures that would richly animate science fiction stories, like a 6-foot-long bioluminescent shark.
Environmentalists have questioned whether seafloor creatures could be smothered by sediment plumes and whether the sediment in the water column could effect island communities that rely on healthy oceanic ecosystems. The Metals Company has argued that its impact is less than terrestrial mining.
Given humanity’s lack of knowledge of the ocean, it is not currently possible to set environmental baselines for oceanic health that could be used to weigh the economic benefits against the environmental harms of seabed mining.
Scarcity and the economic case for mining
The economic case for deep seabed mining reflects both possibility and uncertainty.
On the positive side, it could displace some highly destructive terrestrial mining and augment the global supply of minerals used in clean energy sources such as wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and electric vehicles.
Terrestrial mining imposes significant environmental damage and costs to human health of both the miners themselves and the surrounding communities. Additionally, mines are sometimes located in politically unstable regions. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces 60% of the global supply of cobalt, for example, and China owns or finances 80% of industrial mines in that country. China also accounts for 60% of the global supply of rare earth element production and much of its processing. Having one nation able to exert such control over a critical resource has raised concerns.
Deep seabed mining comes with significant uncertainties, however, particularly given the technology’s relatively early state.
First are the risks associated with commercializing a new technology. Until deep sea mining technology is demonstrated, discoveries cannot be listed as “reserves” in firms’ asset valuations. Without that value defined, it can be difficult to line up the significant financing needed to build mining infrastructure, which lessens the first-mover advantage and incentivizes firms to wait for someone else to take the lead.
Commodity prices are also difficult to predict. Technology innovation can reduce or even eliminate the projected demand for a mineral. New mineral deposits on land can also boost supply: Sweden announced in January 2023 that it had just discovered the largest deposit of rare earth oxides in Europe.
In all, embarking on deep seabed mining involves sinking significant costs into new technology for uncertain returns, while posing risks to a natural environment that is likely to rise in value.
It allows countries to control economic activities, including any mining, within 200 miles of their coastlines, accounting for approximately 35% of the ocean. Beyond national waters, countries around the world established the International Seabed Authority, or ISA, based in Jamaica, to regulate deep seabed mining.
Critically, the ISA framework calls for some of the profits derived from commercial mining to be shared with the international community. In this way, even countries that did not have the resources to mine the deep seabed could share in its benefits. This part of the ISA’s mandate was controversial, and it was one reason that the United States did not join the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
With little public attention, the ISA worked slowly for several decades to develop regulations for exploration of undersea minerals, and those rules still aren’t completed. More than a dozen companies and countries have received exploration contracts, including The Metals Company’s work under the sponsorship of the island nation of Nauru.
Much of the coverage of deep seabed mining has been framed to highlight the climate benefits. But this overlooks the dangers this activity could pose for the Earth’s largest pristine ecology – the deep sea. We believe it would be wise to better understand this existing, fragile ecosystem better before rushing to mine it.
With rapid advances in technology, it’s becoming easier to create and spread visual content that’s inaccurate, misleading and dangerous. There are similarities and differences between visual health misinformation and other types of visual misinformation.
Crude oil has been a major resource of the Nigerian state since it was discovered in the Niger Delta area in 1956 by a joint venture between Shell and British Petroleum. To this day, oil and gas account for over 80 percent of Nigeria’s total exports and about 65 percent of national revenue.
Shell and other multinational oil companies make billions of dollars in profits annually off the region—at great expense to the host communities. The Ogoni communities in Rivers State in the Niger Delta area have endured decades of oil spills and gas-instigated fires that have led to ecological destabilization and destruction, loss of livelihoods, migration, health hazards, biodiversity loss, and preventable deaths. Nigeria leads the world in volume of oil spilled; between 1976 and 1991, over 2 million barrels of oil polluted Ogoniland in 2,976 separate spills. The people of Ogoniland, to date, are still denied justice as it relates to their damaged environment (including farmland), health, and financial reparations. The Nigerian government has supported resuming oil exploration in the region despite years of protests and justice movements, which have been met with military brutality, court cases that have dragged on for generations, and further destruction of the environment in the form of pipeline vandalism and militancy.
In an award-winning, six-month-long investigation published in Ripples Nigeria and republished in three other outlets, Nigerian journalists Kelechukwu Iruoma and Ruth Olurounbi chronicled the devastating effects of oil development on the health and safety of the people of Ogoniland. Their investigation led them to several communities in the region whose residents spoke about their heart-rending plight living in a place where they can no longer plant crops, fish, breathe clean air, get justice, raise a family, or have a say in their communities as Indigenous people.
The reporters also obtained blood samples from area residents to test for medical evidence of oil spill–related diseases. The analysis revealed unhealthy changes in people’s livers and kidneys, which medical experts that Olurounbi and Iruoma consulted agreed were likely from exposure to oil-associated contaminants in their environment.
Nigerian journalist Amir Sadiq spoke to Olurounbi and Iruoma on the strategies, experiences, and research behind their investigation, which led to improvements in affected communities, including oil cleanup and provision of potable water, and even served as a source of evidence for communities suing the oil companies in court. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
As a result of the Pandemic, ADEQ developed and launched a new telecommute emissions reduction calculator that allows employers to estimate how telecommuting programs reduce pollutants that contribute to regional air quality problems. Developed with community/local business input, the calculator was included as an upgrade to a regional transportation demand management platform and includes the following innovative features: Telework emissions reductions calculations for regionally specific pollutants (NOx, VOC and PM10) to show how telework prevents air pollution — the first program in the region to share such detail. Easy to understand, presentation-ready emissions reduction totals are translated into equivalencies for more widely understood activities (e.g., decommissioning leaf blowers), and plug-and-play telework emissions reduction tables simplify employer sustainability reports.
A 1,100 horsepower (hp) sports car, or “hypercar,” made by Italy’s Bertone Inc. has been designed to run on a custom-blended plastic-scrap-to-fuel formula. “The GB110 is the first high performance car that will be supplied with fuel made out of plastic waste, a significant innovation in the automotive industry,” Bertone says in a December news release.
Manufacturing had a big summer. The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law in August, represents a massive investment in U.S. domestic manufacturing. The act aims to drastically expand the U.S. semiconductor industry, strengthen supply chains, and invest in R&D for new technological breakthroughs. According to John Hart, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at MIT, the CHIPS Act is just the latest example of significantly increased interest in manufacturing in recent years.
In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $2,497,134 in research funding for 25 small businesses to develop technologies that address some of our most pressing environmental problems. Projects include technologies for detecting methane emissions, methods to prolong the shelf life of foods and reduce food waste, software systems to improve recycling and materials management, and a water sampling device to detect the presence of PFAS.
These awards are part of EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program which runs an annual, two-phase competition for funding. The 25 small businesses below are receiving up to $100,000 in Phase I funding for six months for “proof of concept” of their proposed technology. Companies that complete Phase I can then apply to receive Phase II funding of up to $400,000 to further develop and commercialize their technology.
SBIR Phase I winners and their proposed technologies are:
Beta Analytic (Miami, Fla.) to develop a novel method to trace fugitive sources of methane in atmospheric gas mixtures.
Can I Recycle This, Inc. (Athens, Ga.) to develop a circular economy solution that provides real-time, geospatial materials recovery information.
Censys Technologies Corporation (Daytona Beach, Fla.) to develop an innovative system for remote sensing of fugitive methane.
City of Roses Disposal and Recycling, Inc. (Portland, Ore.) to develop a real-time recycling inventory aggregation and management software for construction and demolition waste.
Cleaned and Green, LLC (Indian Springs Village, Ala.) to develop an enhanced efficiency poultry litter-based fertilizer that is cost-effective and environmentally friendly.
Aquarius Systems (North Prairie, Wis.) to develop an in-water collection and removal device to capture floating debris.
EIC Laboratories, Inc. (Norwood, Mass.) to develop a novel technique for rapid, on-site analysis of water quality.
Forever Analytical Services, Inc. (South Bend, Ind.) to develop a rapid, field-deployable water sampling device to measure PFAS.
GoodGames (Freeport, Maine) to develop a social networking platform to help build community resilience to disasters, threats, and extreme weather.
HJ Science & Technology, Inc. (San Leandro, Calif.) to develop a portable, on-site technology to detect PFAS in complex water environments.
Hydrova Inc. (San Diego, Calif.) to develop a novel process for complete resource recovery and hydrogen production from secondary aluminum processing waste.
Imvela Corp (Brooklyn, N.Y.) to develop a novel, natural ingredient that reduces microbial spoilage and extends shelf life of fresh fruit.
Iterant, Inc. (Berkeley, Calif.) to develop an online platform for regional plastic packaging reuse systems.
J-Tech LLC (Lakewood, Colo.) to develop a septic tank technology that enables low-cost, sustainable disinfection of wastewater for on-site non-potable reuse.
Kamilo, Inc. (San Francisco, Calif.) to develop a digital verification system to confirm the percentage of recycled content in products to advance plastic circularity.
Mesa Photonics, LLC (Santa Fe, N.M.) to develop a methane monitoring network for continuous measurement of methane emissions.
Optimized Thermal Systems, Inc. (Beltsville, Md.) to optimize a machine for improved recovery of a refrigerant with high global warming potential.
LeapFrog Design (Bend, Ore.) to develop a modular ecological water treatment system for onsite capture and non-potable reuse from single-family residences.
Seacoast Science, Inc. (Carlsbad, Calif.) to develop a fully automated analyzer to monitor air toxics in indoor spaces.
Sporian Microsystems, Inc. (Lafayette, Colo.) to develop a high-speed, low-cost imaging system for improved identification of microplastics.
Ourobio (Charlottesville, Va.) to produce sustainable indigoid dyes and bioplastics using byproducts of dairy processing
UES, Inc. (Dayton, Ohio) to develop an innovative air toxic monitoring system for neighborhood-level monitoring.
VISIMO, LLC (Coraopolis, Pa.) to develop a machine learning toolkit for screening research published outside of commercial or academic publishing to improve systematic reviews for chemical risk assessment.
Wisely, Inc. (Wilmington, N.C.) to develop a smart food storage system to reduce household food waste by allowing users to track perishables.
Zabble Inc. (Walnut Creek, Calif.) to develop an artificial intelligence-based tagging platform for contamination monitoring audits to improve recycling.
This guidebook provides an overview of the clean energy, climate mitigation and resilience, agriculture, and conservation-related tax incentives and investment programs in President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, including who is eligible to apply for funding and for what activities. The Biden-Harris Administration is working quickly to design, develop, and implement these programs; as such, the information in this guidebook is current as of publication. In the coming weeks and months, we will publish new developments on www.CleanEnergy.gov to keep stakeholders and potential beneficiaries of these programs up to date on the latest deadlines and details. This guidebook does not cover the Inflation Reduction Act’s health care provisions or certain corporate tax reforms.
The guidebook groups the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax incentives and investment programs into thematic chapters and explains how the law will deliver on the President’s commitments to the American people. Each chapter outlines the significance of these programs and includes a one-page summary of each program’s eligible uses, potential beneficiaries, and other important information. Given the cross-cutting nature of energy and climate issues, many of these Inflation Reduction Act programs and tax provisions could fall under more than one chapter. For ease of presentation, each program or provision is featured only once in the guidebook.