Going underground

  • Blue-green algae, a potential source of biodiesel, blooms under the ice on Liberty Lake, Washington.

    Department of Ecology, State of Washington
 

For the past few years, it looked like the West would see a resurgence in hardrock mining, thanks in large part to China's booming economy. In late summer, copper prices were around $4 per pound; molybdenum hovered over $30 per pound. Towns like Leadville, Colo., which was devastated when the Climax molybdenum mine shut down in the early '80s, anticipated hundreds of new jobs from new and reopened mines.

But now, as the global economy sinks, bringing moly prices down to $12 and copper under $2, some of those projects are in jeopardy. Phoenix-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, for example, has scrapped plans to reopen the Climax pit in 2009, and it recently cut 58 jobs at its Henderson moly mine in Colorado. The company also announced layoffs for some 650 workers at its Arizona and New Mexico copper mines. Meanwhile, the Russian mining company Norilsk Nickel is looking to sell its 55.4 percent stake in Stillwater Mining Co., which runs two platinum and palladium mines in south-central Montana. Stillwater just laid off 370 employees and idled one of the mines. Demand is way down -- the metals are used in catalytic converters, but not many people are rushing out to buy new Chevys and Toyotas these days, and Detroit's bailout has stalled.

It's unclear whether China's $586 billion economic stimulus package will revive the metals market anytime soon. In any case, China is now focused on resources within its own borders, meaning its effect on global metal prices may be reduced in the coming years. In other words, the boom might be over before it even starts. Still, despite the downturn, 15 mining companies, including Freeport, have pledged $8 million to match Science Foundation Arizona's grant to the University of Arizona, which will study ways to make mines safer and more productive.

While miners pry metals from deep inside the earth, scientists hope to bury our global warming problems there. The Department of Energy just awarded $67 million to the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership at Montana State University. By 2012, project scientists plan to begin injecting a million tons of greenhouse gas into sandstone formations two miles underground, west of Big Piney, Wyo. The partnership's region (Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota and eastern Washington and Oregon) could eventually store more than 200 billion tons of CO2 underground -- that's more than seven times as much as humans produced in 2005.

Work is also underway to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases created in the first place. In eastern Idaho, enviros are fighting plans for a billion-dollar coal-to-fertilizer plant. The facility would turn coal into ammonia and urea, chugging out 2.3 million tons of CO2 each year -- about 5 percent of Idaho's total annual emissions.

Pond scum may also have a role to play in fighting global warming. Last month, 700 scientists and engineers gathered in Seattle for an Algae Biomass Summit to discuss the future of algae -- for biofuel and even food supplies. In southern Colorado, Solix Biofuels announced plans to build a $5 million algae fuel plant on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. The algae, fed by CO2 from a nearby natural gas plant, makes oil that can be turned into biodiesel. An acre of algae can produce 1,500 gallons of fuel per year, compared to 150 from an acre of canola. Even with that low return, San Juan Bioenergy had planned to turn local sunflower and canola oil into biodiesel when it opens a plant next year in southwestern Colorado. But Frito-Lay's upcoming switch to healthier oils means those crops are now worth more in Doritos and Cheetos than in gas tanks. At least some of that won't end up on the rumps of snacking Americans -- the company will process leftover hulls, stems and leaves into syngas to heat and power its plant.

Another algae startup, Blue Marble Energy of Seattle, plans to make pond scum into natural gas and biochemicals. But in addition to growing the slippery stuff in giant tanks like Solix, Blue Marble also wants to collect coastal algae blooms -- oxygen-sucking, fish-killing masses of wild algae in the ocean, stimulated by the fertilizer that runs off farm fields. "If we allow a business to develop that's dependent on this problem," Kevin Britton-Simmons, a University of Washington researcher, told Voice of America News, "what's gonna happen when we fix the problem?"

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