Archive for April, 2010

Rare Earth Elements — an abandoned paper topic

April 23, 2010

I was toying with the idea of writing a foreign policy paper about the chemicals depicted below:

Source: Journal of Energy Security, “The Battle Over Rare Earth Metals”

It turns out that the above elements are crucial for the manufacture of a lot of gadgetry, including a large swath of “green” tech. The US and US allies also use them in various hi-tech weapons, e.g. guided missiles. 95% of the current supply of these chemicals is mined in China, which is moving both to restrict their export and increase their domestic consumption of the stuff.

The folks at BBC did a brief video piece on this topic, pointing out that the Chinese monopoly may annoy the Japanese in particular — a point also echoed here. (I would embed the BBC video here, but I don’t appear to be web savvy enough to download it…)

This NYTimes article takes a different angle, focusing on the high environmental cost of mining for these metals. Apparently the extraction process is devastating both to the environment and to communities in the vicinity (similar to uranium mining, I might add.) PBS did a blurb about this as well. So the question becomes: do the benefits of hybrid cars and windmills and cetera outweigh the costs of mining? That’s a legitimate question! It’s just not really a foreign policy question as such…

Environmental drama

April 20, 2010

About 10 minutes ago I caught the distant eye of a Greenpeace canvasser of the hyper aggressive, college campus variety. So, as I approached, I geared up for that moment of Seinfeld-ian awkwardness. I steeled myself for the snub. I held my breath and prepared to quell the inevitable surge of conflicting emotions that canvassers always bring to the surface: the guilt, the sympathy, the cringe inducing, wallet clutching cheapness…I practiced the snub in my head. I was determined. Should I fail, I said to myself, I’ll just voice a half-assed phrase of support without breaking stride. “Love the enthusiasm!” or some such.

But then the dude didn’t even look me in the eye! *He* snubbed me. I am flabbergasted.

See, I feel like I’m always singled out for special attention from enviro-type canvassers. They (used to) take one look at my long hair and scruffy demeanor and just zero in. This time, however, my hair is short for the first time in recent memory, I’m walking with (an affect of) purpose, and I’m wearing a conservative suit. So I guess these signals allowed the canvasser to predict — correctly, of course — that I was a lost cause. Still, it stings a little.


But here’s the irony: I am in costume, for class. In a couple hours I’ll debut my role as the hard-nosed mayor of a fictional rust belt burg hoping to court developers to start work on a new asphalt plant in the industrial zone of the city. During my term in office, I’ve been very successful in re-zoning the city to facilitate economic development, apparently, and I intend to continue bringing in jobs whilst greasing the palms of my construction industry buddies. This asphalt plant may be yet another source of pollution, but it will save the city millions on various construction projects including new highways and a new airport runway, for which I’ve even received Department of Transportation funding! (Thank you, ARRA 2009.) As long as the ambient air quality comes out better than the low state/federal standards, I’m set.

But, what’s this? Now I have to quash a pesky community group!

Said group claims, with moral fervor and regrettably solid public health evidence, that the proposed plant will disproportionately effect their predominantly low income African American neighborhood. This constitutes environmental racism, they say, and all their rabble rousing has created a firestorm of controversy that could empower my opponents at the City Council and jeopardize my political career. (cue: diminished chord!)

Luckily, their avenues of legal redress are limited, especially because the developers voluntarily performed an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and received unanimous approval from the Zoning and Building Authority. But the local Department of Environmental Quality is complaining that the EIA isn’t comprehensive enough, though they don’t have the authority to do anything about it — except to invoke the little known “fail safe” option! (aaand…another chord). Said option empowers the Director of DEQ to delay the permitting process — which is a perilous business, since I have deadlines to worry about for this ARRA money.

Meanwhile, the community group is lobbying the City Council to establish a special Planning Council just for their neighborhood. Of course, I could veto such an initiative — but if I register opposition, I’ll come off as the bad guy. That said, if I just go along with it then other neighborhoods might imitate this tactic. And then I’ll be swimming in community initiatives and the costly legal and bureaucratic hurdles that they present.

So: I favor the status quo. The best way to maintain it would be to buy the compliance of the community folks and other city officials — which reminds me of the excellent scene in Back to School where Rodney Dangerfield scoffs at the ivory tower economics professor who forgot to factor mafia kickbacks into his calculations.

Since corruption is not an option, I could do the next best thing and offer a substantial “development assistance and neighborhood risk reduction package,” or similar, to try to cut down health risks. But much of this funding would have to come from reducing the tax break for the developers *and* requiring them to match the city’s contribution. They aren’t likely to be super happy about that, though of course they’ve already invested a ton of money in buying the site, conducting their EIA, etc…so they are in fairly deep and they become my natural allies in this situation.

We’ll see how the drama plays out. Let’s just hope that the community organizers don’t put together an 80’s montage and break dancing contest — because then they’ll be sure to triumph at the last moment!