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"Fool’s Gold" May Turn Out to Be Golden

April 21, 2024

Biden Takes Action on Environment as Earth Day Is Celebrated

Earth Day, April 22, has become one of the largest secular events on the planet with over one billion people now celebrating. In tune with that day, the Biden administration took steps last week to protect the Alaskan wilderness, which conservationists, environmentalists, and tribes welcomed. The federal government made 13 million acres of wilderness in Alaska off limits to oil drilling and mineral mining. The area is home to diverse wildlife, such as caribou, walrus, migratory birds, polar bears, and brown bears.

Northeast National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska  | Credit: Bob Wick (BLM)

In contrast, last year, administration officials approved the Willow Project that will permit Conoco-Phillips to drill in Alaska for decades. Politico reports that there have been vocal protests from activists, who have been disheartened by Biden’s support of oil and gas production, even while he has obtained the biggest investment in climate action from Congress ever. Democrats have worried that some young environmental voters may sit out the November election or back a third-party candidate.

In another step last week, the administration indicated that it would not approve an industrial road in the Alaskan wilderness for a mining company to access copper and zinc.

Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management completed a regulation that will put conservation on a more equal footing with oil drilling, grazing, and extractive industries on federal lands. The rule will allow conservationists to lease lands to restore them, similar to how oil companies use leases to drill. Republicans criticized the move, saying it was an effort to exclude oil, mining, and agriculture.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that White House officials are discussing a potential declaration of a national climate emergency. The unprecedented move could allow the government to curtail crude oil exports, suspend offshore drilling, and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“Forever Chemical” Manufacturers May Now Have to Clean Them Up

In other actions by the federal government, last week the EPA issued a rule, which for the first time ever, would force those who use and manufacture so-called “forever chemicals” to clean them up from the environment. The agency classified PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law that makes polluters responsible for the cost of eliminating contaminants that threaten public health.

Credit: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to make, among many items, non-stick cookware, firefighting foams, waterproof clothing, and fabric. They are linked to human health issues like liver disease, cancers, and developmental damage to infants and children, including low birth weights. The compounds have spread into air, water, and soils, where they persist and don’t break down, hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.”  

About two weeks ago, the EPA issued standards for drinking water providers, which required them to remove the chemicals. Now, those who created the problem in the first place as well as those who have used them, can be on the hook for the contamination they caused.

According to the United States Geological Survey, nearly 50 percent of the tap water in the country is estimated to have one or more types of PFAS chemicals. They are not banned, but makers of the compound have been voluntarily phasing them out.

A spokesperson for 3M, one manufacturer of the compounds, told the Washington Post that the company is on schedule to end all PFAS manufacturing by the end of next year, and that it is committed to complying with laws and regulations. However, a representative of the American Chemistry Council said his trade group strongly opposes the EPA’s listing of the compounds as hazardous.

The EPA said it will focus its enforcement on entities that have contributed significantly to the release of PFAS chemicals into the environment or used them in manufacturing. The federal government may also be on the hook for clean-up costs, as the Department of Defense has used firefighting foam with PFAS for decades.

Lab Accident Reveals Superpower of Bumblebee Queens

Bumblebees are crucial pollinators in ecosystems worldwide, but many are threatened by habitat fragmentation, pesticides, disease, and a loss of floral resources. Another looming threat is climate change, which is causing excessive heat that can stress the insects. Also climate-driven extreme storms can lead to floods, which can drown queen bees when they’re hibernating underground—or so we thought.

A closeup of a bumblebee foraging on an apple blossom  |  Credit: Nigel Raine/University of Guelph

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada were studying overwintering bumblebees when a lab accident flooded containers that some queens were living in. Lead scientist Sabrina Rondeau, was a bit “freaked out” but luckily the bees were still alive. From that mishap, Rondeau’s team decided to conduct experiments submerging 143 common eastern bumblebee queens and found that they could survive up to seven days underwater. Rondeau explains that they believe the insects are in “diapause,” a dormant period with reduced oxygen intake where, if need be, the queens can live off trapped air bubbles on the surface of their bodies.

The queens typically know to choose places away from streams or high humidity to overwinter, but this finding suggests that they can survive in current locations, even as global warming makes conditions more severe.  

The study was published in the journal Biology Letters.

The Next “Gold” Rush Could Be to Oil and Gas Waste Sites

The most common mineral mistaken for gold is pyrite. With its brassy color and metallic luster, it’s often called Fool's Gold—a term that connotes a shiny but worthless commodity. But according to new research, pyrite may turn out to be... golden.

Pyrite  |  Credit: Didier Descouens/Creative Commons

Researchers in the IsoBioGeM lab at West Virginia University were looking at possible ways to use waste streams from mining or from oil and gas drilling in the Appalachian Basin. They discovered that pyrite in the region’s shale contains lithium—the new gold when it comes to renewable energy. Lithium is in high demand as the need for batteries in everything from EVs to iPhones grows. The presence of lithium in shale—a sedimentary rock made from mud—is "unheard of" the team said, and could lead to more sustainable ways to harvest the element.

Currently, the development of lithium-ion batteries has a high financial, social, and environmental cost, where mining for the rare earth element uses large amounts of water and can contaminate supplies. Pyrite is commonly occurring and is rich in sulfur. Many companies and researchers have already been studying whether more cost-effective and environmentally friendly lithium-sulfur batteries could replace lithium-ion ones.

This new discovery could offer an option that doesn’t require any new mines. If so, it would be a bit ironic that using waste from mining or oil and gas extraction could unearth the very mineral that could help end the run of fossil fuels.

The team presented their findings at the EGU General Assembly 2024.