Despite concerns over the environmental impact of industrial mining and the contribution that fossil fuels make to global warming, resource extraction continues to be a major source of revenue for both developing countries and wealthier nations alike. In fact, the amount of resources being pulled from the earth has tripled since 1970, though the global population has only doubled in that time.
Global efforts to reduce carbon emissions as part of climate change diplomacy notwithstanding, fossil fuels remain among the most prized extractives, for a simple reason: Global demand combined with the wealth they generate have historically given some countries, including members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, outsized global influence.
The lucrative contracts associated with the extractive sector help to explain why resource extraction remains central to many developing countries’ strategy to grow their economies. But the windfalls don’t come without risks, most prominent among them being the “resource curse” that can plague countries that fail to diversify their economies to generate alternate sources of revenue. Corruption can also thrive, especially when government institutions are weak. When the wealth generated from resource extraction isn’t fairly distributed, it can entrench a permanent elite, as in Saudi Arabia, or fuel persistent conflicts, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And the environmental damage caused by the extractive industries has decimated local communities and driven social protest movements around the world.
The environmental impact of fossil fuels, particularly with regard to climate change, is driving some changes, in particular a push to develop renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, whose long-term financial viability has become clearer. But as the green energy transition gathers steam, the impact of mining the critical minerals required for the technologies that will enable it is also attracting more attention.
WPR has covered a broad range of issues regarding energy and resource extraction, and continues to examine key questions about future developments. As renewable energy sources become more prevalent, what will it take to make sure the green transition doesn’t amplify the destructive impact of the extractive industry? How will the war in Ukraine affect the geopolitics of global energy markets? What will the shift away from fossil fuels mean for the development trajectories of oil-exporting countries as well as the Global South? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
Our Most Recent Coverage
Decarbonizing energy use by shifting to renewable energies relies on the extraction of minerals and metals that are primarily found in lower-income countries or fragile states. Accessing the critical minerals essential for developing low-carbon energy options brings us to what we might call the dark side of the green transition.
The Human and Environmental Costs
The wealth produced by the extractive industries comes at great cost, both to local communities and the environment. Despite initiatives to boost transparency, involve affected communities in planning and minimize environmental impact, mining projects continue to drive social conflict and cause serious injustices.
- How Australia’s status as a fossil fuels exporter undermines its renewed claims to climate leadership, in Australia’s Newfound Climate Ambitions Ignore an Inconvenient Truth
- How the second-order effects of exploiting a Dutch gas field exacerbated the energy crisis in Europe, in Earthquakes in the Netherlands Just Added to Europe’s Energy Crisis
- Why building a domestic U.S. supply chain for renewable energy technologies requires better governance of mining, in The U.S. Won’t Get Clean Energy From Dirty Mining
- Why the booming market for electric vehicles comes with a downside, in The Electric Vehicle Boom Isn’t All Good News for the Environment
Oil and OPEC
Though OPEC still retains significant influence, its power is waning. The growth of the United States as an oil-exporting country and the rise of renewable energy have chipped away at its control over the global energy market, and the coronavirus pandemic flattened demand and clouded the oil sector’s already uncertain future. Now the war in Ukraine has upended energy markets, causing a spike in prices, but also generating greater urgency to accelerate the transition to renewable energies.
- Why reaching the Paris Agreement’s goals will require decisive supply-side action on fossil fuels, in Momentum for a Fossil Fuel Phaseout Is Building
- Why the focus on oil prices is obscuring the roots of the growing U.S.-Saudi divide, in The U.S.-Saudi Spat Is Over More Than Just Oil Prices
- How the EU reached consensus on its Russian oil ban, in The EU Finally Approves a Ban on Russian Oil
- What’s holding up the EU’s proposed ban on Russian oil imports, in The EU’s Ban on Russian Oil May Have Hit a Snag Named Orban
Infrastructure and the Global Energy Market
In addition to generating lucrative business deals, the global energy market also shapes international diplomacy. Oil and gas pipelines serve as infrastructure that physically joins participating countries, while nuclear energy deals can create industrial and scientific partnerships that span a generation. Meanwhile, competition for markets can also fuel strategic competition and conflict, even as conflicts—like the war in Ukraine—can have a major impact on markets.
- How the war in Ukraine has decisively broken the energy and economic links between Europe and Russia, in EU Sanctions on Russia Are Here to Stay
- What a new pipeline project in East Africa reveals about the West’s commitment to climate action, in An African Oil Pipeline Exposes the West’s Climate Change Hypocrisy
- Why Europe should think twice before relying on Algeria to ease its dependence on Russian gas, in Algeria Makes for a Risky Partner to Help Solve Europe’s Energy Crisis
- Why Europe will have difficulty finding alternatives to Russian energy supplies, in Europe Won’t Make Up for Shortfalls of Russian Gas Easily
Many developing countries see resource extraction as a path to growing the economy and improving livelihoods. But experts argue that extraction must be part of a broader plan for how and where to invest resources, bolstered by transparent reporting and governance systems, if it is to be an effective development strategy.
- Why an OPEC for lithium producers is easier said than done, in A South American Lithium Cartel Faces Long Odds
- Why Bolivia’s natural gas-funded development model can’t last, in Bolivia’s Economic Model Is Running Out of Gas
- What’s missing in Western news coverage of energy-based development in Africa, in African Development Can’t Be a Casualty of Climate Change Policy
- What’s driving Trinidad and Tobago’s shift away from oil and gas, in COVID-19 and Climate Change Prompt an Energy Rethink in Trinidad and Tobago
The Resource Curse
Resource extraction can go from a blessing to a curse when it fuels corruption or entrenches an elite, robbing citizens of the financial benefits while causing environmental damage. Countries that fail to diversify their revenue sources also risk an economic collapse and social unrest when the resource becomes scarce or global prices drop.
- What newfound oil wealth means for Guyana, in Guyana’s Oil Wealth Comes With Some Strings Attached
- How the West can leverage Myanmar’s dependence on its energy sector to pressure the military junta to return to civilian rule, in To Support Myanmar’s Protesters, Sanction Its Oil and Gas Sector
- Why Cambodia’s population may not benefit from the country’s newfound oil revenues, in Who Will Benefit From Cambodia’s New Oil Wealth?
- Why Guyana’s pending oil revenues might end up in the hands of a patronage network, in Guyana’s Pending Oil Boom—Or Bust
Illegal and Informal Mining
Globally, illegal mining has become a major social and environmental concern. In the Amazon, researchers describe illegal mining for gold as an “epidemic,” encroaching on indigenous communities and destroying vast swathes of the rainforest. The efforts are often funded by organized crime or major industries, who recruit local workers but do not offer them the training or protection formal mining industries do.
- How Bolivia became South America’s gateway for contraband mercury, in Bolivia’s Gold Mining Industry Is Poisoning South America
- How illegal and informal mining helps fuel insecurity in West Africa, in Formalizing West Africa’s Mining Sector Could Pay Security Dividends
- What’s driving the surge in illegal gold trading in Uganda, in Uganda’s Illegal Gold Market Is Bustling
- Why Bolivia’s government is struggling to rein in gold mining, in Gold Fever Grips Bolivia, but at What Cost?
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.