Electric vehicleEnergy

Can Tesla’s ambitions be fueled by a little region in the South Pacific?

The Coral Sea reaches into the South Pacific from New Caledonia’s reef-fringed coast. The seashore is punctuated by slender native pines that list like fanciful Christmas trees. The area, one of the world’s most biodiverse, is breathtakingly gorgeous until you reach the peak of a hill, where you’ll see a gouged red earth punctured by billowing smokestacks and massive vehicles rumbling across lunar-like terrain.

Goro is the world’s largest nickel mine, located on a tiny French territory sandwiched between Australia and Fiji and potentially holding a fifth of the world’s nickel deposits. It also puts Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, to the test, as it seeks to take charge of its supply chain and verify that the minerals used in its car batteries are extracted in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

Tesla’s method, which represents the most direct mineral sourcing by a Western electric car maker, could act as a model for a green sector grappling with an uncomfortable dichotomy. While people are drawn to electric vehicles because of their clean image, the process of extracting critical elements like nickel is filthy, damaging, and frequently politically charged.

New Caledonia is among the world’s highest carbon emitters per capita due to its nickel industry. And mining, which began shortly after the colonization of New Caledonia in 1853, is inextricably tied to the exploitation of the indigenous Kanak people. Goro’s nickel output has been subjected to recurrent labor strikes and political disturbances as a result of over a century of stolen land and suppressed traditions.

If done correctly, Tesla’s technique, which can produce up to a million cars per year, could set worldwide norms for the electric vehicle transition, in yet other convention-defying steps by the company’s mysterious founder, Elon Musk. It also gives Western automakers a way to start avoiding China, which presently dominates battery production for electric vehicles.

Goro will act as a cautionary story if done incorrectly, demonstrating how difficult it is to attain true sustainability. For a Tesla, bumper stickers that say “going green” or “acting locally” are appropriate. Meeting these goals, however, will necessitate not only wealth and ingenuity but also knowledge of one of the world’s most remote locations: a smattering of French-ruled islands on the verge of independence. Some of the world’s largest nickel miners have tried — and failed — to profit at Goro.

“We’re this little thing in a difficult jurisdiction,” Antonin Beurrier, CEO of Prony Resources, which is the consortium that bought the Goro nickel facility this year, said. “And the company has to be reinvented.”

Whether it’s automated driving or space flight, Mr. Musk’s mantra is “reinventing business.” Tesla has established itself as the ideal, if not the only, force capable of transforming this cash-strapped mining beset by political and environmental challenges.

Mr. Musk has insisted on buying a big share of the primary metals he requires for vehicle batteries directly from the mines around the world, unlike any other major US manufacturer, in order to ensure that he has enough as vehicle production grows and global competition for these resources intensifies. Tesla secured an agreement in October to directly buy up to one-third of Goro’s nickel over the next five years, thanks to a Tesla manager who at one time used to work at Goro facility.

Goro’s potential as a hero is tantalizing. With renewable energies supporting the nickel processing complex, carbon emissions would drop. Tailings, a toxic liquid waste, would be stored as a neat, dry residue. Local communities were going to be partners in selecting how to best profit from tribal land’s natural resources.

Tesla stated all the right things in a sustainability report. Rather than buying nickel through a middleman, the corporation could “address sustainability issues like biodiversity impact, energy usage, human rights, and tailings management” by working directly with the mine.

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