The trillion-dollar quest to make green steel
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OSCEOLA, Arkansas — On a hot, dry morning in mid-October, dozens of visitors gathered in a former cotton field turned dusty compound, before a cluster of blue rectangular buildings. In the far distance, an earthen levee snaked along the banks of the drought-stricken Mississippi River.
A fleet of sleek black vans soon ushered the group — a contingent of local and state officials and a few journalists — to the entrance of a cavernous facility. We’d come to mark the opening of a $450 million production line, which just started making a type of paper-thin steel for use in electric-vehicle motors, power generators and transformers — equipment that’s in high demand as the nation transitions to clean energy. A nearby lunch tent drove home the day’s theme, with tables holding lightning-bolt centerpieces and delicately iced sugar cookies spelling “emPOWERing the Green Revolution.”
The new plant is part of a multibillion-dollar expansion that U.S. Steel is undertaking at Big River Steel, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of the tiny city of Osceola. The company says the massive undertaking will allow it to supply much more lower-carbon material to automakers, construction firms and other companies looking to clean up their own supply chains.
For nearly a decade, Big River Steel has been producing millions of tons of high-strength metal and using electricity to do it — instead of heating purified coal, like the nation’s oldest and most polluting steel furnaces do. Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel acquired the site in 2021, in part, it said to help create a more “secure, sustainable future” for the 122-year-old industrial giant.
At the steel mill, heaps of recycled metal — from chopped-up cars, washing machines, structural beams and more — are placed inside two enormous “electric arc furnaces,” along with small amounts of iron pellets. The furnaces blast a bolt of electricity between internal electrodes, melting the contents into a glowing orange liquid at nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Other machines roll the material into sheets and curl it into coils, which are strapped to beds of trains and trucks and hauled across the country.
Producing steel this way can curb carbon dioxide emissions by up to 75 percent, compared to traditional coal-based methods, according to the company and industry reports.
“The future is toward electrification, and we can make some money with this green steel,” David Burritt, U.S. Steel’s president and CEO, told me as giant metal rolling pins droned loudly behind us.
Meanwhile, attendees were lining up with thick markers to add their signatures to the line’s inaugural coil of steel. A prerecorded video from Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) had just ended, in which she touted the facility’s role in bringing jobs and economic growth to the region. With the full expansion, Big River Steel is expected to nearly double its workforce next year to some 1,600 employees, or roughly one-fifth the size of Osceola’s population.
“Hot dog! We are on our way up!” Joe Harris Jr., Osceola’s mayor, told the audience.
Big River Steel may be a boon for northeast Arkansas. Yet when it comes to decarbonizing steel production, the facility is only one small piece in a large, complex puzzle.
Globally, producing steel generates as much as 9 percent of human-caused CO2 emissions every year — more than any other heavy industry, including cement and chemical production.
Part of the reason is simply that manufacturers make so much of it: nearly 2 billion metric tons of the stuff per year. The grayish alloy forms the hulls of cargo ships and parts of airplanes. It’s in buildings, bridges and roads; in vehicles, appliances and cookware. In 2022, the global iron and steel market was valued at nearly $1.7 trillion.
But the main explanation for steel’s giant carbon footprint is that, globally, most steel is still made by heating fossil fuels to turn raw iron ore into finished metal — a process that generates 90 percent of CO2 emissions from steel, along with a toxic soup of heavy metals and air pollution. While recycled steel can displace some of the demand for “primary” steel, it doesn’t diminish the need to clean up or replace coal-fueled furnaces.
To truly decarbonize the industry, “We really need a fundamental shift in primary steelmaking technology,” said Margaret Hansbrough, the campaigns lead for SteelWatch, an advocacy organization.
Most likely, that shift will include using hydrogen to process iron ore for steelmaking. Only one facility in the world is currently doing this at any meaningful scale: the $180 million Hybrit project in Sweden. However, dozens of projects involving hydrogen are in various stages of development worldwide. Sweden’s H2 Green Steel recently raised $1.6 billion to build the world’s first large-scale, hydrogen-fueled plant, while Chinese steelmaker HBIS Group said it produced its first batch of hydrogen-infused iron.
Undoubtedly, the steel industry’s transformation will require countries to build significantly more renewable energy capacity, both to power electricity-driven furnaces and to produce “green” hydrogen, of which very little is available today worldwide. Down the line, next-generation technologies developed by startups such as Electra and Boston Metal could make it cheaper and easier to produce green steel. All told, decarbonizing iron and steel is expected to require $1.4 trillion of investment by midcentury.
Jump-starting such a transformation will necessitate government policies that either penalize carbon-intensive steel or incentivize cleaner production, according to experts. It means steel suppliers must work closely with automakers and other customers to establish a new market for low- to zero-carbon steel. And it also entails retraining and rehiring workers to ensure nobody is left behind as traditional mills shutter.
With global steel demand projected to rise 30 percent by 2050, the need to solve these challenges is growing increasingly urgent. The journey promises to be messy, nuanced and expensive. It’s also essential if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Before getting a glimpse of green steel’s dawning future, I wanted to learn more about how most primary steel is made today. That’s why, in mid-September, I hopped on a minibus to tour the industrial hot spots of Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan with a group of community activists.
Michigan first became a hub of steelmaking in the early 20th century. Although Pennsylvania was the beating heart of the U.S. steel industry, thanks to its abundant coal deposits, the Midwest became an appealing market after Ford Motor Company and other automakers set up shop in Detroit, ensuring a rapidly growing source of demand for steel.
In 1920, Ford began making its own primary steel at its River Rouge automobile complex in Dearborn. The steel plant still operates today, under the ownership of Cleveland-Cliffs, surrounded on all sides by residential neighborhoods. Behind miles of fences, a hulking array of tubes, tanks, pipes and smokestacks make up the plant’s blast furnace and basic oxygen furnace.
A blast furnace produces iron from raw iron ore — the majority of which is extracted from mines in Minnesota. To start, iron ore and purified coal, or “coke,” are dumped into the vessel, along with a sprinkling of processed limestone. A blast of hot air reaching up to around 2,800℉ is blown into the furnace at high speeds, driving chemical reactions. Carbon monoxide bonds with oxygen atoms in the iron ore, forming CO2 that’s released into the air. Limestone reacts with impurities in the mix, creating a byproduct called “slag.”
The resulting iron flows out of the furnace like lava, resembling what one industry executive described to me as “the closest thing to a human-controlled volcano.” Then the molten iron is transported via train cars resembling horizontal soda bottles to the basic oxygen furnace. Pure oxygen is blown into that second vessel to further reduce the carbon content in molten iron. Finally, orange-hot liquid steel is tapped from the furnace, poured into molds and combined with additives to make the steel stronger or corrosion-resistant.
This multistep process, also known as “integrated” steelmaking, builds on discoveries made thousands of years ago, when ancient Anatolians saw that heating iron-heavy rock over charcoal fires yielded a malleable material for making chisels, plows and swords. Modern steelmakers have improved and refined their methods over centuries. But the two-furnace approach nevertheless continues to be a highly polluting operation.
Typically, integrated steelmaking generates nearly 2 metric tons of CO2 emissions for every metric ton of steel produced. Steel mills also release toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and chromium, as well as fine particulate matter — which can elevate people’s risk for asthma, heart disease and cancer. Still more harmful pollution spews from the industry’s ancillary facilities. In Dearborn and Detroit, coke and limestone processing plants are both major sources of sulfur dioxide.
“These plants are surrounded by homes, by parks where kids go to play,” Theresa Landrum, a lifelong Detroit resident and retired autoworker, said on the drizzly morning of our tour.
Standing on the bank of the Rouge River, we watched as orange flares and thick white clouds rose from the EES Coke Battery facility on Zug Island, which has long supplied purified coal to furnaces run by Cleveland-Cliffs and U.S. Steel. The Biden administration sued the operator last year for allegedly violating the federal Clean Air Act.
Landrum said she and her family members have suffered from cancer, which she attributes to pollution spewing from the nearby cluster of steel, petroleum refining and other industrial facilities. Samra’a Luqman, an activist within Dearborn’s large Yemeni community, pointed to the prevalence of upper respiratory diseases among her family and neighbors. Adults and children in the Detroit area get sick from asthma at higher rates than anywhere else in Michigan, a 2022 report found.
“It’s all because the steel industry refuses to clean up its mess,” Luqman told me later, outside the school her two children attend. From where we stood on the playground, we could see the looming silhouette of the Dearborn steel plant just across the street. (On October 20, a month after my visit, the federal government announced that Cleveland-Cliffs will spend over $100 million to overhaul the facility’s air-pollution control system after spewing too much toxic lead and manganese.)
Environmental opposition and stricter air-quality regulations have helped, in part, make it less profitable for U.S. steelmakers to fire up blast furnaces. No new facilities have been built in the U.S. since 1980. Across the nation’s eight remaining integrated mills, a total of only 12 blast furnaces are currently operating, down from about 125 units in the mid-1970s. Just 5 miles down the road, U.S. Steel’s century-old Great Lakes Works idled its last blast furnace in 2020.
But shifting market conditions are the main reason why blast furnaces have steadily dwindled in recent decades. Around 50 years ago, American steelmakers started losing out to overseas suppliers, including firms from Japan and, increasingly, China. At that same time, fierce competition began brewing at home between long-established U.S. producers and new domestic manufacturers, which had developed a different way of making steel.
As America’s economy grew and steel consumption surged, the country’s steel mills and junkyards began generating lots of scrap. The new manufacturers put the excess material to good use by melting it in electric arc furnaces. The furnaces and their related facilities came to be known as “mini mills,” because they were relatively smaller and less complex than integrated mills, and required far fewer workers to operate.
Without the need to locate near sources of iron ore and coal, mini mills proliferated beyond traditional steel centers, spreading primarily across the Southeast. As it happens, states in that region tend to embrace policies that weaken union power and give companies more leverage over their workers. At integrated mills in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, the majority of steelworkers are unionized.
Those trends have uniquely shaped the U.S. steel industry. Today, about 70 percent of America’s steel is made in over 100 electric arc furnaces, while roughly 30 percent of steel is produced in integrated mills. In the rest of the world, the story plays out in reverse: About 70 percent of global steel production is made in coal-hungry furnaces, while 30 percent comes from melting scrap metal.
Mini mills do emit some toxic air pollution, dust and noise. When it comes to curbing CO2, at least, scrap-based steelmaking has a clear advantage. America’s electric arc furnaces generate about 0.37 metric tons of CO2 for every 1 metric ton of crude steel they produce, or roughly three-quarters less than primary steelmaking, the Steel Manufacturers Association said in a 2022 report.
These days, the steel industry tends to slap the word “green” on any product that’s made from scrap metal in electric arc furnaces. But climate experts say the loosely defined label can be misleading if those energy-intensive furnaces are powered primarily by coal- and gas-fired electric grids — as is often the case. Generally, electric arc furnaces require around 400 kilowatt-hours for every short ton of steel produced.
Big River Steel, for its part, is the only American steel facility so far to receive certification from ResponsibleSteel, a nonprofit global initiative that audits companies’ progress as they work toward achieving “net-zero steel” production.
The Arkansas mini mill gets more than 60 percent of its electricity from “non-fossil-fuel” sources, including nuclear power. Next door to the complex, thousands of acres of flattened dirt indicate where a 250-megawatt solar power project will be installed. Once completed next year, the $237 million array will provide about 40 percent of the electricity needed to power Big River Steel’s expansion.
Another major steelmaker, Nucor, is also looking to source more zero-carbon electricity for its electric arc furnaces, up from about 40 percent today. But the Charlotte, North Carolina–based company is going a more futuristic route. In early October, Nucor said it is investing $35 million in Helion Energy, a startup that wants to develop nuclear fusion, a potential clean-energy source that today only exists in science-fiction novels. Helion claims it will build a 500-megawatt power plant at one of Nucor’s U.S. steel plants by 2030.
Still, as America’s manufacturers work to boost clean-energy use for electric arc furnaces, the industry continues to grapple with a burning question: What to do with its aging, coal-fueled blast furnaces, the biggest source of steel-related emissions?
At least two U.S. facilities are slated for “relining.” This lengthy and costly maintenance process involves replacing the refractory bricks that line the furnace and degrade over time. In August, Cleveland-Cliffs said it planned to reline its highly polluting furnace in Burns Harbor, Indiana in 2026 — a move that could potentially extend the plant’s operating life by more than a decade. It’s also considering relining a blast furnace in Middletown, Ohio in 2027 or later. (The company did not return requests for comment.)
A relining project represents a crucial crossroads for steel producers. Companies can either spend hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up existing dirty facilities, or they can choose to develop and build cleaner steel technologies, said Hilary Lewis, steel director at Industrious Labs, an advocacy group that organized the environmental-justice tour in Michigan.
“This is a moment when companies have the opportunity to make a different investment in a new facility, one that will have a longer lifespan and make a fossil-free steel product,” Lewis said as our minibus drove past slag piles and smokestacks.
Outside the United States, other countries are facing debates not only over how to handle their existing steel facilities — but also whether to pursue or pump the brakes on new blast furnaces, particularly within emerging economies where the demand for building and construction materials is rising.
Worldwide, more than 1,000 blast furnaces are currently in operation, according to SteelWatch. Another three dozen are under construction in China, which has plans to add nearly 70 more. India is building five blast furnaces and stands to add two dozen more. If completed, those plants would undermine those countries’ efforts to slash their greenhouse gas emissions. It would also exacerbate an already daunting trend: Total CO2 emissions from the iron and steel sector have risen in the last decade, at a time when the world needs to dramatically reduce CO2 to limit global warming.
Back in Arkansas, beneath the whirring rolling pins at Big River Steel, U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt said his company is pursuing more of a middle-of-the-road approach to decarbonization.
“The plan is to do more electrification over time,” he said. That’s as U.S. Steel continues to invest in its integrated operations to improve efficiency where possible, he added, including at the company’s iron-ore mines in Minnesota and its giant blast furnace in Gary, Indiana, which is one of the region’s biggest sources of toxic industrial emissions.
Ultimately, the company’s plans could change under different ownership. In August, the Pittsburgh manufacturer revealed it was up for sale, having received multiple bids for parts of all of its operations, including from Cleveland-Cliffs. (The topic of the potential sale wasn’t up for discussion during my visit in mid-October.)
As of now, the company’s strategy is to “take the best of the integrated and the best of the mini mills,” Burritt said. “Longer-term,” he added, “we’ll be moving into hydrogen at some point, but it’s not cost-effective. It’s at least a decade off.”
While “hydrogen” is still little more than a buzzword in the American steel industry, in other countries, the technology is closer at hand.
Researchers have been studying how hydrogen can be used to produce iron for decades. But only within recent years have some steel companies gotten serious about proving the technology can work at commercial scale.
In 2016, a group of Swedish companies launched an ambitious project called Hybrit. The joint venture includes steelmaker SSAB, state-owned mining company LKAB and Sweden’s state-owned utility Vattenfall — and it is flush with funding from the Swedish government and the European Union.
“We realized that the industry really needed to take a step change,” Martin Pei, an executive vice president and chief technology officer at SSAB, recalled by phone.
Hybrit’s operations are located in Sweden’s Norrbotten County, a sparsely populated stretch of mining towns and coastal cities near the Arctic Circle that’s rich in wind and hydropower resources and iron ore. There, the partners have built a first-of-a-kind pilot plant and an adjoining facility for storing green hydrogen in rock caverns.
In the pilot plant, iron-ore pellets are dropped down the top of a shaft furnace. Next, hydrogen gas is introduced lower in the furnace. The vessel reaches up to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832℉), causing the oxygen atoms in iron ore to combine with hydrogen and form water. Now freed of oxygen, the “direct reduced iron” (DRI) then moves into an electric arc furnace — where it’s zapped and melted to make high-strength steel.
Fossil-free electricity powers Hybrit’s energy-hungry shaft. It also drives the electrolyzers that produce the plant’s “green” hydrogen. In electrolysis, electric currents split water into its constituent parts of hydrogen and oxygen. Today, very little of the world’s hydrogen supply is produced this way. Instead, most industrial hydrogen is derived from fossil gas or coal using energy-intensive methods.
Hybrit’s method does result in some CO2 emissions, owing to the use of graphite electrodes and tiny amounts of coal in the second furnace. But it eliminates virtually all of the emissions associated with coal-fueled blast furnaces, according to the venture.
In 2021, three years after construction began, the Hybrit plant successfully produced the world’s first steel “reduced by 100 percent fossil-free hydrogen,” which it delivered to Swedish automaker Volvo Group. To date, Pei said the facility has produced about 2,000 metric tons of DRI, also known as “sponge iron.” For comparison, that’s roughly the average amount of steel needed to make over 2,200 cars.
Now the Hybrit partners are moving onto the next stage, with plans to open a larger demonstration plant in 2026. The new facility will produce around 1.3 million metric tons of “fossil-free steel” per year and have about 500 megawatts of hydrogen electrolyzer capacity.
Elsewhere in northern Sweden, another ambitious green-steel initiative is getting underway, led by Stockholm-based H2 Green Steel. In September, the company said it raised a $1.6 billion equity round, which will allow it to build its plant and start operations in 2025. At the site, more than 700 megawatts of renewable-powered electrolyzers will produce green hydrogen for reducing iron. The facility is expected to be capable of making up to 5 million metric tons of steel per year by 2030.
While Hybrit has developed its own proprietary technology for reducing iron ore, H2 Green Steel will deploy equipment made by Midrex, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan’s Kobe Steel.
Charlotte-based Midrex has been engineering and supplying direct reduced iron technology since 1969. But of the nearly 100 modules it’s deployed worldwide to date, all of them use fossil fuels in the shaft furnace. The process involves taking fossil gas or coke-oven gas to produce a “reducing gas,” containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide, that removes the oxygen content from iron ore. (The United States has three DRI facilities, including ones in Ohio, Louisiana and Texas.)
Using gas to reduce iron emits about half as much CO2 as a coal-fueled blast furnace. However, the same Midrex technology can approach zero emissions if it uses green hydrogen instead — a process that requires making relatively minor changes and capital investments to existing plants, said Vincent Chevrier, who works in technical sales and marketing at Midrex. In Sweden, the company’s DRI plant at the H2 Green Steel project will be fueled exclusively by green hydrogen.
For that reason, many U.S. green-steel advocates say a near-term solution for cleaning up America’s steel industry is to install gas-driven DRI systems today, then steadily phase in green hydrogen when possible. That strategy depends on companies making supplies of renewably produced hydrogen, none of which is available yet in the quantities that iron producers need.
Chevrier emphasized that a DRI plant using only fossil-derived hydrogen would ultimately emit more planet-warming pollution than if it only used gas.
“That’s really the biggest challenge, honestly,” he added. “It only makes sense to do if the power is green.”
The dearth of green-hydrogen supplies may well be a roadblock to scaling near-zero-emissions steel production. Or it could represent a pivotal chance to create jobs and spur economic development — particularly in places where traditional steelmaking is already sharply declining, experts say.
Broadly speaking, in order to produce enough green hydrogen to support one full-scale DRI facility, a company would need to procure approximately 4 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity to power 2 gigawatts of electrolyzers, said Jessica Terry, a manager in the Climate-Aligned Industries Program at RMI, a clean-energy think tank. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)
“That’s a massive scale,” Terry added.
In March, an RMI analysis found that, in the United States, recent federal policy support has pushed hydrogen-based steelmaking to “cost parity” with traditional steelmaking. That support primarily includes the highly anticipated production tax credits for “low-carbon” hydrogen, created by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. The Department of Energy is set to decide soon on which projects will be eligible for the lucrative incentives.
A separate DOE initiative provides $6 billion to help accelerate research and demonstration projects to curb greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industries, including steel. Most recently, the federal agency announced the selection of seven “clean hydrogen hubs,” which are eligible to receive up to $7 billion in total federal funding provided by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
One of the projects, the Midwest Hydrogen Hub, aims to spur hydrogen production in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. The consortium includes steel giant ArcelorMittal, along with a variety of energy producers and industrial companies. The hub, which will receive up to $1 billion, has plans to use nuclear power to produce hydrogen, some of which will likely be slated for processing iron ore for steelmaking.
In another cluster of states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia — climate advocates say they’re similarly eager to build out renewable energy and hydrogen electrolyzers to reinvigorate the region’s flagging steel industry. (Nationwide, direct employment in steel manufacturing has plunged by nearly half in recent decades, from 257,200 workers in 1990 to 131,400 workers in 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.)
Earlier this year, the progressive Ohio River Valley Institute outlined two different scenarios for the future of the region. In the first, where steelmakers keep operating blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces, the total regional jobs supported by steel production are expected to fall by 30 percent by 2031, due to economic forces like outsourcing and automation within steel plants, according to the institute’s May report.
In the second, in which steel companies shift to fossil-fuel-free production — using direct reduced iron and electric arc furnaces — the region’s total steel-related jobs could increase by between 27 and 43 percent by 2031. Much of that job growth would come from building and operating new wind and solar farms and electrolyzers, meaning that current steel workers will need to retrain and apply their skills to other sectors.
“Folks are worried about decarbonization because they don’t want to lose more jobs than they already have,” said Nick Messenger, an economist who worked on the institute’s study. “But our report estimates that there’s an opportunity for Pennsylvania and the region to lock in those [clean-energy] jobs by being a first mover.”
As federal and state policies work to boost supplies of green primary steel, the industry’s biggest customers will likewise need to raise their collective hands to signal demand for fossil-free material — even if it comes at a higher price, at least initially.
Steel made using novel production routes would cost 40 percent more, on average, than “unabated” production today, according to BloombergNEF, a clean-energy research firm. That includes steel made with hydrogen-based DRI, as well as traditional blast furnaces that capture and store CO2 emissions from their exhaust streams — an approach that many industry experts are skeptical will ever pencil out economically for plant owners.
As green-steel production ramps up, however, by 2050, the material could ultimately cost 5 percent less than the fossil-based supply, according to BNEF’s calculations.
Several high-profile global initiatives are already striving to jump-start the market for green steel, including the First Movers Coalition and SteelZero. In both of these consortia, companies have pledged to buy a certain portion of green steel by 2030 and to source only green steel by 2050. In September, members of the RMI-led Sustainable Steel Buyers Platform announced a plan to jointly request 2 million metric tons of “near-zero emissions” steel from producers.
Certain steel consumers can withstand the so-called “green premium” better than others. Transportation, for example, accounts for around 20 percent of global steel consumption. But steel is a relatively small portion of the total cost of a vehicle, which makes it easier for companies to absorb the premium or pass it on to customers with little fallout. A 25 percent increase in the price of steel would raise vehicle production costs by 1 percent, according to BNEF.
“The auto industry can really use its market power to transform the U.S. steel industry and to catalyze global steel markets moving toward green steel,” said Erika Thi Patterson, who leads the auto supply-chain campaign for Public Citizen and joined the tour through Dearborn and Detroit.
The automotive industry accounted for 31 percent of Cleveland-Cliffs’ total sales and 22 percent of U.S. Steel’s product shipped in 2022. Detroit’s Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis — have all committed to using more “green” or “low-carbon” steel in their supply chains, particularly for making electric vehicles, though environmentalists say they’d like to see more transparency.
“What we really need automakers to do is start setting steel-specific decarbonization goals and disclosing those goals, so we can hold them accountable,” Patterson said.
For advocates and local residents, the drive toward green steel is about more than addressing climate change, though that’s undeniably crucial. Decarbonizing heavy industry also means cleaning up the air and water within the communities where manufacturers decided to build their plants.
“Automakers really need to account for and remedy these harms throughout their supply chains,” Patterson said.
As Samra’a Luqman stood among the bright red plastic slides and jungle gyms of the playground, she made note of all the federal funding pouring into clean-energy initiatives and the many billions of dollars in profits that automakers and steel manufacturers rake in each year. For Luqman, it’s not a question of whether companies can make the transition to green steel, but whether they’ll choose to.
“When you ask for somebody to move to a clean steelmaking process,” she said, “that’s a compromise that I feel is not only needed, but it’s something that can be done.”
“It’s like, if you wanted to do better, you could. So why aren’t you?”