American Environmentalists Blocking New Mines for Critical Minerals

Despite America being rich in lithium, there is only one currently operational mine in the country, as environmentalists weigh opposition to mining with their desire for a battery-powered future.

AP/Rick Bowmer, file
A billboard displays 'Protect Thacker Pass' near the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation in Nevada. AP/Rick Bowmer, file

As environmentalists and the Biden administration make an all-out push for the adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy sources, they are facing a quandary: The Green Revolution requires more mineral mining, a practice they have long opposed due to its effects on the environment and Native American lands.

One crucial mineral is lithium. Electric vehicles, solar panels, wind farms, laptop computers, and cellphones are all powered by lithium-ion batteries. Without lithium, you can kiss goodbye California’s plan to transition to all-electric vehicle sales by 2035.

Yet despite American soil being rich with lithium, there is only one currently operational lithium mine in the United States. Mining regulations and environmental groups have repeatedly blocked new mines from opening.

Just this month, the Bureau of Land Management withdrew approval of a lithium exploration project in southern Nevada after the Center for Biological Diversity and the Amargosa Conservancy filed a lawsuit opposing the mine near a wildlife refuge with endangered species.

“We’re in the midst of an existential climate crisis and we need to transition to renewable energy, but the mining industry is one of the most polluting, dirtiest industries,” an environmental activist and tailings campaign manager at Earthworks, Jan Morrill, tells the Sun. “I think setting up a binary isn’t what we need to do.”

The battle over lithium mining, though, is dividing environmental groups and the left. The Biden administration is pushing for more domestic “sustainable” mineral mining and has handed out billions of taxpayer dollars to companies trying to mine and process these minerals domestically. The Covid pandemic and supply chain issues made clear that relying on imports of minerals, particularly from adversarial nations like China, “posed national and economic security threats,” a White House press statement reads.

Most of the earth’s lithium is now mined in Australia, China, Argentina, and Chile, while other minerals like cobalt — also essential to technology — are mined in Africa. China dominates the global minerals market. Demand for these minerals is only slated to grow.

The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2040, the world will need at least 1.1 million metric tons of lithium annually, a more than tenfold increase from what is produced today.

“As the world transitions to a clean energy economy, global demand for these critical minerals is set to skyrocket by 400-600 percent over the next several decades, and, for minerals such as lithium and graphite used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, demand will increase by even more—as much as 4,000 percent,” the White House says.

There are now several battles being waged to open lithium mines on American soil. Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against environmentalists and tribal leaders seeking to block the approval and construction of a second lithium mine in northern Nevada, giving the green light to the Lithium Nevada Corporation to proceed with construction. The Bureau of Land Management approved the mine in 2021, but environmentalists took it to court, arguing that the mine would destroy lands sacred to Native Americans in the area.

“The vast majority of [mines] are within 35 miles of a Native American reservation,” Ms. Morrill, who opposes the mine, says. “So while we wouldn’t be exporting the green energy transition to the Democratic Republic of Congo, we certainly will be externalizing it to the tribes and indigenous people.”

In Maine, another fight over lithium mining is being waged. In 2017, a couple of hobbyist gemstone hunters in western Maine, Gary and Mary Freeman, discovered on their property the densest deposit of hard rock lithium in the world. Since then, the Freemans have been fighting with the state to be able to mine the spodumene — crystals containing lithium — from their property. The deposit is worth as much as $1.5 billion.

The state of Maine has one of the strictest laws in the country prohibiting open pit mining. The state has a history of metal mining companies coming in, extracting resources, and leaving superfund sites that cost taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up. 

The Freemans, though, argue that extracting spodumene is not like mining for hard metals such as copper, but is more akin to mining limestone, which the state approves. They also say the spodumene on their property will be extracted and then shipped out of state for processing, which eliminates much of the environmental risk. It could also be a boon to the local economy.

“Mining lithium is not only good for Maine and the nation, it’s good for the entire world,” a Maine state representative, Mike Soboleski, a Republican who represents Newry, where the Freeman’s property is situated, tells the Sun. “Environmentalists are going to have to come to grips with the importance of and need for lithium and all minerals.”

Ms. Morril, though, says more studies of hard rock lithium mining are needed to determine if the process pollutes waterways. “The mining industry is historically really bad at predicting its impacts,” she says, citing a study from an environmental group, Earthworks, that found that 76 percent of mining companies polluted waterways when they said they wouldn’t.

Earlier this month, Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, a Democrat, signed bipartisan legislation opening the door to the Freemans being able to mine their spodumene — if they meet new environmental regulations. Mr. Soboleski says it will take at least a year for the Department of Environmental Protection to write and adopt its new rules for open mining, and that after that the Freemans will have to apply for compliance.

“As mines wait for approvals, as delays accumulate or hundreds of thousands of acres of mineral-rich land are withdrawn from potential production, our competitors, namely China, are only tightening their chokehold on the supply chains we know we need,” the CEO of the National Mining Association, Rich Nolan, writes. “The U.S. has the resources — from rare earths to lithium to copper — to meet much of the demand now at our doorstep. What is lacking is the policy commitment to make it happen.”

As demand for lithium and other minerals increases worldwide, environmentalists will have to weigh the risks of mining with the benefits of reducing emissions through renewable, battery-powered energy. No energy source is entirely clean. Most environmentalists say the 1872 American mining law needs to be updated, and there are several bills now in Congress that do just that.

Mr. Soboleski says mining in America is better for the environment and for labor than some alternatives. “There are children and slave laborers in third world countries digging for cobalt and lithium,” Mr. Soboleski says. “If we find it here we have the responsibility to mine it in a safe and humane way under the watchful eye of the DEP.”

The demand for minerals for batteries is prompting battles internationally as well. The International Seabed Authority put a halt to deep-sea mineral mining late last week after relenting to pressure from environmentalists and nations that oppose the effort. The race to control the global market is on.

“I’ve seen it time and again from environmental activists who come to speak out at a public hearing,” Mr. Soboleski says. “They sit there with their laptops and cellphones and not for one second consider that the battery powering it or the chip inside it is made with the very same minerals or materials they are there to protest against mining or producing. Very hypocritical.”

The New York Sun

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