By Irina Slav
Last month, President Joe Biden said he planned to replace the whole federal vehicle fleet with electric cars, creating one million jobs in the process. Jobs aside, we’re talking about more than 600,000 cars that will be replaced with EVs. And these EVs will need a stable supply of certain metals and minerals that the U.S. now imports.
Enter Biden’s mining dilemma.
The U.S. President has identified climate change as his number-one priority, yet weaning the country off import dependence on China is also high on his priority list, it seems. This means Chinese imports of rare earths will need to be replaced with local supply. Boosting all American industries is another priority theme for Biden. This means Chilean lithium imports will need to be replaced with local supply.
Local supply of rare earths and critical minerals is a great idea, but this means new mines. New mines are the opposite of what one of Biden’s main supporter demographic—conservationists—want. The administration’s drive to electrify as much of America’s economy as it can in the shortest time is putting it on a collision course with one of its biggest voter groups.
In a recent report for Reuters, Ernest Scheyder wrote, citing unnamed sources, that the Biden administration planned to allow new mining projects for EV minerals under current regulations. Coal mines, on the other hand, were to be held up to tighter environmental standards. Also, the President was willing to open up more federal land for rare earth and critical mineral mines. For any conservationist worth their salt, this should be no different than opening up federal lands for oil drilling. Because lithium mining, for one, is a dirty business. Lithium is extracted by drilling a hole in a deposit and then pumping what’s called lithium brine to the surface. This mineral-rich liquid is then left to dry over several months, and the lithium—and a few other minerals—are collected. This process uses some 500,000 gallons of water for the production of one metric ton of lithium. That’s already not quite environmentally friendly, but there is a bigger problem, too: leaks of toxic chemicals from the pools in which lithium brine is left to dehydrate into the water supply.
In North America, however, lithium is not produced from lithium brine like it is in Chile, according to the Institute for Energy Research. Unfortunately, this does not mean that it is mined without the use of chemicals. In fact, the IER notes that lithium mining in Nevada was found to have affected fish some 150 miles downstream from the mine.
“You can’t have green energy without mining,” according to Mark Senti, the chief executive of Advanced Magnet, a rare earth magnet maker, as quoted by Reuters’ Scheyder. “That’s just the reality.”
The other reality is that you can’t have supply security if you depend almost entirely on imports. The two, however, appear to be difficult to square.
Biden’s Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently chimed in with the White House, saying the United States needed to step up its domestic production of EV minerals. So long as it is done sustainably, she added.
What is sustainable mining? It sounds like a paradox since minerals, just like fossil fuels, are finite resources, and once extracted they cannot be returned to the earth. Yet the concept of sustainable mining does exist, and while there doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted definition of this concept, it appears that sustainable mining involves minimizing the environmental impact of the operation, limiting extraction to only the quantities you really need at this point, and taking into consideration the interests of all parties involved: government, company, and local communities.
Yet as any miner would tell you, there is only so much you could do to curb the environmental impact of mining, especially if you are mining lithium, which seems to be as dependent on chemicals as gold mining. There are alternatives to lithium batteries for EVs, for sure, but they are nowhere near as far ahead in their development as the dominant technology.
“There is no way there’s enough raw materials being produced right now to start replacing millions of gasoline-powered motor vehicles with EVs,” the chief executive of tungsten miner Almonty Industries told Reuters’ Scheyder. The company has operations in South Korea and Portugal.
Another quote from conservation group The Wilderness Society highlights the clash even better. The Trump administration, the group’s senior managing director Drew McConville told Reuters, “pushed the narrative that we need to mine everywhere and undercut environmental safeguards in order to build more batteries. We have confidence that the Biden administration is going to see through that false narrative.”
In fact, it seems the Biden administration will not only not see through the “false narrative” but actively uphold it to square its green energy agenda with the national security threat that, according to President Biden, is America’s dependence on Chinese imports of critical minerals.
“Many parts of the country are sitting on top of the materials that we need to produce battery technologies,” Energy Secretary Granholm said at a recent webinar, as quoted by Reuters. She added that there was a huge demand for sustainable mining in the U.S. However, the report noted, “it was not immediately clear how she defined that term.”
It looks like the environmentalist movement is in for some disappointment. This disappointment could lead to confrontation: there is already open opposition to new mining projects in some parts of the U.S. from native communities close to the proposed mines. It may be unthinkable now to imagine opposition to mining as strong as the opposition to new oil pipelines, but it may not remain unthinkable forever as securing critical minerals for the EV revolution goes head to head with environmental protection and conservation.