As the Democrat-controlled Senate lines up the party-line votes to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, featuring $369 billion in new federal spending for wind, solar, and electric vehicles (EVs), environmentalists are uncertain whether to cheer or weep.
If passed, the bill would be a victory for advocates of “renewable” energy and the elimination of fossil fuels. However, as is always the case with energy economics, the investment in renewables would come with an environmental cost: an enormous expansion of mining projects to extract the raw materials for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric batteries out of the earth.
The Biden administration is itself torn on the issue, attempting on the one hand to reduce America’s dependence on China and other foreign countries for the essential raw materials of his Green New Deal, while on the other hand blocking the permits and approvals that allow American mining companies to dig.
On Mar. 31, the Biden administration took a major step toward enacting a federal industrial energy policy by invoking the Defense Production Act to direct American companies toward producing more renewable energy. In justifying the use of what is normally an emergency wartime act, President Joe Biden declared in an official statement that “ensuring a robust, resilient, sustainable, and environmentally responsible domestic industrial base to meet the requirements of the clean energy economy” was “essential to our national security.”
Biden has set ambitious climate goals, including that the majority of U.S.-made cars will be EVs by 2030 and that EVs will replace gas-powered cars entirely by 2040, while shifting electric-power generation from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and hydro-utilities. This is in lockstep with global climate goals adopted by the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the Great Reset Initiative launched by the World Economic Forum in 2020. However, the mining of raw materials for this plan remains problematic.
“The United States depends on unreliable foreign sources for many of the strategic and critical materials necessary for the clean energy transition—such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese for large-capacity batteries,” Biden stated. “Demand for such materials is projected to increase exponentially as the world transitions to a clean energy economy.”
According to a report by the International Energy Agency, an energy analytics group, “the shift to a clean energy system is set to drive a huge increase in the requirements for these minerals.”
The report notes that “a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant.” It projects that in order to meet current green energy targets, the demand for lithium will grow by 40 times by 2040; the demand for graphite, cobalt, and nickel will grow by 20–25 times; the demand for rare earth elements will grow 3–7 times; and the demand for copper will double. A World Bank report on “Minerals for Climate Action” states that 17 minerals are essential to realizing green goals, including aluminum, copper, silver, indium, selenium and tellurium for photovoltaic cells; steel, copper, aluminum, zinc, lead, and neodymium for wind turbines; and graphite, lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and vanadium for batteries.
Most of these minerals currently are mined abroad and heavily concentrated in just a few countries. Seventy percent of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 60 percent of rare earth elements are mined in China. Refining is even more concentrated: 35 percent of nickel refining, 50-70 percent of lithium and cobalt refining, and 90 percent of rare earth elements refining is conducted in China.
These mining operations have been criticized for impairing natural environments, creating toxic pollution, and violating human rights. A lawsuit was brought in 2019 against Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla by Congolese families, alleging that these companies were complicit in abuses carried out by the Chinese mining company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and the UK mining company Glencore, which led to deaths and injuries among children working in the cobalt mines. The lawsuit was filed in Washington, D.C., by International Rights Advocates, a human rights organization, charging the American companies with “aiding and abetting” the abuse in the mines.
A solution proposed by the Biden administration is to bring mining operations into the United States, where stricter environmental and human rights standards apply. And many experts believe that much of the demand for these minerals can be met domestically, but that politics is the main constraint.
“The United States can supply a large percentage of its needs for things like EVs or grid storage batteries,” Ian Lange, professor of economics at the Colorado School of Mines, told The Epoch Times. “We certainly have a number of lithium deposits around the United States, and our capital markets are pretty good at moving investment toward things that we think are going to be profitable. But most of the lithium projects under discussion right now are being held up under NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act], permitting delays or other restrictions.”
A December report by Reuters estimated that U.S. mining projects currently under consideration could extract enough copper to build 6 million EVs, enough lithium for 2 million EVs, and enough nickel for 60,000 EVs. However, many of the deposits are located on federal land, which means they are subject to environmental laws, including NEPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act, and their requirements for public engagement.
Efforts by the Biden administration to expand mining and refining in the country are meeting strong resistance from environmental groups, and also often conflict with the policies of the administration itself. In May 2022, for example, the Biden administration blocked the Pebble Mine project, which sought to mine copper in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The project was opposed by Alaska Native communities on the grounds that it would harm salmon and other wildlife in Bristol Bay.
In an official statement, EPA Regional Administrator Casey Sixkiller said, “Bristol Bay supports one of the world’s most important salmon fisheries. Two decades of scientific study show us that mining the Pebble Deposit would cause permanent damage to an ecosystem that supports a renewable economic powerhouse and has sustained fishing cultures since time immemorial.”
In response, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO John Shively said that “this is clearly a giant step backward for the Biden administration’s climate change goals. I find it ironic that the president is using the Defense Production Act to get more renewable energy minerals such as copper into production, while others in the administration seek political ways to stop domestic mining projects such as ours.”
Native Americans, environmentalists, and ranchers came together to fight what would be one of the world’s largest lithium mining projects in Nevada’s Thacker Pass. Native American Myron Smart stated that the land designated for mining was “sacred,” and that “when our land is destroyed, our traditions are destroyed.”
Lithium Americas, which is working to develop the Thacker Pass mine, stated that the project will be an open-pit mine with a lifespan of 46 years, creating 1,000 construction jobs, producing an estimated 3 million tons of lithium, with a strip ratio of 1.6-to-1. The strip ratio measures the amount of waste materials extracted per unit of useful lithium mined.
Lithium Americas reported that it had received the required permits from the Bureau of Land Management in January 2021 and that it would begin mining operations in 2022. However, federal judges and state regulators are reviewing the case, along with several other mining projects in Minnesota and North Carolina, to determine if the permits should be revoked.
To alleviate these environmental concerns, the Biden administration has proposed having mining done abroad, in countries such as Canada, Chile, Finland, and Australia. In June 2021, the White House stated that “the United States cannot and does not need to mine and process all critical battery inputs at home. It can and should work with allies and partners to expand global production and to ensure global supplies.” In this way, extraction of essential minerals can be carried out by allied countries, and environmental and social issues can be dealt with outside the United States.
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