How a clean energy future is colliding with mining’s dark past
To get the United States running on clean energy will require a lot of metal: A single electric vehicle battery pack could contain around 8 kilograms of lithium, 14 kilograms of cobalt, and 35 kilograms of nickel. A wind turbine can contain more than 4 tons of copper.
Over the next several decades, global demand for these “critical minerals,” a group that includes lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper, is projected to increase by 400-600 percent driven by a surge in manufacturing of renewable technologies. For some metals like lithium and graphite, it could skyrocket by as much as 4,000 percent.
China dominates this global market, processing 50-70 percent of the world’s lithium and cobalt. But the Biden administration has taken a hard line against providing tax breaks to manufacturers who source metals from countries without free trade agreements with the U.S. That means that developers of technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines need to find new supply streams – and fast.
But the process of extracting metal and mineral deposits from the earth, known as hardrock mining, has a reputation for contaminating local watersheds and causing irreparable environmental damage. That’s why domestic mining projects often encounter legal challenges and protests when they are initially proposed.
“It’s very hard to open up a mine in the United States. No one wants a mine in their backyard,” said Jordy Lee, a program manager at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. “It’s not clear how the U.S. is supposed to mine and produce all these minerals when there’s so much pushback against the industry.”
Domestic mining is governed by a 150-year old law that critics characterize as a relic of the Wild West Era. Unlike laws regulating other extractive industries like oil and gas, the General Mining Law of 1872 doesn’t require companies to pay federal royalties on the resources they extract from public lands. A patchwork of more recent legislation regulates the environmental impacts of mining, but since it is distributed across multiple federal agencies, it can take years before a project gets approved. The Biden administration has recently passed a batch of bills to incentivize the buildout of a domestic supply chain to mine and process the minerals necessary for weaning the country off fossil fuels.
Now, Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, is proposing legislation that would speed up permitting for major energy and infrastructure projects, including mining. The National Mining Association has said that the bill would help hardrock mining companies meet rising demand by providing some certainty that their projects will get greenlighted.
Environmental advocates and community groups whose land risks destruction from proposed projects see it differently. Mining activity has left deep scars across the American West, where the Environmental Protection Agency