Weaning the economy off fossil fuels comes at its own environmental cost, a truth that is just now dawning on many Americans, especially those living near valuable mineral deposits. The transition will require mining massive quantities of metals and minerals, a practice that carries its own pollution, said Jordy Lee, a program manager at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.
“Investors consider it worse than oil and gas from an environmental perspective,” Lee said. “It’s a weird mess of a problem.”
Lithium is an essential component of batteries used in electric cars and renewable power, and demand for the ultra-light material is expected to grow more than 40-fold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. The Energy Department last year called for improving US access to raw materials “by incentivizing growth in safe, equitable and sustainable domestic mining ventures.”
The US has more than 9 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves, but only one operating mine, in Silver Peak, Nevada. The site produces 1.2 percent of global output, all of which is shipped abroad for processing.
About 90 percent of the world’s lithium is produced by Australia, Chile and China. China dominates processing of the metal for use in batteries, with almost 60 percent of the market, according to the IEA.
But lithium mining is a dirty business. Concern over potential mining projects in Nevada, Maine and North Carolina is rooted in the scarred lands and contaminated water from other digs gone even wrong as leading environmental groups, including Earthworks and Earthjustice, recognizing that mining is necessary to green the economy.
General Motors Co., Volvo and other automakers need lithium to deliver on their promises to phase out internal combustion engines. GM has partnered with Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd. to extract lithium from California’s Salton Sea. Tesla has a contract with Piedmont Lithium, which is pursuing the North Carolina project.
The White House points to those agreements as evidence that green energy incentives it has championed are working. The question now is how to get the lithium out of the ground and put to use. An Energy Department spokesperson declined to comment on domestic pushback to mines.
“I don’t know how to bring people along,” said Eric Norris, president of the lithium unit at Albemarle Corp., which operates the Silver Peak mine. “There is a difference between what at the federal level we know needs to happen and at the state level what people are willing to tolerate.”
Metals mining is among the most toxic industries in the US and, among all minerals, lithium production presents the greatest risk to the environment. Lithium extraction requires more water than mining for iron, cobalt, copper and other materials. Producing a ton of lithium carbonate causes three times the emissions of producing a ton of steel, on average, according to the IEA.
It’s also expensive and often litigious. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a China hawk and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the federal government needs to create demand to counteract that market reality or risk losing to China and other foreign competitors.
“It’s not something the market will produce because it’s cheaper to do it somewhere else,” Rubio said in a speech last month. “But we can’t allow it to be made somewhere else because we can’t allow for the risk of being cut off. ”
Toronto-based Lithium Americas Corp. is trying to develop an open-pit mine on federal land at Nevada’s Thacker Pass, which the company says is the largest known lithium resource in the US
The Bureau of Land Management granted Thacker a key approval a year ago, and the company expects to begin construction this year despite a pending lawsuit. The White House hailed the approval as proof of progress, though the permit was issued before Biden took office.
The project could help reduce US reliance on internal combustion engines and move the battery supply chain to a state rich in mining history, Lithium Americas President and CEO Jon Evans said.
“If you lose this, it’s not coming back,” Evans said in an interview.
The project’s opponents question whether it’s worth the environmental cost. The mine would require 3,224 gallons of water per minute after its fifth year of operation and destroy nearly 5,000 acres of winter range for pronghorn antelope.
“I don’t think that we’re ultimately going to save the planet by blowing up places like Thacker Pass,” said Max Wilbert, an activist camped in protest at the mine site.
If the US wants a cleaner economy, it should be willing to shoulder the environmental burden of mining the necessary minerals, said Jason George, business manager at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49.
“If we’re not willing to do it here, you can guarantee that where you are doing it will be less friendly toward the environment,” George told a House panel last week. “How can you claim to support the environment and then not want to do this in the one place where you can be assured it will be done right?”
Local communities, though, find themselves ill-equipped to navigate the geopolitics and environmental minutiae of the so-called white gold rush.
“We’re hoping for the best, that it doesn’t impact our water table or our environment in a negative way,” said Amy Bernard, administrator of Newry, Maine, the site of a large lithium deposit. “We would be pioneering regulations, and it’s kind of a shot in the dark.”
In North Carolina’s Gaston County, residents are mobilizing against Piedmont Lithium’s proposed $840 million open-pit lithium mine, which would require a zoning change. County commissioners unanimously imposed a 60-day mining moratorium in August, which has since expired, and petitions are circulating to block the mine while the company awaits a decision on a state permit.
Where some see only risk, others embrace economic opportunity. California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) said Salton Sea lithium deposits could meet as much as 40 percent of world demand. In 2020, he sponsored legislation to establish the Lithium Valley Commission, which is exploring mining opportunities and is due to report to the legislature by October.
Garcia has yet to see the opposition that exists at other proposed mines. He credits local training partnerships that are preparing people for the jobs that will result.
“We realize,” Garcia said, “that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”