Nature

Biden’s order to increase mining to power electric vehicles raises contamination concerns


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is turning to a Cold War-era law to boost production of lithium and other minerals used to power electric vehicles, but experts say that move alone likely won’t guarantee the robust domestic mining that Biden seeks as he favors cleaner energy sources.

Biden’s action, part of his efforts to find alternatives to fossil fuels and fight climate change, does not waive or suspend existing environmental and labor standards, the White House said. It also fails to address the main obstacle to increasing domestic extraction of so-called critical minerals: the years-long process required to obtain a federal permit for a new mine.

Despite this, the mining industry and congressional supporters applauded Biden’s use of the Defense Production Act of 1950 to increase the US supply of lithium, nickel and other minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries and other clean energy technologies.

READ MORE: Race for electric vehicle parts leads to risky deep-sea mining

Its March 31 executive order is a historic step by the White House to “recognize the critical importance of minerals and push to electrify the automotive industry,” said Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association.

But “unless we continue to build on this action” and approve new hard rock mines, Nolan added, “we risk fueling the mining dominance of geopolitical rivals” such as China and Russia. .

“We have abundant mineral resources here,” he said. “What we need is a policy to make sure we can produce them and build the safe and reliable supply chains that we know we need to have.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear Biden could activate a tool of war to boost mining that can contaminate groundwater and harm livestock and wildlife.

“The clean energy transition cannot be built on dirty mining,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, an environmental group that has lobbied for tougher restrictions on hard rock mining.

Biden’s order directs the Department of Defense to consider at least five metals – lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese – as essential to national security and authorizes measures to bolster national supplies. Both Biden and former President Donald Trump have used the Defense Production Act before to accelerate the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On minerals, Biden wants to make sure the United States has enough lithium and other materials needed for electric vehicle batteries, heat pumps, and high-capacity batteries for the power grid. The majority of global lithium production comes from China, Australia, Argentina and Chile, while Russia dominates the global nickel market and the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest cobalt producer.

“We must end our long-term dependence on China and other countries for inputs that will fuel the future,” Biden said, promising “to use all the tools at my disposal to achieve it”.

READ MORE: Honda changes course and will build its own electric vehicles

Although lithium reserves are widely distributed around the world, the United States is home to only one active lithium mine, in Nevada. New and potential lithium mining and mining projects are in various stages of development in Nevada, Maine, North Carolina and California. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has called California “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and two projects there could produce lithium by 2024.

Under Biden’s order, the Pentagon is authorized to spend millions of dollars to support a range of activities, including feasibility studies to determine the economic viability of a proposed mine and develop waste recycling programs. mineral waste. The silver could also help existing mines and other industrial sites produce valuable materials, the Pentagon said. For example, a copper mine could also produce nickel.

It’s unclear how much money will be available for mining, but the Department of Defense is authorized to keep up to $750 million for its stockpile of strategic and critical equipment.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., called Biden’s order “a good first step toward expanding manufacturing and infrastructure for our electric vehicle batteries.” But she and other lawmakers said the United States needs a long-term strategy to improve the nation’s supply chain for critical minerals.

“Unless the president allows it, we shouldn’t expect to see a significant increase in U.S. mineral production,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Energy Committee. natural resources. At a recent committee hearing. Barrasso urged Biden to “stand up to his own party’s mining opponents.”

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, called Biden’s order misguided. “Accelerated mining to outdated standards that put our public health, wilderness and sacred sites at risk of permanent damage is simply not the solution,” he said.

Grijalva and Sen. Martin Heinrich, DN.M., introduced legislation to modernize the 1872 law that governs hard rock mining in the United States

(asterisk) Our current mining law was put in place before we even knew what a car was, let alone an electric car,” Grijalva said. “The modernization of this relic of law isn’t extreme or anti-industry – it’s just common sense.”

Mining companies have extracted hundreds of billions of dollars in gold, silver, copper and other minerals from federal lands over the past 150 years “without paying a dime in federal royalties,” Grijalva and Heinrich said. in a press release. The House bill would establish a 12.5% ​​royalty on new mining operations and an 8% royalty on existing operations.

The bill would also create a Hardrock Mineral Recovery Fund to make industry pay for cleaning up abandoned mine sites.

About 40% of watersheds in the western United States are contaminated by hard rock mine drainage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt reserves are located within 35 miles or 56 kilometers of tribal lands.

Natives living near a proposed lithium mine in Nevada have beleaguered Biden’s order.

“I think this will be the second coming of environmental destruction,” said Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal member Day Hinkey, and organizer of People of Red Mountain, a group that opposes the vast mine. of lithium from Thacker Pass in northern Nevada.

Another Nevada lithium mine is planned near a desert ridge where a rare wildflower has been nominated for endangered species listing. Australia-based mine developer Ioneer said planned habitat protections for the rare Tiehm buckwheat would not affect its mining operations and the company’s operations would not put jeopardize the conservation of the species.

Opponents dispute this. Hinkey said the first environmental crisis was caused by the fossil fuel industry “and I think the next will be lithium mining.”


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