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Electric vehicle push returns North Carolina to its lithium mining roots

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The Kings Mountain hiking trail, known as Cardio Hill, overlooks a lake-sized rainwater-filled pit, but the steep terrain about 30 miles west of Charlotte is now one of the most valuable real estate assets in the United States.

Beneath that soil lies a mine that has languished since the 1980s and is believed to contain one of the country’s largest deposits of lithium, a key ingredient in batteries needed to power electric vehicles.

Albemarle Corporation, the world’s largest lithium producer, is trying to revive the mine and capitalize on the Biden administration’s efforts to develop a domestic electric vehicle industry. It’s just one of several projects underway in North Carolina, where companies are rushing to secure permits for multibillion-dollar investments in lithium, in part to try to benefit from the lucrative incentives included in President Biden’s new climate law.

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen traveled to North Carolina to visit Livent, a lithium hydroxide processing company that currently obtains its lithium from Canada and Argentina. The company expanded its Bessemer City, North Carolina, plant and increased its manufacturing capacity there by 50%, a move it attributes to the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains tax incentives for electric vehicles made in the USA.

During her tour, Yellen said the United States was making progress in reducing its dependence on China through its energy initiatives.

“Key supply chains in areas such as clean energy are too concentrated in China, in part because of unfair and non-market practices over decades,” Yellen said. “Through a massive increase in domestic production capacity, our country will become less dependent on other countries for the inputs we need and we will make great strides toward energy security. »

Ms. Yellen suggested that investments such as those made in North Carolina would reduce energy costs and bring higher wages to low-income communities.

Still, not everyone in the state is in favor of resuming lithium mining. Neighbors of the proposed mining projects have tried to derail the digging plans by raising concerns about pollution, soil erosion and the release of toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, that could contaminate mining reserves. local water. Some environmental experts warn that proponents of lithium as a green energy solution overlook the carbon intensity of extracting the material, comparing it to fracking or coal mining.

“The real truth is that lithium mining has a huge impact on the environment,” said Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

North Carolina was once a center of lithium production, but the industry fizzled several decades ago due to foreign competition and a lack of domestic demand. That has changed since the Climate and Tax Act of 2022 created large subsidies to build a domestic electric vehicle supply chain that could compete with China. States like North Carolina have benefited from a lithium rush and become frontiers in an emerging battery belt.

The Biden administration will seek to further bolster domestic manufacturing on Friday, when it releases proposed rules that will dictate the extent to which foreign companies, particularly in China, can supply parts and products for U.S.-made vehicles who should receive billions of dollars. in subsidies.

Eric Norris, president of energy storage at Albemarle, said the law helped revitalize an industry that had been hit by globalization and a weak market for lithium products in the United States.

“When you get some form of policy that says we all want you to build and you have money to spend on it, then you take risk out of the equation,” Mr Norris said. “It’s a way to compete globally in a sector that, frankly, we haven’t invested as much or paid as much attention to.”

He added: “You know the story: China is paying a lot of attention to it. »

Albemarle has received about $250 million in federal grants over the past year through Department of Defense and Department of Energy programs to promote domestic lithium production. It’s one of several North Carolina companies rapidly ramping up operations to mine and process lithium, essential for the flow of electricity in a battery, which can be sold to automakers.

Although progress has been made in expanding the lithium industry in North Carolina, there is no shortage of hurdles when it comes to permitting and the pace of approvals that producers need to move forward with their projects. The political backlash against electric vehicles, often fueled by Republicans including former President Donald J. Trump, also presents headwinds. And lithium hydroxide prices have fallen sharply this year amid falling global demand, adding to the financial pressure companies face to make their investments profitable.

Albemarle conducted an extensive community outreach campaign to address concerns about its proposed mine. This includes public meetings, regular public tours of the site and a dedicated office in a converted pharmacy where residents can go to ask questions. Even if the permitting process goes smoothly, the company does not expect the mine to be operational until 2027 or 2028.

In Gaston County, North Carolina, Piedmont Lithium is struggling to gain support from local officials who oversee zoning for its Carolina Lithium project. The company projects it could produce 30,000 tonnes of battery-grade lithium per year when its mine and processing plants are operational. It plans to hire 500 workers with an average salary of more than $80,000 a year.

“We consider ourselves at the forefront of what skilled workforce employment has to offer people in terms of wage opportunities,” said Patrick H. Brindle, Piedmont’s chief operating officer.

But many residents remain skeptical about the consequences of a mine for their community. At a meeting of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners in August, property owners expressed concerns about traffic and noise associated with the mine and expressed fears about toxic chemicals seeping into the mine system. water.

“Why should I be financially devastated so they can make billions of dollars? » asked Sandra Foster, whose home is near the proposed mine.

Electric vehicles are intended to reduce carbon emissions and improve environmental health, but in many projects across the country, local officials are concerned about the short-term environmental risks posed by the transition.

Board member Chad Brown said he wasn’t sure Piedmont would get its permits, noting the community was “angry.”

“Everyone is worried about the environment,” Mr. Brown said.

The challenges have been amplified by the fact that the transition to clean energy technologies has been the subject of political backlash from many Republican lawmakers.

Last year, North Carolina state Rep. Ben Moss, a Republican, introduced legislation that would ban free chargers for electric vehicles unless free gas pumps were made available at the same time. place.

However, other Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, have supported a resumption of lithium mining in the state. The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, said the environment needed to be protected, but having a mine capable of providing raw materials for electric vehicle batteries was a positive development.

And local officials may ultimately be reluctant to turn away thousands of new, well-paying jobs.

“I have a feeling that the potential benefits of this measure will be large enough that these political considerations take a back seat,” said Mark Curtis, an economics professor at Wake Forest University who studies energy jobs. green.

Ms. Yellen said Thursday that she was aware of environmental concerns, but that the Biden administration supported lithium production as long as there were safeguards.

“It would be nice to see lithium mining in the United States, but in an environmentally friendly way,” she told reporters.

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