There’s a lithium mining boom, but it’s not a boon for jobs: NPR

The town of Tonopah, Nevada, was born out of a money rush. A frantic race to extract a natural resource created a city of over 10,000 people — for a while.

Today, Tonopah is home to just over 2,000 people. But there is a new mining boom in town.

You can see it when you check into the old Hotel Mitzpah, all the faded glory, ghost stories and tales about Wyatt Earp. Above the cash register, next to a chandelier, a screen advertises a lithium exploration company.

And forty minutes from the city, the Silver Peak lithium mine is in the process of doubling its production.

Lithium is essential for the production of rechargeable batteries, such as the giant ones used in electric vehicles. Demand is skyrocketing. And, after decades of moving production overseas, the auto industry is now rushing to bring supply chains back to the United States, especially for batteries, from raw materials to assembly.

It’s a top priority for the Biden administration, which says this outsourcing will reduce dependence on countries like China and boost American jobs.

Mining is part of this – sometimes controversial – push. And there are strong arguments for how domestic production of critical minerals improves the security of American supply chains.

But employment is another story. Unlike the glory days of Tonopah — or, for a modern example, the oil boom towns of North Dakota and West Texas — this race to extract resources from the ground doesn’t feel like a windfall. jobs.

Take Silver Peak’s investment to double its production. “I think we’re growing – that probably won’t seem like a lot – I think it’s around 5-10 new employees,” says Karen Narwold, Albemarle’s chief administrative officer.

Silver Peak is a brine mine, harvesting the power of the sun to concentrate lithium in salt water. It employed only about 70 people initially, running the pumps and maintaining the equipment.

Other mines need more workers, relatively speaking. John Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas, is trying to open a mine at Thacker Pass in northern Nevada. (He is currently facing legal challenges from local opponents of the mine.) He says the mine, once operational, would employ about 300 people.

But he also notes that the total number of open mines just won’t be huge.

“If there’s five or six in the next ten years, I think we’re doing pretty well,” Evans says.

This is on top of a relatively modest employment impact, overall. Phil Jordan is vice president of BW Research, a consulting firm that focuses on labor and energy. He recently did some modeling work on how government incentives, like in the big climate bill this summer, affect different parts of the supply chain.

“There are definitely job increases in the mining sector,” he says. “But those increases would be, you know, maybe a thousand jobs that would last ten years.”

This is overshadowed by the jobs created in manufacturing or in the construction of clean energy. And that’s a tiny fraction of the more than half a million jobs supported by these global incentives.

Kwasi Ampofo, head of metals and mining for BloombergNEF, says it’s no surprise the number of jobs is modest. “Mines in developed countries have a very, very small labor footprint,” he says, and automation and other technological improvements are only reducing labor requirements.

The mining industry, for its part, points out that the jobs involved are highly paid and located in rural areas that may have few other options.

“Our average salary is over $95,000 a year,” says Tire Gray, president and CEO of the Nevada Mining Association. “And when you talk about salaries like that, those are the kinds of salaries that allow you to change the life of your family.”

And Evans, of the Thacker Pass Project, says the real value of mine construction in the United States is not the mining jobs it creates, but what it enables further down the supply chain, by creating a safer source for minerals.

“All of the battery components — cathodes, anodes, separators, all that — go where the heavy lifting is going to be,” he says. As an example, he mentions a factory that LG Chem is launching to manufacture cathodes – battery components – in Tennessee.

“You’re going to have 2,000 people working there,” he says. “But to make this cathode plant work, you need material from the 300 people…in northern Nevada.”

Atlas Public Policy recently listed all factories announced to build electric vehicles, batteries and chargers. They counted 143,575 advertised jobs.


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