There are a lot of people who are convinced that in just a few short years, the U.S. will be powered completely by fossil fuel-free renewable electricity. EVs will replace ICE-powered cars, and wind and solar will supplant coal and natural gas to generate all the juice needed. It’s a glorious vision.
The problem is it’s a fiction. For a whole bunch of different reasons, that CO2-free utopia not only isn’t going to happen in the next few years–it’s not even going to happen in the foreseeable future.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue reductions of carbon dioxide emissions where it makes sense, and where we get the biggest bang for our buck. We have the technology already available to do just that. But we’re not on track to deliver it on even a limited basis, because the materials needed, including basics like iron and copper, and minerals for more advanced technologies like rare earths, all require mining. “Mining really touches everything in our lives,” said Kathy Graul, Public Relations Manager at Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, which has been working to start up an underground nickel- and copper-mining operation in northern Minnesota since 2010. “What’s becoming really clear is the need for minerals for the clean energy transition.” Yet for generations now, Americans have (often unwittingly) been anti-mining. That will have to change dramatically if we as a country are serious about any of this.
“Part of the complacency about mining in the U.S. is the reliance on countries like Australia and Canada,” said Pini Althouse, founder and advisor to the Board of Directors of USA Rare Earth, which operates the Round Top rare earths mining operation in Texas. “It’s a good strategy to have those agreements, but we have to have domestic mining.”
The problem with domestic mining is that it can take at least a decade to get a new American operation permitted, and often much longer when opponents, whether environmentalists or members of nearby communities, leverage onerous legal and regulatory requirements to purposely gum up the works.
Right now it’s a mixed bag as to how that plays out. For Lithium Americas, which has been working to start up an open-pit lithium mining operation at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada, in the northwestern corner of the state, things are looking fairly positive. “We spent a lot of time going through the permitting process,” said Jonathan Evans, the company’s CEO. “Other projects around the country have been stuck in the appeals process for years. We brought in neutral outside facilitators to help get things going, set ground rules, and establish our processes. That’s gone well with the local community.”
The company focused heavily on transparency with the area’s residents. “For air permitting, for example, we tried to simplify the issue, answer any questions, and make people more comfortable,” said Evans. They also focused on benefits to the community. “We’re looking at common areas and addressing concerns like traffic. We’re talking about our goal to hire from the local community. We looked at schools, the tribal day care facility, and medical care needs like a dentist, and having a doctor come around once a week where there hasn’t been one available before. Those are all things we’re making part of our plans.”
Lithium Americas received its Record of Decision from the Bureau of Land Management for Thacker Pass early last year, and is moving toward construction.
For other projects, things don’t look so rosy. In January, the Biden Administration effectively canceled the two leases that Twin Metals and its predecessor companies have held in northern Minnesota for over 50 years. “The Duluth Complex [where the proposed Twin Metals mine would be located] is a massive mineral complex,” said Graul. “It holds 95% of U.S. nickel reserves. And the only existing U.S. nickel mine, the Eagle Mine [in Marquette County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula] is set to close in 2025.” Yet fierce opposition from local groups aligned with distant environmental activist organizations is close to closing the door there for good. With copper and nickel representing critical materials for the proposed clean energy transition, this seems awfully puzzling.
The opposition is focused on risks to the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). But Graul fails to understand those concerns. “In the Iron Range, there has been mining for 130 years,” she said. “Mining is happening in the same watershed [as BWCAW] right now across the border in Canada.
“We’re strategically positioned near the Port of Duluth, the largest freshwater port in the world,” Graul continued. “In 2019 we submitted our formal mine plan to the regulators, representing an investment of $500 million. But the Department of Interior initiated a two-year study that could lead to a 20-year ban on mining. In January 2022 they stripped our leases, which have been in place since 1966. This is the third administration that’s changed course. That halted our environmental review, and we had to lay off a third of our staff. This region needs economic growth. The administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth. It says it wants to do more nickel processing yet it’s taking the biggest domestic source off the table.”
Graul has a good point. In moves similar to its actions regarding oil and gas exploration, the Biden administration is talking up domestic development while simultaneously canceling mineral leases and increasing regulatory burdens. In late March, Biden invoked the powers of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to expedite production of materials critical for national defense and added lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese to the list. This got him hugely positive headlines in general, and support from the mining industry too. “I think this is positive,” said Althouse about the move. “I’m cautiously optimistic. The ruling specifically calls out mining. And no mine can get permitted in the U.S. that’s less rigorous in permitting than those in Australia and Canada.”
But therein lies the rub. What Biden gave with the DPA, he takes away with the permitting process. Besides his administration’s shuttering of Twin Metals, it has also obstructed development of a copper mine in Arizona, minerals exploration in Wyoming, a lithium and boron mine in Nevada (separate from the Lithium Americas project), and a copper mine in Alaska.
Part of the problem are the inherent limitations of the DPA, which falls under the purview of the Department of Defense (DOD). “The DOD is not equipped to handle anything outside defense,” Althouse explained. “And they’ve been handling critical minerals. I think what the administration should do is move critical minerals to the Department of Energy (DOE), and appoint an Undersecretary to handle them.”
What’s clear is that significant changes like that are needed for the U.S. to get the metals and minerals needed to come anywhere close to delivering on our energy transition goals. Take lithium as one example. “We’re lucky if, between the U.S. and Canada, we have five to eight installations by 2030,” said Evans. “We’re not going to be self-sufficient in five or even ten years. We have to have a basis to be self-sufficient with agreements with like-minded countries.”
But that’s not the current state. We’re not only getting metals and minerals from some of the worst regimes out there, but we’re getting them from some of the worst-polluting countries too. “Most of these materials are coming from China,” Althouse said. “People are getting sick around these mines. What we’re saying now is that’s okay to happen. It would be far better to have sustainable, responsible mining here. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.”
Graul couldn’t agree more. “We spent a decade mapping out our mineral deposit,” she said. “We’re working in conjunction with the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of British Columbia on research and testing to allow for carbon sequestration in our tailings. Our mine would have no process or contact water release and no potential for acid rock drainage. It will have dry-stack tailings and will be carbon-neutral.”
It makes no sense for America to extol our own environmental enlightenment while outsourcing the vast majority of our mining to places without environmental protections, yet that’s what we’ve been doing for decades, and we’re still doing it today. Something has to change. “We can keep talking till the cows come home,” said Althouse. “It’s time for action.”
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