If we want to see more electric cars on the road, then we have to get comfortable with extracting the necessary raw materials from the earth. When it comes to batteries for cars, that means mining, but do Americans have the stomach for more mines?
A recent clash of environmental priorities over a rare plant, Tiehm’s buckwheat, pitted environmentalists against a mining operation. It was conservation vs. green energy, and provides a microcosm of a much larger political quandary for the new administration of President Joe Biden, who has made big promises to environmentalists as well as labor groups and others who stand to benefit by boosting mining.
To please conservationists, Biden has vowed to set aside at least 30% of U.S. federal land and coastal areas for conservation, triple current levels.
But that aim could conflict with his promises to hasten the electrification of vehicles and to reduce the country’s dependence on China for rare earths, lithium and other minerals needed for EV batteries. The administration has called the reliance on China a national security threat.
The administration will be forced into hard choices that anger one constituency or another.
Mark Senti, chief executive of Florida-based rare earth magnet company Advanced Magnet Lab Inc., said:
“You can’t have green energy without mining. That’s just the reality.”
Rare earth magnets are used to make a range of consumer electronics as well as precision-guided missiles and other weapons.
Two sources familiar with White House deliberations on domestic mining told Reuters that Biden plans to allow mines that produce EV metals to be developed under existing environmental standards, rather than face a tightened process that would apply to mining for other materials, such as coal.
Biden is open to allowing more mines on federal land, the sources said, but won’t give the industry carte blanche to dig everywhere. That will likely mean approval of mines for rare earths and lithium, though certain copper projects – including a proposed Arizona copper mine from Rio Tinto Plc opposed by Native Americans – are likely to face extra scrutiny, the sources said.
Demand for metals used in EV batteries is expected to rise sharply as automakers including Tesla Inc, BMW and General Motors plan major expansions of EV production. California, the biggest U.S. vehicle market, aims to entirely ban fossil fuel-powered engines by 2035.
Biden has promised to convert the entire U.S. government fleet – about 640,000 vehicles – to EVs. That plan alone could require a 12-fold increase in U.S. lithium production by 2030, according to Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, as well as increases in output of domestic copper, nickel and cobalt. Federal land is teeming with many of these EV metals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
So what will it be, more mines and EVs, or stonewall mines and keep paying China for their raw materials?