President Joe Biden has been busy working on climate issues, recently signing a series of executive orders that put a hold on new oil and gas leases on federal lands, working toward phasing out funding for fossil fuel projects overseas, and created a new entity called the “Civilian Climate Corps.
John Kerry, who is serving as Biden’s special climate envoy presented with clear, confident responses at a recent White House press briefing but on the same day, in the Senate confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm, the more complex issue of mining was on the table.
Granholm said she supports increased U.S. mining efforts to help meet the demand for the raw materials.
Granholm said, “We are missing a massive opportunity for our own security, but also for a market for our trading partners who may want to have access to minerals that are produced in a responsible way. We know we can mine in a responsible way.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked Granholm to commit to following the law passed in December to set up a $75 million strategic uranium reserve, thereby boosting the mining of uranium.
Granholm replied, “I will certainly act upon the instructions of Congress.”
But some say the big question is how and to what extent the Department of Energy might go in the mining of materials needed for green technology, such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and rare earths that are scarcely mined in the U.S. now. Furthermore, protections for the workers and communities where they’re produced now are extremely weak.
From 2015 to 2019, Cobalt production fell 52% as consumption increased according to U.S. Geological Survey data. And the production of nickel, which is the metal that makes up 65% of many types of electric car batteries, was halved. Lithium is almost all imported at this point and that’s a main component in the lithium-ion batteries that now dominate the market.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the source of the majority of the world’s available cobalt. And unfortunately labor abuses are rampant there and poorly regulated pollution is now a leading cause of birth defects in children.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel and companies there have actually proposed releasing toxic waste from facilities into waters where the planet’s most biodiverse coral reefs are found.
There are other major toxic pollution problems in Chile and China as well with the production of Lithium.
But China controls nearly 80% of a global supply chain of the rare earth materials needed from everything from car batteries to iPhones, something that has caught the attention of Capitol Hill.
While in office, Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders to boost domestic production of minerals and rare earths, as well as agreements with Australia and Canada to work together on mining.
The Department of Defense announced In November a plan to turn California’s Mountain Pass mine into a flagship of the United States’ new “domestic industrial base.”
Most of the mining industry’s campaign contributions go to Republican candidates and that surely plays a part in making domestic mining a key GOP talking point but the U.S. is seeking to make clean-energy supply chains a priority in its borders.
Thea Riofrancos, a researcher on clean-energy supply chains and a political scientist at Providence College, said, “There’s this trend globally of states and firms seeing EV [electric vehicle] and battery supply chains through the lens of dominance and security, and arguing that they need to, as much as possible, onshore everything from critical materials to manufacturing to end-of-life recycling. The U.S. is part of this geopolitical dynamic.”
Granholm said, “We don’t want to be under the thumb of China or other countries that may have in it their geopolitical strategic interest to corner the market for minerals.”
She said, “I think these minerals can be mined in a responsible way, in a way that respects the environment.”
Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told the Los Angeles Times, “We shouldn’t export the sacrifices to Bolivia and Argentina. We also think that Panamint Valley is not the right place for it.”
Dozens of environmental groups and academics penned a letter to congressional leaders where they condemned provisions to boost mining in last summer’s COVID-19 relief bill, saying it was “irresponsible to talk about weakening standards and increasing domestic mining when our national treasures are being divvied up in backroom deals, without public input.”
The letter argued, “The best way to ensure a reliable supply of these critical minerals is to maintain our alliances with nations that source these minerals, while promoting public and private sector investment in research, conservation, recycling, and substitution. Ultimately, securing our supply of critical minerals has little to do with domestic mining.”
Just before Trump left office, the Bureau of Land Management approved the nation’s second-ever lithium mine in the Nevada highlands and now two activists, Max Wilbert and Will Falk, are camped there in hopes of stopping the bulldozers when they arrive.
Wilbert wrote in an op-ed for the Sierra Nevada Ally, “This is not a ‘clean transition,’ It’s a transition from one dirty industrial energy source to another.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders asked Granholm, “Do you see possibilities of us working with countries like China?” She said, “I do…But I know our eyes must be wide open.”