In December 2021, President Joe Biden has signed an executive order requiring the federal fleet of 600,000 vehicles to go zero emissions by 2035 as part of an effort to leverage government purchasing power to ‘catalyze the US economy clean energy”. The massive federal government purchase is aimed at helping manufacturers move away from internal combustion engines and toward electric vehicle production.
If Biden is successful, half of the 17 million cars and trucks sold in the United States in 2030 will be electric. And even if its order is reversed by a subsequent administration, the International Energy Agency predicts market-driven demand will drive a similar number of new electric vehicles onto the road, dramatically reducing tailpipe emissions, pollution and global greenhouse gas emissions – as long as fossil fuels don’t dominate car-charging grids.
But it will also dramatically increase demand for so-called energy transition minerals that go into electric vehicles, their batteries and charging infrastructure – lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare earth elements. Currently, these minerals are largely mined outside the United States, in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, etc. But with the expected ramp-up of electric vehicle manufacturing, auto and mining industry officials are calling on the federal government to streamline mining permits to bring the supply chain closer to home. Projected demand and rising metal prices are breathing new life into western copper mines and spurring dozens of proposals for new mines from Wyoming to Oregon and Nevada to Arizona.
Projected demand and rising metal prices are breathing new life into western copper mines and spurring dozens of proposals for new mines from Wyoming to Oregon and Nevada to Arizona.
These minerals, also used in wind turbines and solar panels, are sometimes called “greenstone”. But more often than not, their extraction is anything but green. Copper ore is mined from vast open pits, visible from space as intricate scars on the landscape. All metal mining tends to facilitate a chemical reaction that causes acid mine drainage, which can foul rivers and harm fish and other aquatic life. Cobalt mining can release radioactive and carcinogenic particles, while lithium mining sucks billions of gallons of water from the ground and sewage disposal can contaminate drinking water aquifers.
Efforts are underway to minimize environmental impacts. In California’s Salton Sea, companies hope to harness wastewater from geothermal power generation for lithium. Global mining giant Rio Tinto extracts lithium from the waste of its gaping boron mine in California’s Mojave Desert; if the pilot project proves feasible, it could produce lithium without the need for new mining. Innovators are working on lithium-free batteries, and in Nevada, one of Tesla’s founders has spent millions of dollars developing ways to recycle electric vehicle batteries.
Idaho: Perpetua Resources plans to build an open pit gold and antimony mine in the former Stibnite mining district east of McCall. Historic mining in the area has ravaged the landscape and degraded water quality, harming the salmon on which the Nez Percé people depend. Tribal members fear the new mine will bring its own problems. Perpetua says she plans to restore the river and improve water quality.
Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho: Australian company Jervois Global has started work on the country’s only active underground cobalt mine, just outside Frank Church Wilderness. The Idaho Conservation League dropped its opposition years ago after developers agreed to treat water in perpetuity and store waste safely to protect downstream water quality.
Col Thacker, Nevada: Proposed by the Canadian company Lithium Americas, this open pit mine would target one of the largest lithium deposits in the country. The Reno-Sparks Indian Settlement and the Northern Paiute Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (Red Mountain People) group oppose the project, which is on tribal land and was the site of two massacres of Indigenous people in the 1800s. The project would use about 1.7 billion gallons of water per year.
Salton Sea, California: Australia’s Controlled Thermal Resources, with backing from General Motors, is drilling deep under the Salton Sea to produce geothermal energy from superheated water. The company plans to mine the wastewater for lithium.
Boron, California: Mining giant Rio Tinto extracts lithium from waste rock in its huge boron mine in the Californian desert. It hopes to reach commercial production levels this year.
Oregon: Although there are no active nickel mining proposals in the West, deposits are scattered throughout the region. In the 1980s, the Nickel Mountain mine in southern Oregon was the nation’s only combined nickel mine and smelter, but it closed due to falling prices.
Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona: Canada’s Hudbay hopes to capitalize on the expected rise in copper demand with its proposed Rosemont open-pit mine south of Tucson. Hudbay’s website states that “copper mined at Rosemont will support a cleaner, more interconnected economy.” The proposal has encountered regulatory and legal hurdles in recent months, and its fate remains uncertain.
RARE EARTH ELEMENTS
Mountain Pass, California: The country’s only operating rare earth mine is in the Clark Mountains near the Nevada border. During the 1980s and 1990s, the mine was plagued with pipeline ruptures, hazardous waste spills, and other environmental issues.
Mount Bokan, Alaska: UCore Rare Metals Alaska is slowly working to develop a rare earth mine in Southeast Alaska on Prince of Wales Island.
Mountain Bear Lodge, Wyoming: After beginning exploratory drilling for rare earth metals at this northeastern Wyoming site near Sundance, Rare Element Resources suspended its permit application with the US Forest Service in 2016, citing low metal prices and the lack of funding.
White Mesa, Utah Plant: The only operating uranium plant in the United States, located in southeastern Utah, has been retrofitted to also process rare earth elements.
Carson City, Nevada: A study last year found that recycled used batteries could supply more than half of the world’s demand for cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel by 2040, reducing the need for new mines. Redwood Materials, based in Nevada and run by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, claims it can recover more than 95% of critical minerals from recycled batteries. The company recently announced that it will produce recycled copper foil for Panasonic for use in battery anodes manufactured at the Tesla Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada.
We welcome letters from readers. Jonathan Thompson is editor of High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a remote Utah county became America’s public land battlefront. Email him at [email protected] or send a letter to the editor. See our Letters to the Editor Policy.
Illustrations by Emily Poole/High Country News
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
Sources: US Geological Survey, Ucore Rare Metals Inc., Idaho Mountain Express, Jervois Global, Perpetua Resources, Los Angeles Times, Energy Fuels, S&P Global, Bureau of Land Management, Earthworks, International Energy Agency, Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, Hudbay, Environmental Science and Technology, Pew Research Center.