How much mining is needed to save the planet?

As climate change pushes the United States toward faster adoption of new technologies, many Republicans and Democrats are in rare agreement on one key point: This country needs more mines.

But exactly how much new mining is required for the energy transition is unclear.

Electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels are made from a variety of minerals – from graphite to tellurium – that are currently only available in a few corners of the world. Some of these minerals aren’t extracted enough to feed a powered world without fossil fuels — especially lithium, a vital metal for electric vehicles and other battery-based products.

For this reason alone, new mines will have to open, experts say.

However, innovations in technology have already made some metals irreplaceable – and could eventually render them obsolete. Many of the new Teslas products sold on the market today have batteries that are free of nickel or cobalt, two metals that until recently were thought to be essential to green products.

At the same time, countries are racing to create robust recycling systems that can help feed used metals back into the hands of manufacturers, which will reduce – but not eliminate – new mining demand.

All of this creates a great deal of uncertainty as the Biden administration and policymakers consider where to allow new mining and weigh how quickly they should push it forward, perhaps even streamlining permit reviews. The danger for the United States is to open up untouched landscapes and culturally sensitive areas to mines, under the auspices of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, only to create new pollution problems from a sector that inherently carries potential environmental hazards.

“This is really a dilemma,” said Henry Lee, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “It’s not like calculating the distance between here and Pluto. These things are going to change.”

The recent release of the climate-focused inflation-reduction law has sparked controversy, as the need for locally produced or processed minerals has moved from an abstract concept to a concrete requirement.

The law tied a $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of an electric vehicle to the vehicle’s parts assets. If a US consumer wants to use the full credit, the electric car battery will need minerals from the United States or a country that has a US Free Trade Agreement. The vehicle also cannot contain any parts made of metals that have been mined or processed in China or Russia.

Democrats put that mandate into the tax credit at the request of Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), who has long expressed frustration that the United States is so dependent on minerals produced by political opponents.

Mansion’s language advocated a non-existent supply chain, which meant that new mines and mineral processing facilities had to be built for electric vehicles to receive the full tax credit.

Democrats also put other incentives for more mining in climate law, saying it would help provide the United States with independence from China as the country moves away from oil and gas. Any rock mining operation desired by green tech manufacturers will get a 10 percent tax break. The Pentagon has secured more than $500 million in additional funding to account for the wartime Biden has opened up to spend on mining activities.

With new US mines coming new jobs for a group of blue-collar miners who have seen unemployment rise due to the switch away from coal power. Having minerals at home would also mean that green products are less susceptible to price shocks, as happened when commodity prices plummeted after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Building a maze of mines across the country would have sober trade-offs.

The companies insist that the re-emergence of mining in America will be much cleaner than in past decades. But industry advances cannot change the geological reality that the minerals required to make green technologies are in sensitive parts of the United States, including nearby ecosystems and Native American communities. In Nevada alone, two major lithium projects have sparked battles over endangered species, water use, and indigenous rights. A broader mining boom may give rise to these conflicts on a national scale.

Critics say environmental concerns about the rapid intensification of the mining sector have not received sufficient attention during negotiations on climate law. Billy Fleming, an environmental expert who served on the White House Domestic Policy Council under former President Barack Obama, said Democrats did not appear to have considered the risks when they boosted the industry.

“He doesn’t even ask the important questions,” Fleming said.

Inventing the way

Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. | International Institute for Environment and Development / Flickr

How many mines will we need for the climate? Solving this puzzle may seem like a guessing game.

In September, mining industry data firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence came up with an answer as to how many mines it needs to open globally for electric vehicles and energy storage batteries to keep growing. After taking a look at the mines that produce minerals for today’s battery market, its estimate was 336 mines by 2035.

“You will need to mine in this kind of stage of increased demand for the EV revolution,” said Henry Sanderson, executive editor of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

But in its latest analysis, the International Energy Agency indicated that changing battery designs could result in the world needing fewer new mines.

The International Energy Agency has concluded that approximately 117 lithium, cobalt, and nickel mines will have to open to feed the electric vehicle market by 2030. Contrary to the benchmark, the IEA has not analyzed the number of mines needed to produce graphite, a metal used in battery anodes.

If companies make more batteries without cobalt or nickel, the IEA said the shift would take dozens of projects out of the picture.

“Although we expect some new mining investment to be a requirement, this does not mean that we are only focusing on investing in new mines,” said Tae-yun Kim, energy analyst at the International Energy Agency.

Cobalt, a bluish metal used as a cathode, is in high demand, as it can protect against overheating of batteries. This is changing due to human rights concerns about cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has sparked investments in battery research. Now automakers are increasingly replacing heavy-duty cobalt batteries with batteries that don’t use cobalt or nickel, a metal used in cells to store more energy.

“The technology may improve faster than we expected,” Kim said.

Companies still plan to use batteries that contain nickel and cobalt because they have a higher voltage limit and can store more energy. But they plan to use a much smaller number of them. BloombergNEF, an energy research firm, recently cut its forecast for cobalt demand by half from 2019 levels, citing progress made by automakers on mineral supply issues without new mining.

The example of cobalt shows that new mines are not the only solution, said Kwasi Ambovo, head of minerals and mining at BloombergNEF.

“What we have learned from cobalt over the past four years is that demand can also respond. Human ingenuity knows no bounds.”

incomplete transmission

FILE - Discarded cell phones fill a container at Out Of Use's warehouse in Beringen, Belgium on July 13, 2018. Interest in lithium has exploded in recent years due to its use in rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars, lawn mowers, power tools and more.  Lithium batteries also power laptops and cell phones.  (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, file)
Discarded cell phones fill a container at the warehouse of Out Of Use company in Beringen, Belgium, in 2018. | Gert Vanden Weigengart/Associated Press Photo

Besides innovation, recycling can play a role in reducing the need for new mining, especially when it comes to minerals that are difficult to engineer. According to the International Energy Agency, recycling will be “crucial” for climate action because the demand for green products may rise faster than the pace of production at the mine sites.

Recycling is a constant part of how metallic waste is dealt with in the United States, as well as with chemicals, plastics, and paper. But many environmentalists believe that this system fails to increase the amount of waste the economy reuses and requires significant expansion.

Biden has provided money for metal recycling projects, including $335 million recently announced by the Department of Energy.

Europe has gone further. The European Union in March proposed rules requiring batteries to contain a minimum amount of recycled content and imposing material collection targets to ensure that more used products are recycled. These rules have yet to be negotiated with EU member governments.

But there are limits here, too.

Hans-Erik Mellen, founder of the intelligence firm Circular Energy Storage, makes a living by providing companies and individuals with industry data about the full life cycle of batteries used in electric vehicles and power grids. There simply isn’t enough metal available for recycling to drive the transition away from fossil fuels, he said.

“In terms of recycling, you can only recycle what is there,” Mellen said.

A big problem is lithium, which is an essential element for charging the battery.

In the early 2000s, lithium prices fell and mines closed. Today the United States is home to only one lithium mine – Silver Peak in Nevada, which is operated by Albemarle Corp.

Then came the advent of lithium-powered batteries that are used in consumer technology such as smartphones, laptops, and now electric cars. Experts say the demand for lithium could rise dramatically as sales of electric cars increase, but production isn’t coming online fast enough.

Global demand for lithium will increase by up to six times the current level, according to the International Energy Agency, which expects to build about 50 new lithium mines to meet that demand.

As with cobalt and nickel, lithium-free batteries are a potential option. Chinese battery company Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Last year, batteries used sodium instead of lithium. But engineers are still working on general performance issues for sodium-based batteries. For now at least, lithium is set to be the preferred choice for automakers.

Recycling a way out of the lithium supply problem is not viable because there is not enough battery material in today’s economy to fuel the rapidly increasing demand.

A recent study was published in Resources, conservation and recycling It is estimated that by 2035 only 7 percent to 8 percent of lithium demand in the United States can be met by recycled materials. Alyssa Kendall, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and one of the researchers behind the study said that more recycling infrastructure will be built in this country and elsewhere over the coming decades, making new mines less important in the future.

However, if the rapidly changing climate is addressed, more lithium mining will have to occur, she said.

Kendall expressed concern about talking too much about “transition technology impacts” such as mining without “coupling it against the current company” — fossil fuels and the greenhouse emissions they generate.

“We’re doing this because we need to,” she said. “The fear I have is that we’re checking the electric vehicle supply chain because it’s really important…but we have to tie that to a reminder that the supply chains we’re trying to eliminate have massive environmental impacts.”

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