The nation’s mining of critically important battery metals has gotten a boost from an unexpected source.
Bill McKibben, arguably the most influential environmental leader in the United States, has embraced mining and called for ramping up domestic production of lithium in batteries for renewables and electric cars.
Writing in the magazine Mother Jones, McKibben, co-founder of the climate group 350.org and a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, who has spread the word on the need for climate action in an open-minded and pragmatic way, says the extreme danger of climate change requires new thinking by Greens opposed to mining and by not-in-my-backyard groups who oppose the siting of solar arrays and wind turbines.
“Saying no is relatively simple, and sometimes right,” McKibben says. “But we live in a moment when our future — and the future of everyone and everything — depends on sometimes learning to offer a resounding yes.”
In the face of climate change, McKibben says, environmentalists need to view the world afresh — combat corporate and government projects that are climate problems but “say yes to some things: solar panels and wind turbines and factories to make batteries and mines to extract lithium.”
Make no mistake, McKibben is a reluctant tolerator of mining, not an espouser. He opposes lithium mining in areas that Indigenous people consider their own. And he is concerned about Black and Latino communities whose opposition to some solar and wind projects, he says, should be given more weight in the decision-making process.
And while he recognizes the central role of government in the fight against global warming, McKibben does not say whether he favors proposed changes to the mine permitting process, something that could remove a significant obstacle to the creation of new mines and the production of vital raw materials for EV batteries and solar and wind.
Remember, even with recycling, there is no way to reduce carbon emissions to the level that the United States agreed on in the Paris climate accord unless new mines are opened.
However, McKibben lambasts those who portray themselves as environmentalists but, in reality, are obstructionists engaged in “foot-dragging,” making improper use of laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act to delay projects — even clean-energy projects like solar and wind systems and mines — until plans for them are dropped.
Today in the United States, the number of mines for battery metals is small — one each for lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earths. None for manganese or graphite. Some copper mines are nearly depleted. The International Energy Agency says global demand for battery metals, especially lithium, will skyrocket. So, to head off problems with mineral scarcity that are already reverberating around the globe, America desperately needs to start investing in its mineral resources.
Now is the time for an honest reassessment of mining. And what that reassessment would find is that we will fall short of what’s needed for the production of battery metals without action by Congress to streamline a badly flawed permitting process — one that results in long delays due to overlapping federal and state regulations and repeated environmental challenges.
The transition to a Green energy future has been blocked by regulatory ineptitude, political partisanship and misguided concepts of environmental rectitude. This is why I’m pleased to see a prominent environmental leader like McKibben embrace mining.