Now is the time for environmentalists to be vocal advocates of mining for minerals needed to make batteries for electric cars and solar and wind power. Also, they must join in a political coalition with miners and automobile workers to turn the tide in the climate fight.
The idea is unlikely to draw cheers from the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council — or even the National Wildlife Federation, which has alternately cheered and panned mining policies. With their continuing faith in the integrity and even competence of large segments of the American public, I am convinced that environmentalists could help bolster mining in America and build a coalition with labor for climate action.
More than ever, we need the environmental community to take more forceful stands in support of mining minerals like lithium, cobalt and rare earths. The last thing we can afford is a severe shortage of critical raw materials needed to transition to clean energy technologies.
My prescription doesn’t square with the views of many environmentalists. Since President Biden greenlighted a massive oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, frustration with the continued production of fossil fuels has been building in the environmental community. However, confrontation is not the direction environmental groups should take. Its leaders know the planet is on an environmental precipice. They are no less aware that antagonisms would gravely impede attempts to meet the administration’s goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and preventing the worst effects of climate change.
The planet’s future is more important than maintaining the standard environmentalist stance on mining. It’s not enough for environmentalists to say mining comes with consequences; everything comes with consequences. They should support mining. The reason is that whatever risks go with a domestic mine are local, while carbon pollution is global in its effect.
Something else: The problem is not that mining is messy. The problem is that importing minerals is cheaper. But no nation that has been dependent on China for vital minerals like rare earths wants to remain so because it gets used as a political weapon.
China has a grip on the global extraction and processing of rare earths and most battery metals. It recently cut off exports of two minerals essential for producing superconductor chips. It could do the same with battery metals.
What’s more, global demand for metals like lithium, cobalt and nickel is expected to skyrocket within a decade. Right now, the United States is a bit player in producing battery metals. We have one lithium mine, one cobalt mine, one nickel mine, one rare earth mine. Phosphate and manganese are imported.
Domestic copper production is tapering due to rising costs and scarcity of appropriate mine sites. That realization has battery and electric car manufacturers trying to build supply chains wherever possible.
But we live in fierce competition for minerals in world markets. One reason Australia and Canada — two countries with environmental standards comparable to our own — have been able to increase mineral production is that they have an efficient permitting process that takes four years instead of the more than 10 years that has become standard in the United States. In fact, it takes an average of 20 years for a U.S. mine to reach full production. No question, a streamlined permitting process could make a big difference.
With global warming, we’re facing long-term problems and solutions. Accomplishing what is needed will be much less complicated if environmentalists do the right thing and call for expediting mine permitting so that mines and processing facilities can open.
While the politics may be uncertain, it’s clear what should be done to boost mineral production. The critical thing is sharply increased public involvement by the environmentalists in everything from mine permitting to minerals to political action. The need for a secure supply of critical minerals — and cooperation with miners and auto workers — is too vital for passivity. It requires decisiveness.