If the United States is serious about going clean and green, it’s going to have get a little dirty through energy-intensive mining to tap minerals for technologies like lithium-ion batteries, wind turbines and solar farms.
It sets up a strange tension.
Observers of President Joe Biden’s climate and conservation agenda fear his goals of deploying more clean energy and conserving 30% of the nation’s lands are at odds with one another, setting the country up to fail in its quest for more critical minerals.
One such example of the dilemma is southern Utah’s Colt Mesa, which was removed from within the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument under the Trump administration and stands to be swept back in under Biden.
Nick Proctor, who with his father owns the Colt Mesa’s mining claims, said the area contains grades of cobalt at higher concentrations than cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces more than 60% of the world’s supply via thousands of child laborers.
In fact, some of the world’s largest tech companies like Tesla and Apple are being sued by families of dead or injured children from Congo who worked in the mines. The litigation asserts the companies’ unquenched thirst for cobalt — necessary in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries — is fostering human rights abuses.
Demands of clean energy
But as technology expands to other countries and the electric vehicle market ramps up (Biden wants to deploy more than a half-million new charging stations and get light duty and passenger vehicles to zero emissions) the demand for cobalt is only going to grow.
A World Bank report estimates that by 2050 demand for cobalt will increase by 585% and lithium demand will increase by 965%.
That demand is complicated by what countries control supply and what countries control the subsequent processing of the minerals and elements.
And it is not the United States.
When it comes to cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements, the world’s top three producers control over three-quarters of the global output. China dominates the market globally for rare earth elements and for mineral processing, and according to the International Energy Administration, it has banned exports of rare earth elements.
That puts U.S. defense interests in harm’s way given these elements are used in a variety of manufacturing, including for sophisticated military equipment like jet engines such as F-35 fighter jets housed at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, cobalt-based super alloys are ideal for jet engines because of their stability at high temperatures.
The NIMBY syndrome
Although Proctor said there has been some investor interest in his mining claims for copper, nickel and cobalt, the tenuous political status of the area, coupled with pushback from environmental groups, has dampened additional exploration.
“What perplexes me is the NIMBY environmental pushback that Colt Mesa has received, despite it containing high grades of clean energy metals. I would hope that this is mere ignorance regarding clean energy technology,” he said, “otherwise, it would reveal that these folks are less concerned about the environment than they profess. It’s not as though you can will these minerals to be deposited in some other preferable location; they are deposited where they are deposited.”
But Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the Proctors knew what they were getting into when they bought the claims right after the monument was downsized with the possibility the monument would be restored.
“Grand Staircase is a world-class outdoor museum and is simply the wrong place for this type of development.”
Proctor has worked with Utah GOP Rep. Chris Stewart’s office to flag the issue for the U.S. Department of Interior as it mulls the fate of the monument.
“If the United States actually intends to have a strong, domestic supply of energy metals for the green revolution, then this deposit ought to be permitted to be studied for its economic and technical feasibility,” Proctor insists.
The Interior Department, coincidentally, has identified a list of 35 critical minerals necessary for the nation’s security and economic prosperity, including cobalt, lithium, tellurium and helium — in which, again, in Utah, an exploratory effort for helium came under intense criticism by conservation groups.
Hands off public lands?
In April, Stewart introduced the “Ensuring Access to Domestic Mineral Production Act,” which would prohibit the Interior secretary from withdrawal of any lands until a study has been completed that demonstrates U.S. national security would not be jeopardized.
Stewart said such an analysis is vital given Biden’s plan to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands by 2030, a goal he and others fear will unfairly impact the West given its vast public lands.
The Utah congressman added that he has “no doubt” Colt Mesa will be returned to the monument’s boundaries, which he says illustrates the disconnect in the Biden administration as it pursues a completely net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
Similar conflict is playing out in Minnesota, where environmental groups opposed to a copper mine are putting pressure on the Biden administration to derail the effort.
The Biden administration, in fact, has already paused a proposed Rio Tinto copper mine in Arizona, reversing a Trump-era decision in favor of more government analysis. Multiple environmental groups and Native Americans are opposed to the mine, which could potentially supply a quarter of the nation’s demand for copper.
Stewart, noting these conflicts, emphasized the pressure for new energy-intensive mining will only grow, and that naturally puts clean energy demand for minerals at odds with environmental opponents.
“We have to be honest with the American people and say we can move toward this clean energy economy and cut emissions, which I agree with, but we are going to have to expand mining,” Stewart said. “If we want to cut emissions by using these alternative sources of energy, we have to recognize this is the price we have to pay.”
Bloch said he does not disavow the need for more mining.
“I don’t dispute that as a nation the Biden administration will have to be thoughtful and deliberate about how these projects move forward,” he said, “but having a mine at Grand Staircase is not that place.”
Bloch did note efforts to mine lithium as a byproduct of mining magnesium or potash in Utah, and Energy Fuels has started to produce vanadium, another critical mineral, at its White Mesa Mill in San Juan County.
To get to clean energy materials, mining produces its own environmental impacts, including emissions. The International Energy Administration points out risks associated with inadequate waste and water management and inadequate worker safety in some countries that include human rights abuses and corruption. The agency also stressed it takes an average of 16 to 18 years from the time a resource is discovered to actual production.
Despite these hurdles, in the global move to cut emissions, the World Bank and others say the appetite for these minerals will not diminish, especially in resource-rich countries looking to expand their economies.
The IEA report says the mineral requirement for new power generation has risen 50% on a global scale since 2010 and millions upon millions of more rock will need to be moved.
‘Mine’ boggling numbers
In an analysis he compiled and later submitted to the U.S. State Department, the numbers Michael Moats revealed are incredible.
Moats, a professor of metallurgical engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology and director of the university’s O’Keefe Institute, looked at how much ore would have to be mined under a couple of different metrics to reach the 2-degree scenario — which is the global community’s accepted limitation of temperature growth to keep global climate change in check.
The amount of ore needed to be mined for 20 million metric tons of lithium — which the World Bank says is needed by 2050 to meet clean energy demands — would require moving 1.4 billion cubic meters of rock. Moats said that is the equivalent of digging 900 holes the size of Melbourne Cricket Ground, the largest stadium in the Southern Hemisphere and the 11th largest in the world.
Along with lithium, to get the necessary copper, iron, aluminum and nickel, Moats said the World Bank numbers show that the volume of open pit mines needed to extract these resources will be the equivalent of digging a hole the size of Delaware to the depth of 9.5 feet, or between 6,000 and 12,000 holes the size of Melbourne Cricket Ground.
“It is astounding,” he said. “As Americans if we want green energy, do we want control over how people pollute to produce those materials for green energy? If we do, we need to have those smelters and mines located in this country so they can be held to the highest environmental standards and be economical,” Moats said. “If we really want to do this, you also have to deal with the dirtiness of it.”
Moat said the Biden administration is aware of the dilemma, but he is not sure to what extent. He testified May 18 before the House Committee on Natural Resources to help inform political leaders as they grapple with what a green energy future means.
John Baza, director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said the federal government needs to rethink its approach when it comes to the green energy revolution and its desire to set aside land.
“The goals are not necessarily opposed to each other, they are at cross purposes,” he said. “These critical minerals are necessary for all this renewable energy infrastructure.”
Baza pointed out that what Proctor said about the location of these minerals is absolutely something the country needs to acknowledge.
“You can’t really predict where these deposits are going to occur. Lithium is deposited over millions of years and it will be where it will be. The country needs to come to terms with that.”
Baza does believe with a smart, thoughtful approach it is possible to expand renewable energy without ruining the environment.
“I think it is important the world take a holistic view. It is not a zero-sum game. You don’t develop one at the expense of the other,” he said.