Do you like your cellphone? Here’s why mining should not be a dirty word in the U.S.
Panel discussions hosted by the Deseret News and Utah Business put a spotlight on the importance of mining for the future
Do you like the lights on in your home or for your cellphone to work? It is a question every citizen of the United States should be asking as it looks to a future complicated by global unrest.
Two panel discussions hosted by the Deseret News and Utah Business and moderated by Deseret News executive editor Doug Wilks explored this critical issue at the Utah Mining Association’s convention Thursday in Salt Lake City.
The debut of the Discover Series by representatives of the two media brands took a deep dive into what not only affects Utah, but the Intermountain West and the nation as a whole when it comes to the energy we depend on.
First, what is the status of mining in the United States and what is its role in extracting critical minerals for the products we enjoy? And what is the status of power generation and the reliability of fuel production and the power grid connecting the country?
- It will take up to 18 years to meet the transmission line generating capacity to match energy generation needs of retiring coal-fired or gas plants.
- Utah has long been a net energy exporter of energy. Now it has to rely on other states.
- The “energy IQ” of Americans is extremely low and Utah should be prepared for rolling blackouts.
Policies have to change, and the United States and its cabinet secretaries need better cooperation, the discussion panelists said. That is not happening.
“The current place is that we are headed for a disaster,” said Mike Nasi, a national environmental attorney and energy expert. A resident of Texas, Nasi pointed to all the breakdowns that happened in Texas following a 2021 deep freeze blackout that left 10 people dead when power abruptly went offline.
Texas is No. 1 in the country in the installed capacity for wind power, with 28,843 megawatts as of 2019, but as a percentage of its total generation, the state falls to 11th place — with coal and natural gas providing the bulk of electrical generation. Wind turbines froze in Texas in 2021, but the unprecedented deep freeze also led to the failure of natural gas plants, associated with aging infrastructure, which includes pipelines that had long been neglected.
Nasi said the grid failures will only get worse, and with everyone pointing fingers at each other — the government, utility providers and energy experts — the problem will not find a solution unless there is cooperation.
“It’s not resolved, and our grid operator in Texas is projecting a 16% to 20% chance that we will have rolling outages at some level this winter. And that’s why they’re out trying to get coal and gas plants out of retirement right now,” Nasi said.
That problem with grid security is not out of the question in Utah, a state that Nasi said is a good example as it relies on an energy base load source of power that is coal. And power from coal is destined to go away under current federal regulations.
That brought this point from those on the panel: You can hate emissions, but don’t hate the fuel. The technology is there to solve the emissions problem with resolve, innovation and technology, the group said. Balance is therefore needed between all sources of energy.
So how much does your lifestyle matter?
That remans the question, panelists said.
“Since the 1980s, we’ve been an energy exporter, and now we don’t export,” said Brian Somers, head of the Utah Mining Association, adding that Utah now has to import some of its energy. “We can’t take care of our needs. And for a state like Utah that has the kind of energy resources that we do here, that is just not an acceptable situation. And it’s a problem, obviously, for our economy.”
How much do you like your cellphone?
The United States used to have uranium mines and while it still does, the production is not enough to meet technology needs today. U.S. uranium supplies mostly come from foreign countries and the nation is totally dependent on that import.
When it comes to mining for those critical minerals, it is being outsourced mostly due to regulations, a lengthy and clumsy permitting process, and a clean energy agenda that fails to recognize the growing need to mine minerals domestically, panelists said. The Biden administration wants more electric vehicles, but how does the country get there without mining?
Consider that the cellphone of yesteryear took 20 minerals in its composition. Today, it takes 70 minerals, Somers said. That is half the periodic table. Yet such a fact is not known by a public that still thinks of mining as a dirty, dangerous endeavor, rather than the high-tech, innovative profession that panelists said currently exists.
Another challenge facing the country is the lack of human capital. There is a need for engineers and others in STEM fields to go into the mining industry. Consider that China has more than a million students enrolled in mining-related classes, pointing to a mining future to meet the high-tech needs of consumers. The United States has only about 600 students, said Denee Hayes of Bijih Resource Consulting.
The U.S. has a public relations problem. She said if you want to help the environment, go into a mining profession and make a difference.
The United States, Nasi said, also has a very low energy IQ because residents think everything just comes off the shelf and they know little to nothing about the manufacturing process and where and how those minerals are sourced from foreign countries.
Celeste Maloy, an attorney and public lands specialist, and candidate for the 2nd Congressional District race, stated bluntly that the country needs to decide what it wants to be.
“So what I see coming ahead is we’ve got a decision to make. Either we need to be mining our minerals, or we have decided that national security is not important to us, and we’re willing to take a nosedive on our economy because we can’t produce the things that are necessary for the lifestyle to grow accustomed to,” Maloy said.
Does it come down to the comfort of a cellphone, tablet, laptop or car because of a disengaged public that really does not know what is at stake?
Maloy stressed an old saying to illustrate that elected leaders, industry officials, energy cooperatives, residents and even the media have to be engaged to right the wrong trajectory to combat a vulnerable grid and a mineral supply chain crisis.
“If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”