Can Mining save the planet?

The shift to green technologies can only happen if metals like lithium are mined much more extensively. Can the mining industry, traditionally associated with a negative environmental impact, rise to meet the challenge?

Can Mining save the planet?

In an article for Greenwire, Jael Holzman opines that climate change has rapidly pushed the US towards the adoption of new technologies. Holzman also argues that despite their ideological differences, people across the political spectrum agree that the country needs more mines. 

What isn’t clear, however, is exactly how many more mines are needed. Electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels etc. can only be made through minerals ranging from graphite to tellurium. Some of these minerals can only be found in small pockets of the world. Others, such as lithium, need to be mined much more extensively to sustain a world without fossil fuels.

Innovations in technology are already making certain minerals obsolete. For instance, nickel and cobalt were considered indispensable for the green revolution until fairly recently. However, the batteries of many new Teslas on the market do not incorporate these minerals. 

Similarly, with many nations pushing for more robust recycling systems, manufacturers have found an alternative source of metals. This will reduce, without completely eliminating, their dependence on mining. 

When put together, all of these factors have created a fair amount of uncertainty in the Biden administration about the best way forward. Policymakers have been forced to question where and how fast new mining can be permitted. There have also been calls to streamline permitting reviews. 

The conundrum of course arises from the fact that opening up untouched landscapes and culturally sensitive areas might just create new pollution problems from a sector that has traditionally been associated with a significant risk for 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.

The recent climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act has ramped up the debate.  With the passing of this act, the need for domestically produced or processed minerals went from being an abstract concept to a concrete requirement.

The law ties a tax credit worth $7,500 for the purchase of an electric car with the origins of its parts. Simply put, if an American consumer wishes to avail the full credit, the minerals in the EV’s battery would have to come from the US or from a country with which the US has a free trade agreement. Furthermore, the car cannot include any parts which are made from minerals mined or processed in China or Russia.

Democrats included this mandate in the tax credit at the behest of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) who has long advocated for reducing US dependence on minerals produced by its political adversaries. However, Manchin’s language demands a supply chain that does not currently exist. This means that a host of new mines and mineral processing facilities will have to be constructed so that EVs can benefit from the full tax credit.

Democrats have also added other incentives for mining in the climate law to pave the way for US independence from China as the country shifts away from oil and gas. For instance, any mining operation digging up minerals needed by green tech manufacturers will be given a 10 percent tax break. 

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The Pentagon also received more than $500 million in added funding to a wartime account which was opened by Biden for spending on mining activities. Getting minerals on home turf is expected to protect the US from price shocks like the one inflicted on commodity prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For the time being, determining the number of mines needed to sustain the transition to green energy seems to be a guessing game. Different stakeholders have suggested different figures. For instance, mining industry data firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimated in September that 336 mines would need to be opened globally by 2035 to ensure that EVs and energy storage batteries keep growing. 

However, the International Energy Agency in its own recent analysis outlined that innovations in battery designs would mean that the world would need fewer new mines. The IEA concluded that roughly 117 lithium, cobalt, and nickel mines would have to open to feed the EV market by 2030. It is important to note that, unlike Benchmark, IEA did not study how many more mines would be needed to produce graphite – a mineral used for battery anodes.

Apart from innovation, recycling is also expected to play a key role in climate action. This is because demand for green products is expected to rise much faster than the rate at which mine sites can produce minerals. Biden has already allocated money for recycling projects that focus on minerals – including the $335 million which were recently announced by the Energy Department.

Europe has gone a few steps further than the US on this front. In March, the European Union proposed rules that would need batteries to have a minimum number of recycled components. It also imposed material collection targets which would ensure that a larger number of used products are recycled. These rules still have to be negotiated with EU member governments.

There are, of course, limits to what recycling can achieve. For instance, Hans Eric Melin – the founder of intelligence firm Circular Energy Storage – stated that there simply wasn’t enough metal in circulation to be recycled in a way that would allow us to transition away from fossil fuels. “In terms of recycling, you are only able to recycle what is there,” Melin said.

For instance, lithium poses a significant problem. According to a recent study published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling; only 7 to 8 percent of US lithium demand could be met with reused materials by 2035. If we are aiming to deal with changing climate swiftly, more lithium mining will have to happen.

Perhaps we can take inspiration from the example of cobalt which used to be in high demand as it protected batteries from overheating. However, human rights concerns about the mining of the material in the Democratic Republic of Congo triggered investments in battery research. Today, automakers are increasingly swapping cobalt-heavy batteries for ones which do not rely on the material. 

As Kwasi Ampofo, head of metals and mining for BloombergNEF, points out, “What we’ve learned from cobalt over the last four years is that demand can also respond. Human ingenuity knows no bounds.”

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