The energy transition involves more than a move away from high-carbon fuels to low- and zero-carbon fuels. It also entails the fundamental reorganization of the global economy around so-called critical minerals—the metals and other raw materials needed to build electric cars, solar panels, power lines, and other technologies that cut carbon emissions.
At the risk of stating the obvious, mines are needed to produce critical minerals, and right now, United States doesn’t have enough mines meet the demands of the energy transition—not even close.
While the United States also has to work closely with allies to secure the supply chains for these materials, something has to change at home, too.
Like many other U.S. industries, mining was largely outsourced to other parts of the world during the late twentieth century. As a result, global markets for most in-demand minerals are now dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, of the 50 critical minerals listed by the U.S. government, China is the top producer of 30 of them.
“For most critical minerals, the United States is heavily reliant on foreign sources for its consumption requirements,” a U.S. Geological Survey report said. It further reported that domestic metals production fell 6 percent in 2022.
Simply stated, the United States needs to build new mines and expand existing mines in the United States. Rather than stop digging, the United States needs to start.
To be sure, it will not be easy. Before the passage of landmark environmental laws in the 1970s, including the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act, the U.S. mining sector was known for polluting practices and indifference to the concerns of neighboring communities. Public anger and distrust proved to be a major factor in the offshoring of U.S. mining after the 1970s. This was understandable, but there were unintended consequences.
An “out of sight, out of mind” approach to metals and other mineral commodities took hold, giving tacit approval to toxic waste dumping, the use of child labor, and other reprehensible mining practices abroad.
Today, there is an opportunity to write a new chapter for the U.S. mining sector, in which the some of the raw materials for advanced energy technologies are produced here, under close scrutiny, subject to the most protective standards in the world and—above all—with strong public support.
The complicated history of mineral extraction in this country must be addressed fully and forthrightly, but it cannot be used as an excuse to keep saying no. At this point there doesn’t seem to be a mine on federal land that is not facing opposition, delays, or rejection.
Fortunately, there are already some promising examples of this new approach to mining in the United States.
A Sense of Patriotism
In southeast Nebraska, for example, the developers of a mine that will produce materials for electric-vehicle batteries have built a strong base of support in the local community. As reported by the New York Times, the mine has secured all the permits it needs to start digging and the developer—Colorado-based NioCorp—is now working with the U.S. Export–Import bank to complete financing for the billion-dollar project.
The planned Elk Creek mine will produce niobium, scandium, titanium, and a series of magnetic rare earth minerals. The global market for these minerals is dominated by other countries, including China, Russia, and Brazil.
These critical minerals can be used to build the components for electric vehicle batteries, fuel cells and wind turbines. But in conservative southeast Nebraska, NioCorp has found ways to connect with people who are less concerned with the energy transition and more worried about economic issues and national security.
The minerals produced at Elk Creek will also be used to make lighter and stronger steel products for the automotive, construction, and oil and natural gas industries, and to build fighter jet engines, among other military applications.
“NioCorp is being very thoughtful in how they’re communicating with Southeast Nebraskans,” Senator Julie Slama (R-NE), who represents the Elk Creek area, said. “In Nebraska, we have a sense of patriotism and desire to serve our country.”
While the proposed mine still has its detractors, the broad-based appeal of the project has helped maintain a sufficient mass of support, also known within industry circles as the “social license to operate.”
Same Rocks, More Value
While building new mines is absolutely necessary, it will also be important to make the most of the mines the United States already has. In some cases, existing mines will be expanded, but another strategy is gaining momentum: full-value mining.
This strategy identifies new ways to get other metals and other valuable materials out of the same rocks, which improves the economics of the existing mine and reduces mining waste.
A leading example of full-value mining is taking place in Utah at the Kennecott copper mine, southwest of Salt Lake City. Last year, the mine’s owner—Rio Tinto—started producing tellurium there as well.
The tellurium, which is used to make highly efficient thin-film solar panels, was in the same rocks as the copper. But until last year, it was not cost effective to separate it out, and the tellurium was discarded along with other waste.
That changed when Rio Tinto found a U.S. buyer for the tellurium, First Solar, which builds solar panels in Ohio. The deal was “an important step towards securing a North American supply chain of critical minerals to support the clean energy transition,” the mining company said.
Old Mines, New Tricks
The idea of reprocessing piles of discarded rocks and other mine waste has also gained steam. Innovative companies like Nth Cycle and Phoenix Tailings have developed technologies that can cleanly and safely extract critical minerals from this waste.
These breakthroughs also allow for the reprocessing of waste at pre-1970s mines that were abandoned and never properly cleaned up. For example: Regeneration, a start-up mining company is scouting for locations where critical minerals can be produced from abandoned mines and other so-called legacy sites, while creating new revenue sources for cleaning up those sites.
According to Corey Fisher, the public lands policy director for Trout Unlimited, an environmental nonprofit with experience in abandoned mine restoration, the work of Regeneration and others “will help both clean up abandoned mines and recover much needed transition minerals.”
Confront the Past, Build the Future
Abandoned mines are not the only legacy to confront. The quest for mineral wealth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was especially cruel to Native American communities.
That history, and the distrust it continues to produce, should not be brushed aside in the quest to build a domestic supply chain for clean energy technologies. According to investment research firm MSCI, between 68 percent and 97 percent of U.S. cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel reserves are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations.
Changing minds about mining in Native American communities will be a massive undertaking, and there are bound to be conflicting signals along the way.
For example: Lithium Americas, the developer of a Nevada mine that will produce lithium carbonate, a key mineral in batteries, reached a “community benefits agreement” last October with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe that includes job training, local hiring, cultural education, and other initiatives. However, three others—the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe—are fighting the project in federal court, arguing they were not properly consulted.
Conflicts like these can be resolved or even avoided, but the amount of work needed should not be underestimated, according to Daniel Cardenas of the National Tribal Energy Association.
“If you want loyal and long-term mining partners who can supply the most environmentally friendly and sustainable critical minerals, start talking to the Tribes now,” Cardenas wrote on Linkedin.
A Project-by-Project Focus
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, leaders in the White House and in Congress have plowed billions of dollars into research, resource assessment, and workforce development programs focused on critical minerals since 2020.
The area of critical minerals also offers one of the rare slivers of bipartisan light. Among other things, that means allowing national security concerns—such as materials needed by the Department of Defense—to play a bigger role in the discussion, as opposed to only seeing mining through an environmental lens.
There are also promising efforts within the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill to speed up the years-long permitting process for mining projects while maintaining environmental safeguards.
These initiatives are essential, but it would be a mistake to assume that all the work to build a domestic supply chain for critical minerals can be done from Washington, D.C. in one fell swoop.
This endeavor will succeed or fail based on delivering this new positive narrative for mining. And the difference will be whether the neighbors can be persuaded that digging for critical minerals in the United States is not just good for the planet—it is good for them too.