Race for EV batteries pits conservationists towards inexperienced vitality | Automotive Business Information
Last September, in the dry hills of northern Nevada, USA, a group of flowers that had not been found anywhere else on earth mysteriously died overnight.
Conservationists were quick to suspect ioneer Ltd, an Australian company looking to mine the lithium beneath the flowers for use in electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
A conservation group alleged in a lawsuit that the flowers, known as Tiehm’s buckwheat, had been “dug up and destroyed”. The rare plant posed a problem for ioneer as US officials may soon add it to the endangered species list, which could bring the mining project to a standstill.
The company denies harming the flowers. The cause of death is still controversial – as is the fate of the lithium mine.
The clash of environmental priorities that underpin Tiehm’s buckwheat struggle – conservation versus green energy – is a microcosm of a much larger political dilemma for President Joe Biden’s new administration who has made great promises to environmentalists, working groups and others who do benefit from the promotion of mining.
To please conservationists, Biden has vowed to dedicate at least 30 percent of the US state and coastal areas for conservation purposes.
However, that goal could run counter to its promises to accelerate vehicle electrification and reduce the country’s reliance on China for rare earths, lithium, and other minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries. The government has identified trust in China as a national security threat.
The administration will be forced to make difficult decisions that will upset one constituency or another.
“You can’t have green energy without mining,” said Mark Senti, general manager of Florida-based rare earth magnet company Advanced Magnet Lab Inc. “That’s just the reality.”
Increasing lithium production is inevitable as more companies manufacture electric vehicles [File: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg]Rare earth magnets are used in a variety of consumer electronics, as well as precision-guided missiles and other weapons.
Two sources familiar with the White House’s domestic mining considerations told Reuters that Biden plans to develop mines that produce EV metals under existing environmental standards rather than facing a tightened process that is beneficial for the Mining other materials like coal would apply. Biden is open to allowing more mines on state, the sources said, but will not give the industry permission to dig everywhere.
That will likely mean approving rare earth and lithium mines – though certain copper projects such as a proposed Rio Tinto Plc copper mine in Arizona that Native Americans are opposed to are likely to face additional scrutiny – the sources say.
The White House declined to comment on this article.
The demand for metals for EV batteries is expected to grow sharply as automakers like Tesla Inc, BMW, and General Motors plan major expansions to EV production. California, the largest U.S. vehicle market, plans to completely ban fossil fuel engines by 2035.
Biden has promised to convert the entire U.S. government fleet – approximately 640,000 vehicles – to electric vehicles. That plan alone could require a 12-fold increase in US lithium production by 2030, as well as an increase in domestic copper, nickel and cobalt production, according to Benchmark Minerals Intelligence. According to the US Geological Survey, states are teeming with many of these EV metals.
“Not enough raw materials are currently being produced to replace millions of gasoline-powered vehicles with electric vehicles,” said Lewis Black, CEO of Almonty Industries Inc, which mines the hardening metal tungsten in Portugal and South Korea.
Despite this shortcoming, the planned US mines of Rio Tinto Ltd., BHP Group Ltd., Antofagasta Plc, Lithium Americas Corp., Glencore Plc and others are met with fierce opposition from conservation groups. The projects would provide enough lithium for more than 5 million EV batteries and enough copper for more than 10,000 EVs per year.
Mining companies insist that states can continue to be protected while the US increases production of minerals needed to accelerate the EV transition.
Former US President Donald Trump and the mining industry “pushed for the story that we have to mine and undercut environmental protection everywhere to build more batteries,” said Drew McConville of the Wilderness Society, a conservation group. “We are confident that the Biden government will see through this false story.”
Earthworks and other environmental groups are now campaigning to ensure that automakers only buy metals from mines that have been classified as environmentally friendly by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), a nonprofit group. BMW, Ford Motor Co and Daimler have agreed to adhere to IRMA guidelines, and other automakers could follow suit.
Biden has failed to weigh two controversial copper mining projects in Minnesota’s environmentally sensitive Boundary Waters region by PolyMet Mining Corp and Antofagasta Plc’s Twin Metals subsidiary.
Tom Vilsack – the agriculture minister who oversees the border waters – has spoken out against the Twin Metals project in the past, arguing that it threatens wilderness and marshland.
Deb Haaland, the new Secretary of the Interior, the division that controls most of the states, previously voted for a bill that would have banned the mining of copper sulfide in northern Minnesota. This bill, drafted by US Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, will be reintroduced this month, her aides told Reuters.
Nonetheless, conservationists are concerned that the appeal of copper to electric vehicles and other renewable energy devices could help the mines eventually get approved.
“If these were coal mines, I’d be a lot more comfortable knowing they weren’t going to be approved,” said Pete Marshall of Friends of the Boundary Waters.
Impact on Holy Places
In Arizona, Biden promised Native Americans – whose votes had helped him win the battlefield state – that they would have a “seat at the table” if he defeated Trump. Many Native Americans fear that the Rio Tinto proposed Resolution copper mine could destroy sacred sites believed to be the home of religious deities.
On Monday afternoon, Biden government officials blocked a land swap that Rio needs to build the mine. Trump officials had previously approved this land swap.
Other controversial projects include Idaho’s proposed Stibnite Mine owned by John Paulson’s Perpetua Resources Corp., which is being re-examined by US Environmental Protection Agency officials over fears of polluting Native American fishing grounds. The mine would produce gold and antimony that are used to make alloys for EV batteries.
Many Native Americans fear that mining would destroy places sacred to their deities [File: Deanna Dent/Reuters]In Nevada, the Department of Wildlife fears that the lithium mines planned by Lithium Americas and other lithium mines could damage the habitats of trout, deer and pronghorn. The Lithium Americas mine received federal approval last month, but ranchers have sued the U.S. government to have that decision reversed.
“Renewable energies and electric cars are not environmentally friendly if they destroy an important habitat and promote wildlife extinction,” said Kelly Fuller of the Western Watersheds Project, which opposes the Lithium Americas project.
In Nevada, the death of Tiehm’s buckwheat flowers on ioneer’s proposed mine site remains controversial. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said thirsty squirrels may have gnawed the roots of more than 17,000 flowers for water during a drought in the state.
The Biodiversity Center, which opposes the mine, said there was evidence that people destroyed the flowers. “The targeted nature of the damage, combined with the lack of feces, paw prints, hoof prints, or other evidence of wildlife, suggests human involvement,” the group said in a court case.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will decide this summer whether the flower is an critically endangered species – a designation that would prevent the development of much of the land that the pioneer is trying to mine.
Ioneer has hired scientists to move the flowers to a new location, though it’s unclear whether the process will be successful. “We can extract this lithium and save this flower too,” said James Calaway, chairman of the pioneer.