Before the November election, candidate Joe Biden’s campaign let it be known that the Democratic nominee would part ways with environmental activists by supporting mining in the United States for technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Unnamed sources from Team Biden told Reuters: “A Biden administration would emphasize green energy, and in order to get more solar panels, you need more raw materials. These materials don’t come out of a test tube.”
The message to lunch-bucket voters and their employers: a pragmatic old-school Democrat, Biden understood you can’t make an omelet (or electric car) without breaking eggs (or mining lithium and other necessary metals). Biden wouldn’t be one of those Democrats who hype clean energy while allowing environmental groups to block the means necessary to produce it.
It felt like the dawning of the age of Aquarius to industry.
“The Biden campaign understands the need for domestic supply chains,” Rich Nolan, head of the National Mining Association, told Reuters at the time.
A strong supply chain of critical metals and elements also happens to be essential to Biden’s push to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to half their 2005 level by 2030. That means electric cars. And that means mining.
Biden’s start looked promising. In February, the president signed an executive order to prevent supply chain disruptions, a smart response to shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers in the early COVID-19 days and later shortages of automotive semiconductor chips — which hurt automotive workers.
A fact sheet noted, “The U.S. could better leverage our sizable lithium reserves and manufacturing know-how to expand domestic battery production.”
Then, Tuesday, Reuters ran this headline: “Biden looks abroad for electric vehicle metals, in blow to U.S. miners.”
According to the report, two unnamed Biden administration officials had disclosed that the plan is to rely on “ally countries” to provide the “bulk of metals” needed to build electric vehicles, a decision meant to appease environmental groups.
The Center for Biological Diversity has opposed lithium mining in Nevada, even though lithium is essential to EV (as electric vehicles are known in wonk circles) manufacture.
Loop Capital Markets analyst Christopher Kapsch wrote of the “irony in extensive efforts by an organization professing to have the environment’s best interests in mind to halt a project that will play a meaningful role in supply the global EV industry, and thereby helping the world’s ongoing energy transition, tantamount to addressing/resolving climate change.”
And here’s the thing: EVs are going to use lithium. The only question is where manufacturers get it. Importing lithium from as far away as Australia or South America means added greenhouse gases will be released to process and transport the metal.
Before President Donald Trump approved the Thacker Pass Lithium Project during his last days in office, there was only one producing lithium mine in America, Silver Peak in Nevada.
If Biden is serious about America beating China in the race to produce the most EVs, Washington should be pushing for U.S. mining which China cannot disrupt.
So, is Biden walking back a pro-industry position helpful to his 2020 campaign now that he’s in office?
I reached out to the administration and was told the administration had no response.
National Mining Association senior vice president Ashley Burke argued that Biden’s ambitions are so big and the timeline to approve new mining so protracted that America must rely on imports for now. “The amount of minerals needed to ramp up production with the speed and volume that the administration has articulated is staggering, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the administration is looking to all available resources to meet those immediate needs. But immediate planning and needs, and long-term strategy are two different things,” she said in a statement.
It can take a decade to get approval for a mining operation, said James Calaway, chairman of the ioneer (This is correct name and spelling), which plans to mine boron and lithium on Nevada’s Rhyolite Ridge, so it makes sense to look to foreign metals until U.S. mines are open for business.
Then again, Calaway has no use for environmentalists who say they want to curb greenhouse gases but then want to “count on people who aren’t us to produce these materials.” It’s a safe bet that mining in America will leave a smaller footprint than mining anywhere else.
So it’s time, Calaway said, for the Biden administration to make it clear that it supports mining.
Here’s an idea. Instead of hiding behind words like resources and reserves, Biden and company could use the m-word: mining.
Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.