Electric vehicles are very useful in fighting climate change. But EVs need batteries, and batteries need minerals like nickel, cobalt and lithium. The US has some of these minerals underground and wants to mine them quickly so that it doesn’t have to rely heavily on other countries, including China.
But this is where it gets tricky. Mining operators say they can speed up the excavation process, but a host of regulatory roadblocks stand in their way. And environmentalists and tribal communities are skeptical that all this mining can be done without destroying the land and contaminating the water.
It more or less summarizes the nearly 27,000 comments the Interior Department has received over the past six months since publishing a request for information on ways to improve federal hardrock mining regulations, laws and permitting practices. These comments need to be addressed as the department plans much-needed reforms to the outdated law. It must figure out a way to navigate all these competing interests and concerns as the US tries to promote mining to supply growing EV demand while protecting the environment.
This would be an almost impossible task.
The Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ new tax and climate bill, devotes nearly $400 billion to clean energy initiatives over the next decade, including EV tax credits and financing for companies that make clean cars in the US. And California has said it will ban sales of new gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035, a move more than a dozen other states are expected to follow.
But the only EVs that qualify for the $7,500 credit are made in North America using batteries with minerals mined from the ground in the US or its trading partners. These requirements are considered unattainable by many observers due to the auto industry’s heavy reliance on battery materials and components from China.
This fear is reflected in comments made by major automakers in response to the Interior Department’s request for information. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents nearly every legacy automaker in the US, puts it bluntly.
“The US lacks significant processing capacity for EV battery materials and relies on other countries for refined raw materials, leaving the US market vulnerable to being affected by supply chains outside US control,” the group said.
The alliance argues that shortages of key battery materials outweigh semiconductor shortages in terms of impact on the economy, and will worsen as demand for EVs increases.
The Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), which represents EV companies such as Tesla and Rivion, says current mining laws do not reflect the need to increase domestic supply of minerals.
Current lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) production would meet only 0.05 percent of total domestic EV battery pack demand — if EVs represented 100 percent of new car sales — in line with ZETA’s primary goal, the group said. Its comment.
Much anger has been expressed over the permitting process for new mining operations, which Ford called “lengthy, expensive and inefficient”. It can take seven to 10 years to complete all the permitting and paperwork before a new mine in the US can go online. In Canada and Australia, that process takes only two to three years, Ford said.
The US should streamline the permitting process to bring new mining operations into production faster, companies recommend. They want more transparency from all participating agencies and a stronger commitment to meet deadlines and more money to fund geological surveys to find new mineral deposits. Ford claims that implementing these changes will result in “enormous economic growth.”
Environmental groups see it a little differently. They largely support the government’s clean transportation goals, but they worry about trampling existing environmental rules — and especially tribal lands — in the rush to extract as many minerals as possible.
“The green energy revolution cannot be built on a dirty mining industry, outdated regulations and environmental injustice,” Samuel Penny, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe of Lapwai, Idaho, wrote in his remarks to the Department of the Interior.
If the US is to meet its climate goals, it will need a lot more lithium, cobalt and nickel – key ingredients in EV batteries. This is also true globally; The International Energy Agency estimates that the world will need 20 times more nickel and cobalt by 2040 and 40 times more lithium by 2020.
It just might not be possible. A US Geological Survey estimates that to fully electrify its vehicle fleet, the US will need 1.27 million and 160,000 metric tons of battery-grade nickel and cobalt annually, respectively — both of which exceed the total world production in 2021.
EV companies are already looking for ways to reduce their dependence on certain minerals, such as cobalt, which have been linked to human rights abuses. But using less cobalt will increase demand for nickel. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is practically begging the world’s miners to produce more.
The US currently has one operating nickel mine in Michigan. Its resources are expected to be exhausted by 2026.