Mining for battery materials can be a touchy subject. The haters and the people who stand to lose money in the transition to clean energy love to bring it up. They normally don’t care one bit about the environmental impacts of things (or they wouldn’t support the oil and coal industries like they do). When EVs come up, suddenly they’re primitivists. Any impact from EVs, solar, and storage are too much. When people start talking about battery mining, it’s hard for us to not see it as an attack, or disingenuous concern trolling.
At the same time, though, the concerns aren’t always “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt used to deceive and manipulate). While the impacts of these mining operations certainly are smaller than the impacts of unchecked climate change, they aren’t zero, and they’re something we should at least consider.
In this article, I’m going to explore some of the impacts we might not have considered, but unlike the oil propagandists, I won’t stop there. Because I’m an optimistic realist, I want to explain how I think we can both pursue the much-needed transition to clean energy while also minimizing the negative impacts.
Upcoming Mining Impacts In The United States See Opposition
I could easily dig up sad tales of human devastation and environmental destruction from the Global South, but we’ve seen all that. It matters, and don’t let anyone tell you differently, but I’d be wasting readers’ time if I rehashed that. I did touch on it in this other article, and discussed some of the efforts automakers are taking to reduce related human suffering.
If you aren’t aware of those issues, there are many articles and even scholarly work on the subject. It’s important, and worth reading about.
In this article, I’m going to discuss the challenges lithium suppliers are facing closer to home (at least for me). As we learned in a CleanTechnica podcast episode from a few months ago, the supply of lithium and other minerals for U.S. EV production is in an uncertain place right now. The lack of certainty (especially in terms of government action) is keeping mining companies from jumping in and starting the years-long process of getting new mines started, like they are for the supplies needed for Europe and China.
On top of that problem, the normal American taste for larger vehicles, combined with the lack of decent charging infrastructure, means that the United States are going to need a lot more battery cells than other places. Even companies like Honda know that there’s no market for EVs with smaller batteries, and that’s why they’re not selling the retro-looking Honda e in that market.
I know Tesla fans tend to spend a lot of time thinking about “stonks” and investments, so some of you are probably thinking that this perfect storm sounds like a great opportunity. The few mining companies that start spinning up mining operations are probably going to make bank when EVs start to take over, so where are these forward-thinking companies?
It turns out that they’re a thing, but they’re having some real challenges.
In North Carolina, Piedmont Lithium has plans for a huge mining operation outside of Charlotte. It has even signed a deal with Tesla to supply lithium for upcoming electric vehicles. In total, it’s gearing up to provide 30,000 tons of the mineral, or about enough for 3 million EVs annually. That’s not going to be nearly enough for upcoming U.S. lithium needs, but it’s enough to put a good dent in the problem.
Unfortunately, they are running into a problem: they haven’t worked with local and state governments at all so far. Permits, zoning variances, and other issues need to be settled, and the lack of action on that has locals annoyed with the company. At a recent meeting where they revealed more detailed plans to the county, all but one of the residents who came to the meeting spoke against it.
Residents aren’t just upset that their elected officials weren’t talked to sooner. The impacts of the mine are a big part of opposition. “Good county commissioners don’t let strangers intrude into our community knowing they’re going to bring destruction,” Libby Carpenter, one local resident, told the board. Some residents in the rural county don’t want to sell their land, and claim to have been told that the company will just mine around them should they decide to not sell.
“There’s no doubt the mine would benefit our country and the green energy industry,” said Tracy Philbeck, a county commissioner. “But it would have a negative impact on our community.”
A recent video by the LA Times shows us some of the other challenges that the mining industry is facing while trying to come up with new U.S. domestic supplies.
In Nevada, a new mine has drawn the opposition of a local Native American tribe and ranchers in the area who fear that the natural beauty of the area will be lost. For the tribe, it’s an issue of sacred lands being destroyed or lost, while for the ranchers, the loss of spring water could be a matter of economic survival. The world needs better energy storage technologies to accompany clean power production and clean transport, but local needs would have to go under the bus to do it.
To avoid these sorts of problems, another company wants to obtain lithium, cobalt, and other metals from the ocean floor. In “nodules” that developed on the seabed, basically all of the metals needed for battery production sit loosely on the surface of the sand, ripe for the picking without having to even dig. Unfortunately, marine biologists say collecting them up at scale with scrapers could irreparably harm life at the bottom, which tends to move very slowly.
It seems like no matter where U.S. companies try to look for battery minerals, they run into people or animals who will be harmed in some way.
Despite these impacts, the fact is that doing nothing here isn’t an option. The NIMBYs that get in the way of the production of climate solutions will, in many cases, have to be ignored or swept aside if we want to avoid the even greater impacts of unchecked climate change. The U.S. is simply not going to go back to the stone age, so lithium, cobalt, and other needed minerals aren’t optional.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what we reasonably can to reduce those impacts, though. Producing batteries with reckless abandon, and using them for frivolous things, can make the impacts much worse than they need to be.
To strike a healthy balance, we need to only take what we need from the Earth, and not much more. That basically puts us in the same position we are in facing a battery shortage, and the solutions are largely the same.
Micromobility needs to be a big part of the future transportation mix. When most car trips are under six miles, and things like e-bikes and scooters can take you across that distance without breaking a sweat, this is a no-brainer. While we should definitely keep working to electrify cars and trucks, spending a fraction of that money on encouraging people to buy e-bikes is a great way to get a return on investment.
As Cynthia Shahan points out, micromobility works great in cities outside of the United States because they built for it in ways the U.S. has not.
I’m not one of those people who thinks the U.S. has to copy Europe on everything, but if we can find our own way to do it with our own local flavors, we can do something impactful with it. Personally, I have a lot of fun with big fat-tire e-bikes like my RadRover, and I don’t even live in a big city. It’s basically the SUV of e-bikes, and you know how we like our SUVs and crossovers. Also, getting dumb and intrusive regulations on micromobility (throttle bans, in-built speed limiters, etc.) out of the way can do a lot to spur adoption of these vehicles.
When it comes to EVs, we really need to right-size those a lot more. Having a vehicle with 100–200 kWh of battery for short-range grocery getting makes no sense, and isn’t something government policy and the EV community should be encouraging. I’m not saying nobody should buy vehicles like the F-150 Lightning or the Cybertruck, but if you’re not going to actually use the capabilities of those vehicles, consider something else for your urban or suburban drives.
Featured image by Piedmont Lithium (YouTube)
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