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US will need to mine for critical minerals to decarbonize power sector: industry execs
President Joe Biden's goal to have a decarbonized power sector with renewables cannot be achieved without opening domestic mines for minerals critically needed to build wind blades, solar panels, and energy storage batteries, according to a US mining executive and a trade association leader.
"You can't make renewable products, whether they are cars or wind turbines or energy storage. You just can't make them without mining for minerals," said Jon Perry, president of PolyMet at a 1 July virtual discussion on US reliance on foreign sources of critical minerals sponsored by ConservAmerica, nonprofit group.
Polymet is a Canadian mining company that has been battling lawsuits in its bid to open a copper and nickel mine in Duluth, northeastern Minnesota.
The US doesn't produce enough of base metals such as copper and nickel, as well as critical minerals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese that are vital to build electric vehicles (EVs), grid storage batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines.
Perry was making the point that the Biden administration needs to advance its own White House findings to encourage domestic mining for critical minerals if it is to reduce its foreign dependency.
And it has to do that despite opposition from some environmental groups who are concerned about mining's impact on air emissions, water, and other resources, which make up a core support group of the Democratic party.
Reliable, sustainable supply needed
Biden has made his position clear the US must secure what he called a "reliable, sustainable supply of critical minerals and materials" to meet the demand for EVs, renewables, and energy storage in line with the climate goals he has set for the country.
To secure that supply, the US must work with allies to diversify supply chains away from adversarial nations, notably China, the White House said in a 6 June fact sheet accompanying a 100-day review of supply chain status.
More importantly, it said the US "must also invest in sustainable production, refining, and recycling capacity domestically, while ensuring strong environmental, environmental justice, and labor standards and meaningful community consultation, including with Tribal Nations through government-to-government collaboration."
The White House acknowledged that China refines 60% of the world's lithium and 80% of the world's cobalt—two core inputs to high-capacity batteries—which presents a critical vulnerability to the future of the U.S. domestic auto industry.
'We are better than that'
Cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which relies on child labor to extract the metal. "We cannot use minerals that are sourced by child labor. We are better than that," said US Congressman Pete Stauber, a panelist and Republican from Duluth, where PolyMet's copper mine is to be located and a cobalt mine already is in operation.
Stauber was disdainful of the Biden White House recommendation to secure supply chains with allied countries
"We don't need to look elsewhere. We can do it right here in northeastern Minnesota," Stauber said. He had introduced the Accessing America's Critical Minerals Act (H.R. 2604) to expedite permit processing of mines.
However, Stauber failed to mention that former President Donald Trump's 5 October 2020 order also directed the federal government to seek supply chains for critical minerals that were not controlled by adversaries.
Perry said PolyMet's mine once operational will have the capability to extract enough copper to make batteries for 6.7 million EVs, enough nickel for 2.6 million EVs, and enough cobalt for 690,000 EVs.
Soaring global demand
A May 2020 World Bank Group report estimated that more than 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar, and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future in line with the Paris Agreement.
Given the global demand for these minerals, Perry said, "The discussion should not be whether you should mine or not. Rather it should be how we are going to mine how we are going to do that responsibly to get these metals that we need; otherwise this renewable energy economy is not going to happen."
If the Biden administration is serious about renewables, it will have to persuade the environmental community that renewables generation cannot take place without a secure supply of domestically mined critical minerals, Perry said.
In addition, Perry said the legal system needs to be reformed because right now it is too easy for environmental groups to file lawsuits and hold up mining projects. "If the losing party were to be made responsible for the losses incurred by two-to-three years of litigation, then it would make them think twice or thrice about filing lawsuits," Perry said.
The White House can take other steps as well, said Tristan Abbey, who heads president of Comarus Analytics LLC. Abbey said during the panel discussion that the US Department of Energy (DOE) should revive its loan program for mining and processing projects.
Abbey served as the National Security Council Director for Energy and Environment under Trump and then as the Director for Strategic Planning from 2017 through 2019, and was responsible shepherding two executive orders that directed all government agencies to increase supplies of critical minerals. This included the October 2020 order that directed the DOE to issue loans to promote domestic supply chains for these minerals.
"We don't need more R&D to do critical minerals processing. We know how to do it, just don't want to do it, because mine remains a four-letter word for the environmental wing of the Democratic party," Abbey said.
Need all approaches
Also participating in the discussion was Rich Nolan, president and CEO of National Mining Association (NMA), a Washington DC-based advocacy group, who agreed with Perry.
He added that the US needs domestic supplies of critical minerals from all sources, be it recycling of used batteries or reprocessing of mine tailings and waste rock.
Nolan said a number of the NMA member companies are looking at new systems to determine what volumes can be extracted from tailings and waste rock.
Currently, an estimated 1,301 kt per year of raw materials is recycled across the globe, but IHS Markit projects 3,500 kt/year of recycled battery materials will be needed by 2030 to keep up with demand for EV batteries, according to a 17 December analysis of lithium-ion battery recycling efforts.
Abbey said the US should invoke the Defense Production Act, a powerful tool that the US Department of Defense has in its possession to strengthen supply chains, just as it did when supplies were needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. "We need all of this if we are going to meet the challenges we face from climate," Nolan said.
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