What you need to know about critical minerals and climate change
President Biden has taken steps to increase mining of minerals for batteries.
As the world scrambles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit future global warming, more attention has turned to one of the country’s oldest industries as one of the solutions - mining.
Today’s conversation around mining is about the minerals and metals that power almost all electronics, especially the critical batteries in our laptops, smartphones, and electric vehicles.
As the need for forms of energy that rely on batteries and electric vehicles grows, the world will need more and more materials like lithium to make enough batteries to keep up.
Reed Blakemore, deputy director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, said the clean energy technology that helps fight climate change rely on a lot of minerals, metals, and other raw materials.
“What we like to typically say, is while we're making this transition from an energy system that was based in hydrocarbons like oil and gas, that transition is actually moving towards a fairly mineral intensive future, one which is going to require significant amounts of cobalt, lithium, rare earth elements, nickel, copper, a whole range of different materials that'll make our climate goals happen," Blakemore told ABC News.
President Joe Biden has taken steps to increase mining and processing of these “critical minerals” in the United States and even invoked the Defense Production Act to make more resources available for the government to support these projects.
But some Native American tribes and conservation groups say harming the environment through more mining is a step backward in the fight against climate change, and could create irreversible harm to ecosystems that need to be protected.
As the country pushes to expand this type of mining in the U.S., here’s a breakdown of what you need to know to follow this debate.
What are critical minerals?
Critical minerals are 50 minerals that the federal government considers critical to the U.S. economy or national security, identified by the U.S. Geological Survey every year.
The materials on the list are needed to produce weapons for the military, clean energy technology to combat climate change, or other uses like semiconductor chips that could significantly disrupt the economy in the event of a shortage.
The list includes materials needed to produce the rechargeable batteries that power electronics and electric vehicles, such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
Why is this important?
The United Nations’ climate panel and experts from around the world say reducing greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions as rapidly as possible is the best way to prevent more damaging impacts from rising temperatures due to climate change.
One of the biggest ways to reduce emissions is to transition to forms of energy that don’t burn fossil fuels like solar, wind, and hydropower. It also means trying to get Americans to switch to electric vehicles powered by that cleaner energy.
But those clean energy technologies require a lot of new infrastructure, including increasing production of electric vehicles and the systems to charge them, and the world doesn’t currently have enough of the raw materials to meet the growing demand.
Why are we talking about these minerals now?
Critical minerals have been in the spotlight as the impacts of climate change become more severe but supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have brought new attention to questions about the global supply chain of these minerals.
The war in Ukraine has also added to concern that the majority of mining and processing for these minerals are controlled by countries that have a tense relationship with the U.S., especially China.
Abigail Wulf, director of the center for critical minerals strategy at an energy security group called SAFE, said there are multiple concerns about where production of these minerals are concentrated right now, especially in supplies controlled by countries like Russia or China.
“We have to talk about responsible mining because we want to make sure that the clean energy transition is actually clean. And we also want to make sure that we're not beholden on on unreliable nations that do not share our values, whether that is supporting label labor rights, democracy, cleaning up the environment, and all of the above,” Wulf told ABC News.
Wulf said supply chains are concentrated in areas where it is cheaper to produce these minerals with less oversight, but that concentration also raises concern about the relationship between countries like China and the U.S.
“From the national security perspective, we will be completely beholden on a nation that is openly hostile to democracy for achieving those [climate] goals, and everything that you're seeing going on within the European Union and how they are not able to make decisions in their country's best interests because of their overreliance on Russian oil and gas will be replayed 10 times over when it comes to our minerals-based economy,” she said.
What are the consequences of this type of mining?
Minerals like lithium or cobalt occur naturally in our world, either underground or in high concentrations in groundwater, and the process of extracting them not only disturbs that land but can create waste that contaminate the nearby environment, disrupt ecosystems and watersheds, and require large amounts of energy to run.
"At the end of the day mining is land disturbance,” Wulf said.
“You're going to be either digging a big hole or digging underground to retrieve the mineral materials that you're going to need to process into the materials to put into your electric vehicle.”
But Wulf added that the amount of land being mined is relatively small in most places and can be done in ways that minimize the impact on the surrounding environment.
“When people think about mining for clean energy they need to think in terms of scale. When environmentalists who are worried about the climate crisis and that’s going to affect 100% of the planet. But when you're talking about Mining you know that land disturbance in Nevada, for instance, is only, you know, 0.3% of the land in Nevada, which is our biggest mining state in the United States,” she said.
“So you know, if you're talking about 0.3% of land disturbance versus 100% of the earth being affected, both terrestrial and marine environments being affected, then I think that you know groups should just think of this in terms of scale.”
Conservation advocacy groups have raised concerns about the impact to animal or plant species that could face threats from nearby mining operations and in some cases petitioned to block proposed new mines.
Native American tribes have also said that proposed mines would permanently damage the land and sites that hold a sacred place in their culture. According to one analysis, 95% of critical mineral reserves in the US are within 35 miles of a tribal reservation.
Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for the advocacy group Earthworks, told ABC News the laws that govern this kind of mining are woefully outdated, which will make it harder to ensure mines don’t cause permanent damage to cultural sites and the environment.
“We are facing an existential climate crisis and the solution to do that is to avoid emitting fossil fuels, moving away from fossil fuels. So as we transition from fossil fuels, we have to avoid repeating the mistakes of that fossil fuel industry by sourcing all of our materials irresponsibly,” Mintzes told ABC News.
“The way that we do that is through improving recycling, substitution, and sourcing materials through updated rules and regulations.”
The Biden administration created an interagency working group earlier this year to propose ways to update laws around hardrock mining, which includes many critical minerals. The group is expected to release recommendations later this year.