G. Ivan Maldonado
At a time of economic uncertainty, enactment of climate legislation as part of the Inflation Reduction Act has given companies an incentive to invest in green technologies. But money alone won’t eliminate an enormous hurdle to accelerating the use of electric vehicles and America’s energy transition. We need to scale up mining and minerals supply chains to meet the massive surge in demand for the materials needed for this industrial pivot.
The United States has abundant mineral resources beneath the ground, from lithium in Nevada to nickel in Minnesota, cobalt in Idaho, graphite in Alaska and copper in Arizona. But we need to make greater use of our own raw materials instead of relying on imports from hostile countries like China and Russia. Right now, nothing seems more important in the battle against global warming than providing a secure supply of critically important minerals and metals used in making a wide range of products, including electric car batteries, transmission systems, wind turbines and solar cells.
Add carbon-free nuclear-generated electricity to the list of essential products needed in the battle against global warming. But half of the uranium used at nuclear plants in the United States is imported from Russia and two of its closest allies, both former Soviet states. Hard as it may seem to believe, there is only one operational uranium mine in the U.S., even though our country has an abundance of uranium resources beneath the ground. This needs to change, and soon.
Although America is at the epicenter of high-tech innovation, there is little awareness of the enormous amounts of minerals and metals that are needed to sustain it. The International Energy Agency says that reaching net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 will require expanding production of battery minerals and metals sixfold by 2040. That’s going to require opening hundreds of new mines, including many in the U.S.
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So let’s deal forthrightly with the need for dependable supply chains delivering minerals and metals to U.S. automakers and other manufacturers.
The climate law is a promising start. It sets standards, which grow more stringent over time, for how much of a battery’s components and raw materials must come from the United States or its trade allies.
In addition, the creation of mines and processing facilities for battery metals has been added to the list of items eligible for loan guarantees, tax credits and other types of government financial assistance under the Defense Production Act.
However, at the same time, the biggest problem blocking the revival of mining in the United States remains untouched: an obsolete mine permitting process that discourages investment and has brought the development of new mines in this country to a near halt.
Significant permitting reform for energy infrastructure – including mining – is under debate in Congress. It’s essential this effort is made law. From siting transmission lines to offshore wind farms and gaining permits to mine, the U.S. must move with certainty and urgency and that can’t happen under the current permitting approach.
Effective climate action must transition from a posture of stopping new energy projects to moving at speed to building the infrastructure and deploying the resources needed to decarbonize. That’s a tough realignment of thinking for many environmentalists, but it’s precisely what must happen if the U.S. is to meet its emission reduction targets and build at scale. Many environmentalists are opposed to permitting reform when they should be putting their full support behind it.
Building the industrial base to underpin made-in-America decarbonization is a critical first step. Mineral demand is already exploding and U.S. reliance on imports is growing more alarming by the day. The resources are here for the U.S. to get in the game, but it’s anyone’s guess if proposed mines – even mines that receive government loan guarantees and tax credits – will receive permits. New battery mega-factories are being constructed in just two years, but the mines required to supply them are taking a decade to permit. That must change and change quickly.
Climate change is a matter so serious that we have to do everything simultaneously to head it off as much as we can. That begins with permitting the infrastructure – including the mines – essential to the effort.
Dr. G. Ivan Maldonado is a professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.