Pitfalls Await Biden’s Bid to Boost U.S. Mineral Mining for EVs
President Joe Biden’s push for more mineral mining on U.S. soil to secure supplies for his clean energy efforts faces a host of legal, political, and business obstacles that could scuttle such ambitions before they even take shape.
Biden promised during his presidential campaign to “bolster and build critical clean energy supply chains,” partly to curb U.S. dependence on imports. But U.S. automakers have since accelerated investments in electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies. Ford Motor Co. in February joined General Motors Co. and other auto makers pledging big EV investments in chasing Tesla, the lead EV producer.
Reversing dependence on mineral imports would be a huge task. It would need to overcome high capital costs to open hard-rock mines amid threats of environmental litigation and local opposition. And, at least for now, there are affordable supplies from Canada, Mexico, South Africa, South America, and the biggest supplier, China.
“The question here is whether the administration is willing to accept what is going to be necessary in order to achieve this goal to have these secure supply chains,” particularly to ensure domestic supplies of raw materials, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a long-time minerals mining backer. “It is going to require approval of mining projects, and that has been a challenge for us.”
Getting new mines open would require addressing environmental complaints over chemical-laden processing techniques and toxic byproducts. They also would have to navigate environmental justice concerns elevated by the Biden administration, particularly for tribal communities which have fought nearby mining projects.
The fact that clean energy technologies rely on mining minerals which pose their own environmental challenges “is one of the fundamental paradoxes of the green energy revolution,” said Abigail Wulf, director of critical minerals strategy for Securing America’s Future Energy, which backs more domestic minerals supply.
Environmental groups say more domestic mining should only be considered after serious efforts to recycle and reprocess valuable minerals in discarded products and to clean up still-polluting abandoned hard rock mines. They also want U.S. boundary waters and other pristine areas off-limits to mining.
But U.S. laws and regulations governing critical and rare earth minerals are outdated—including an 1872 law making it easy to stake claims for mining operations on federal lands that don’t require lease payments to compensate taxpayers.
Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for a $16 billion mining reclamation effort to employ hundreds of thousands in union jobs and restore and reclaim abandoned hard-rock, uranium, and coal mines—typically in rural communities that his plan says suffer “from years of disinvestment.”
But mining projects can face years of delay due to litigation. Twin Metals Minnesota LLC has battled conservation groups in the courts, which are contesting Bureau of Land Management leases for a northeastern Minnesota copper-nickel-cobalt-platinum mine. Nevada’s Thacker Pass lithium mine—which was fast-tracked by the Trump administration—also has been hamstrung by legal action.
U.S. mining operations hope Biden’s focus on accelerating supply will put industry complaints of a time-consuming and litigious permitting process front and center. Environmental reviews and permits under the National Environmental Policy Act take roughly nine years to complete, said Jonathan Davis, president and mine owner for the Vancouver-based Lithium Americas Corp. building Thacker Pass.
Davis suggests revamping the permitting process so that different sections of the review can be done simultaneously. Thacker Pass is now being targeted in litigation by multiple environmental groups, which filed for a preliminary injunction to halt operations May 27, alleging Trump’s quick permit decision violated NEPA and other environmental…