A truck loads rock into a hauler at a Northern Nevada mine in April 2017.
It is increasingly doubtful we will meet our responsibilities to provide a secure supply of minerals for clean energy technologies. Not because of any lack of will on the part of mining companies, but because political obstacles block the opening of new mines in the United States.
Although the need for minerals is growing rapidly, and U.S. mineral import reliance has reached alarming levels, little has been done to reorient mining policy. Warnings that shortages and sharply higher costs for mineral resources lie ahead show up everywhere.
They appear in supply chains for clean energy technologies, with higher prices for critically important China-sourced minerals such as lithium and nickel used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries. They show up in uranium for nuclear power, where companies rely on imports for more than 95% of the uranium used to fuel reactors, much of it supplied by Russia and two former Soviet states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The problem originates at home. Just about every mine that can provide minerals encounters strong opposition. Despite growing demand for minerals, dozens of mines have closed in recent years, while few have opened. As a result, the United States depends heavily on imports for many essential minerals.
The United States depends 100% on imports for 14 minerals such as manganese, tantalum and rare earths listed as "critically important" by the Department of Defense and the Interior Department, and the U.S. is at least 50% dependent on imports for 35 other minerals. China supplies more than half of the minerals.
The shift away from domestic mining, decades in the making, has fractured supply chains for minerals. While the U.S. set up a wide range of obstacles to mining investment, China leans in on minerals and metals, capturing a stranglehold on materials essential to clean energy. U.S. mineral import dependence poses a threat to U.S. security and economy. It spotlights the urgent need for action.
U.S. demand for minerals has doubled over the past 25 years. The Defense Department alone consumes more than 600,000 tons of minerals annually, and minerals are needed for new technologies, from laptops and smartphones to solar arrays, wind turbines and EVs.
The copper situation is emblematic. An electric car has four times or more the copper of a gasoline car. Each EV battery contains at least 90 pounds of copper, many considerably more. With the pivot to EVs all but certain we need an enormous increase in the supply of copper and other battery metals. With copper wiring the arteries of all things electric, keeping pace with demand for copper, humanity needs to produce the same amount of copper in the next 25 years as has been produced in the last 5,000.
The World Bank says that global production of cobalt, another of the so-called battery metals, will need to grow between 300% and 800% by 2050. Lithium production needs to rise more than 2,000%. There is only one active U.S. lithium mine.
The recent announcement by Tesla that it acquired a massive lithium deposit north of its Storey county gigaplant is a strong indicator of the expected future demand for lithium, as is the fact that multiple exploration and potential development projects are underway in the state. They certainly deserve all possible support, rather than opposition!
U.S. mineral import reliance is a strategic vulnerability akin to U.S. oil import reliance in the 1970s. Failure to ramp up U.S. production could slow clean energy adoption, particularly for EVs, throttling carbon emissions reduction. That makes ramping up domestic production of minerals, particularly battery metals, imperative for reducing greenhouse emissions.
But even plans for new mines that would provide minerals for clean energy technologies face significant resistance. Reducing global warming emissions will not succeed unless we implement a smart mining strategy.
The path forward begins with acknowledging the mineral foundations of the energy transition. Continuing opposition will push mining to nations without the regulations and standards in place in the U.S. Effective U.S. energy and climate policy require responsible U.S. mining. Those that care most about addressing the emissions challenge should insist on it.
Jaak Daemen is a professor emeritus, mining engineering, at the University of Nevada, Reno.