Last week, R Street released new research that highlights the enormous gap between political clean energy rhetoric and the hard truth that the United States would need far more minerals to satisfy energy demand than we can feasibly produce. Feel free to dive into the study here, but one key point is that the United States needs massive quantities of minerals from new sources to satisfy clean energy demand and targets, and a relatively small number of mines end up making a big difference.

With talk of permitting reform in the news and its potential impact on mining, the ecological impact of taking massive amounts of rock out of the ground and converting it into a useful state is front and center in the public debate. But notions that all middle-America neighborhoods are going to look like a scene out of “October Sky” are out of place. There are only around a dozen major mining projects relevant for clean energy currently planned in the United States, but even one can make a big difference in mineral supply.

What is becoming clearer is that policymakers are going to have to weigh the tradeoffs of their policy decisions. No endeavor is costless and going fully green is going to require a lot more minerals.

Take the recent news about Thacker Pass, which is North America’s largest lithium deposit. The massive lithium project could supply, we estimate, 25 percent of the United States’ total demand for lithium under a net-zero emission scenario. The mine was held up by the courts after litigation against the quality of the mine’s environmental reviews, and last month the courts sided with the permitting agencies saying their documents were acceptable, and construction on the mine has just begun.

In the broader context of permitting reform, Thacker Pass illustrates that the problem is not about easing environmental reviews for a lot of mines. Rather, the challenge is ensuring that agencies know exactly what legal questions they need to address in preparing permits for a few big mines. Like a ping-pong match, litigants and permitting agencies go back and forth over crossing every “t” and dotting every “i,” making litigation rather than quality of environmental regulation the biggest time suck in project approval timelines.

Thacker Pass is also not a one-off. Another major lithium mine, Rhyolite Ridge, could supply 8 percent of America’s lithium demand for net-zero emissions. Yet, despite a commitment to going as green as possible, the project is deadlocked over what it can do to satisfy requirements for preserving an endangered species of buckwheat. Two major copper mines, Resolution in Arizona and Pebble Mine in Alaska, could together account for 26 percent of U.S. copper demand for net-zero emissions. Resolution has been challenged in court over whether the government properly accounted for impacts to sacred lands, and Pebble was effectively vetoed due to new watershed protections put in place by the federal government.

If policymakers can find a long-term way to develop mineral resources for clean energy responsibly, great; but if not, they should be prepared to continue to rely on incumbent fossil fuels and/or foreign mineral sources. But what Thacker Pass has shown is that the public debate need not be about allowing for unrestricted and widespread mining activities across the nation, but rather about identifying a smaller number of high-value opportunities and doing them right. 

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