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The mining landmines inside Biden's minerals plan

Illustration of a lightning bolt stuck in mud

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Biden administration is set to invoke the Defense Production Act to accelerate domestic production of the metals and minerals sorely needed for the energy transition.

Why it matters: The move has unleashed a surge of investor interest in mining and refining — and a reckoning with what "sustainable" might mean in the context of mining.

  • Environmental groups and investors are starting to rally around metals- and battery-recycling, which the Biden order is also expected to emphasize.
  • A 2020 white paper from the International Council on Clean Transportation concluded that 90% of the critical materials needed for batteries could be sourced from recycling programs.

Yes, but: According to that same white paper, the benefits of those recycling programs won't kick in until 2040 at the earliest.

  • Many EV batteries that might be broken down for their components are instead finding a second life through another type of recycling: on-site energy storage. That means fewer batteries to disassemble for raw materials.
  • Overall, recycling could reduce the cumulative use of raw materials by 25% as a percentage of known global reserves — a significant reduction, but a far cry from being able to displace mining.

Go deeper: Investors at Energy Impact Partners, Silicon Valley Bank and DCVC tell Axios that they're seeing more startups promoting AI-driven tech to make mining more precise with fewer environmental impacts.

  • These include DCVC 's PlotLogic, Y-Combinator startup KorrAI, and Silicon Valley Bank client KoBold Metals, among others.
  • "At current prices, there are very few projects, if any, that aren’t going to be making money," says Scott Yarham, global head of battery metals pricing at S&P Global Platts.
  • Sign of the times: AstroForge, the YC startup aiming to mine asteroids. "Instead of bringing back the entire asteroid, we break it up, refine, and return only what’s valuable." (Oh, is that all?)

Be smart: Environmental organizations will wrestle with their position in this new paradigm where sourcing the materials they've long championed may well cause the same harms they've long opposed.

  • For project investors, that may mean unusual alliances and unexpected opponents — namely from organizations with decades of experience successfully challenging mining operations.
  • Expect to start hearing these buzzwords: "responsible mining" and "sustainable mining."

What they're saying: "There’s a lot of organizations that are just anti-mining anyplace, anytime, anywhere," says Collin O'Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "We want to make sure we’re getting the ecological integrity and the community input as a way to mitigate a lot of the concerns."

💭 Thought bubble: A striking number of environmental organizations contacted this week punted on the question of mining and critical minerals.

  • We can't remember the last time an environmental group didn't have a comment on the topic of mining.

What's next: Lobbyists can start planning how to spend their next Christmas bonus — the law governing hard rock mining celebrates its 150th anniversary next month.

  • Earthjustice, the other environmental organization to talk with Axios, and a leader on mining issues, wants to see updates on three areas: protecting Indigenous communities, keeping mining companies accountable for cleaning up their operations, and recycling.
  • 🚨 Just in: The Interior Department this morning announced the "formation of an interagency working group to gather information and develop recommendations for improving Federal hard rock mining regulations, laws, and permitting processes."

Alan Neuhauser co-authors the Axios Pro Climate deals newsletter. Sign up now.

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