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The mining landmines inside Biden's minerals plan

Alan Neuhauser
Mar 31, 2022
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."

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