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Electric Vehicles and a Collision Course with Public Lands Management

Environmental Policy Brief #133 | By: Timothy T. Loftus, Ph.D. | January 23, 2022

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Policy Summary

The race to electrify the transportation sector, now the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, will entail controversial decisions and tradeoffs involving the use and management of America’s public lands. The reason is simple: electric vehicles (EVs) are powered by sophisticated batteries that are increasing demand for metals such as lithium that are already in great demand for use in smartphones, computers, and myriad other high-tech devices.

Mining companies, both US- and foreign-based, are increasingly eyeing federal land for the metals they contain. Seeking approval for leases is now often justified in terms of how their mining operations will enable the Biden Administration’s quest to combat climate change. While there may be merit for the US to be less reliant on foreign sources of lithium and other critical metals necessary to sustain our 21st Century lifestyle, new mines will be destructive to land and habitat much as they always have been. New mines will also often operate against the wishes of local Indigenous people and lead to more cases of environmental injustice.

Public land under the purview of both the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) and the U.S. Dept. of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is managed under a multiple-use mandate. For example, these federal lands, belonging to all Americans, are managed to conserve vital habitat to protect biodiversity and provide high-quality drinking water along with enabling an ever-growing number of recreationists. Forest Service and BLM land is also managed to yield producer and consumer resources such as timber and grazing land and acreage that can be leased for oil, gas, and metal/mineral extraction much as they have been throughout our nation’s history.

Today, the private sector seeks new leases for the mining of metals that are necessary for EVs, cell phones, computers, and more. High-tech devices that most Americans take for granted and are acquiring at increasing levels, require metals including lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, gold, platinum, and antimony, among others. Such metals are necessary for the circuit boards, wires, conductors, and other components that either instruct or enable an ever-growing list of products and appliances in everyday use. They are necessary for the new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are the heart of EVs and are also essential for storing energy made available by wind and solar power.

While manufacturers rely heavily on importing these metals or products, demand and national security call for metals to be mined here in the United States if economically viable deposits can be found. One such deposit of antimony is found on USFS land in Idaho. As reported by the New York Times last month, Perpetua Resources, an Idaho-based company, is seeking approval from the Biden Administration to develop a new open-pit gold mine on the Tonto National Forest. The mine will also be one of the more significant sources of antimony in the US. The mine is opposed by the Nez Perce Tribe for its impact on rivers and salmon.

A comparable situation is occurring in northern Nevada where a large open-pit lithium mine is contested by local ranchers, environmentalists, and the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes. Lithium Americas’ Thacker Pass mine was approved in the waning days of the Trump Administration and is situated on BLM land. While expected to be the most significant source of lithium in the US, it will use a considerable amount of groundwater in an otherwise dry high-desert area – 5,200 acre-feet or 1.7 billion gallons per year – and generate large volumes of highly-toxic waste. The mine will also have a severe impact on pronghorn antelope and sage grouse habitat. The mine received approval in federal court last July to begin excavation as reported by Reuters.

More examples of new mining proposals on federal land are playing out in other states: the Rosemont open-pit copper mine located within the Santa Rita Mountains and Coronado National Forest south of Tucson, Arizona. This proposed mine is operated by Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian firm, and poses a threat to habitat deemed critical for endangered jaguars.

Another open-pit lithium mine is proposed by Australian company, Hawkstone Mining, on BLM land in west-central Arizona. As reported by High Country News last summer, exploration wells are being drilled along the border of land granted to the Hualapai Tribe. In all the mining projects mentioned here, Indigenous people are impacted, the local environment and habitat are degraded, and federal approval is required given the public lands involved. That said, the mines promise the metals that Americans and others crave and jobs that are in short supply in remote areas.

Policy Analysis

One axiom of economics is that demand creates supply. And the unquenchable thirst for high-tech or smart devices and growing demand for lithium-ion batteries that store energy are major drivers of new proposals to mine precious and other metals on public land. Beyond American reliance on smartphones and other metals-intensive devices, the current push to replace internal-combustion engines with EVs has turbocharged demand and raised the stakes for the acquisition of metals.

To be sure, the US is reliant on imports of most metals used in smart devices and lithium-ion batteries for EVs. For example, Australia leads the world in lithium production with Chile the second largest producer. China and Argentina are the third and fourth largest producers of lithium respectively. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the two most significant sources of imported lithium for the US are Argentina and Chile. Lithium production in the US is currently limited to one brine operation in Nevada.

Three-quarters of the world’s antimony is mined and produced in China. Similarly, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, accounting for about 60 percent of global production. Cobalt production is very minor in the US compared to other nations and US cobalt reserves represent less than one percent of the world-total reserves.

The US is the fifth largest producer of copper in the world with Chile and Peru being the top two producers (and China third.) The situation is  similar for platinum-group metals such as platinum and palladium. Lastly, the US ranks number four in world production of gold and third in reserves.

A variety of precious and other metals are necessary for life as we have become accustomed to it. They are also essential in our quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enabling the transportation sector is to evolve in the era of climate change and remain as prevalent in society as it is currently. As consumers of the end-products, however, we cannot afford to be divorced from the damage done to land, habitat, and water that is irrevocable and unquestionably part of the purchase and more than likely than not, an example of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” 

India’s aluminum, China’s lithium, and Israel’s new battery tech are amongst the global frontline of e-vehicle production.

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Electric vehicles are considered a more sustainable mode of transport compared to fossil fuel powered vehicles. The social and environmental costs stemming from the mining of metals, however, would not be included in a life-cycle analysis of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per mile driven. And that begs the question: at what cost to our natural heritage should EVs and our appetite for smart devices entail? Are they so essential as to come at any cost? Consumer demand suggests “yes” to that last question.

Without doubt, climate change poses an existential threat to humans, societies worldwide, and many other species that we share Earth with. Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced or eliminated where possible. Can we significantly reduce emissions without sacrificing more of our already diminishing stock of natural capital? Is it still possible to organize ourselves and the way we live to be less dependent on vehicles? Are millions of cars and trucks the problem with millions more to come, rather than how they are powered?

Addressing inadequate public transportation options in many places will be helpful, but such options alone won’t solve the problem. Perhaps the focus of electrification in this sector ought to be on the biggest emitters – buses and heavy-duty trucks – while making common cars more fuel efficient and driving more expensive (e.g., a carbon fee built into the price of a gallon of gasoline.)

To be sure, we are dealing with a vexing social problem with considerable environmental consequences no matter the path forward. 

 

As consumers, there is a need to be clear-eyed about the hidden costs incurred by the production of smart devices and the new push to electrify all vehicles on the road. An overreliance on metals-hungry, technology-based products alone may not be the panacea that marketeers would have us believe. Yet time and ongoing advancements might well lessen some of these concerns.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES)

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. About Mining and Minerals.

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