Opinion: Lawmakers must clarify vague mineral mining law on lithium next session

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Last October, public interest journalism outfit The Maine Monitor broke the story of a newly-discovered large—and extremely valuable—lithium ore deposit in Newry, a small town in western Maine which is home to the Sunday River ski resort. The deposit, contained on a gem mining site known as Plumbago North, is considered to be one of the richest in the world.

Lithium is a key mineral component in the production of batteries, not only for smartphones, but for electric vehicles (EVs) as well. These uses, critical to 21st century way of life and state EV adoption goals, support the estimated $1.5 billion valuation of the lithium at Plumbago North. 

In a July 8 letter to Mary and Gary Freeman, owners of Plumbago North, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) confirmed that mining the deposit would fall under the state’s regulations governing extraction of base metals such as copper and zinc, opposed to regulations governing quarrying.

To make these rulings, MDEP analyzes each mining permit and determines which aspect of Maine law applies to the specific project, depending on the targeted mineral for extraction.

The issue for the Freeman’s lithium plans is a 2017 bill to amend the Maine Metallic Mining Act, which was championed by former State Sen. Brownie Carson. Carson had previously served as executive director of the Natural Resource Council of Maine (NRCM), an environmental legal advocacy group, for more than 25 years.

Carson’s bill, LD 820 in the 128th Maine Legislature, banned open pit mining of an area larger than three acres, in addition to prohibiting the removal of metallic minerals from a river, pond, or wetland and a ban on placing mine shafts in or under rivers, waterfowl habitats, or ponds. It became law despite a veto from then-Governor Paul LePage, after an overwhelming vote in the House (122-21) and a unanimous 35-0 vote in the Senate to override.

To put a finer point on the Freemans’ case, Katherine Revello at The Maine Wire recently described:

“At issue is the state’s definition of metallic mineral, defined in statute as ‘any ore or material to be excavated from the natural deposits on or in the earth for its metallic mineral content to be used for commercial or industrial purposes.’ Thorium and uranium are excluded from this definition, but spodumene, the mineral that contains lithium, is not.”

According to The Maine Monitor, Mark Stebbins, field services director for MDEP’s Bureau of Land Resources, noted in the July 8 letter that the process of extracting spodumene, the mineral within which the lithium resides, is more similar to that of quarrying for limestone or granite. Stebbins also acknowledges that Maine’s current restrictions on mining “exceed what would be necessary to allow environmentally responsible extraction” of the lithium at Plumbago North.

Essentially, MDEP recognizes that current law is not meeting reality. There is no reason to treat this deposit as if it will contaminate groundwater and natural habitats with sulfuric acid or other environmental toxins like iron ore mining can, for instance.

Based on the agency’s reading of the law, this whole saga may have been prevented by explicitly exempting spodumene from the state’s definition of a “metallic mineral.”

This ball will soon be in the court of the 131st Maine Legislature, the lawmakers who will be elected this November. It will be up to them to provide the clarity needed to allow the Freemans to extract this lithium and make it available to the supply chain. 

After all, wouldn’t Governor Mills and her allies in the environmental movement want Mainers to benefit from the extraction of minerals needed for their ambitious electric vehicle (EV) goals? 

The state’s climate action plan estimates Maine needs 219,000 light-duty EVs on the road by 2030 to meet its emissions targets, a goal for which Mills has strongly advocated and extensively funded

There are fewer than 600,000 households in Maine. What would it require to put an electric vehicle in more than one-third of driveways around the state in the next eight years?

As innovation in battery development (increasingly obvious for widespread EV adoption) has recently progressed, technologies like lithium-sulfur batteries show promise for needing less lithium to hold the same amount of energy. Nonetheless, there is no indication that the worldwide demand for lithium will slow down.

According to the International Energy Agency, “a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car.” Why shouldn’t the lithium and other minerals needed for this industry come from the United States, where business and regulatory culture is much more favorable to labor and environmental concerns than other countries? 

Here’s hoping the next Maine Legislature can fix a past Legislature’s mistake and help put Maine, and the much-needed lithium deposit at Plumbago North, on the map.

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