“With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision.”
So said U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, upon signing an order last week that prohibits mining on nearly a quarter million acres within Minnesota’s Superior National Forest for the next two decades. In 1978, President Carter signed the law that specifically designated this area for mining to meet the nation’s demand for minerals.
The Biden administration claims the decision does not indicate that it does not support mining. Without further explanation, Interior declared that “the department sees the value in critical minerals and their critical importance to the future of this country.”
The planned mining operation had the potential to produce copper and nickel, both key elements in the production of electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, wind turbines, and other devices. The world’s demand for nickel alone has doubled in the past five years.
The world’s hunger for cobalt and lithium is also expanding rapidly. EV batteries include 70% more cobalt than lithium, yet 74% of the world’s cobalt is mined from one deposit in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As outlined in a previous piece in this space, the conditions with which Congolese miners, 40,000 of whom are children, toil to harvest this mineral at the equivalent of one dollar per day, are horrific as shown by numerous studies and exposés.
Late last year, President Biden’s Department of Labor released a report in which it admitted that cobalt mines in the Congo still exploit child labor. “Clean energy is a central pillar of the Biden-Harris Administration’s policy goals,” it said, “Yet, that clean energy future cannot — and will not — be built on the backs of forced laborers.” Less than two months later, Biden signed an agreement with the DRC government that did just that, tolerating the exploitation of tens of thousands of African children in exchange for larger amounts of cobalt to feed the U.S. obsession with global climate change.
Biden’s message is clear. The U.S. wants more and more devices to “power” our green energy goals, but it will not help provide their essential elements. We will consume cell phones, EVs, solar panels, and the like in increasing amounts, but the U.S. will not contribute our “fair share” of the minerals needed to make these happen. Instead, we will let the poorest citizens of the third world provide that for us in conditions akin to slavery.
And so it is here in Maine. Despite extremely low annual net CO2 emissions, Governor Mills continues to ramp up policies that force EVs, solar panels, and other mineral-dependent devices into use in the Pine Tree State while taking steps to prevent Maine from contributing the minerals they need.
The latest example—back in 2021, a couple discovered that 10 of the 3,000 acres they own in Newry contain the richest known “solid rock” lithium deposit in the world. The estimated 11 million tons of the mineral may be valued at $1.5 billion and is contained within mineral crystals known as spodumene that literally protrude from the ground. These could be quarried like stone and transported to a separate location where lithium could be extracted.
Last year, the owners asked Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) if extraction of spodumene over the ten-acre area would be governed by the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act (MMA), a highly restrictive law passed in 2017. In a letter of response, DEP officials admitted that “in many ways, extraction of spodumene is comparable to extraction of limestone or granite. For example, the environmental risks associated with this type of activity are generally comparable.” Limestone and granite quarries, of course, exist all over Maine and have been active for centuries.
The letter also said, “The term ‘metallic mineral’ is not a commonly understood geologic term with an agreed upon meaning.” Also from the DEP letter: “The extraction of spodumene for use of a metal element component, on the other hand, is new in Maine with no prior history of regulation.”
Spodumene is not identified in the law as being subject to restrictions, its extraction and environmental risks are comparable to quarrying granite, and the term “metallic mineral” has no clear definition in science. There is nothing to indicate that the Legislature intended in any way for spodumene to be governed by the 2017 law.
With all of this information excluding spodumene from the authority of the Act, Maine’s DEP nonetheless concluded that the mineral “falls within this present definition of ‘metallic mineral’ contained in the MMA.” This is the wrong legal position to take, particularly considering that the extraction of spodumene is no more harmful to the environment than quarrying granite.
With this statement, however, barring some corrective action by the Legislature or the courts, the Mills administration has effectively banned the extraction of lithium from the world’s largest deposit, just when demand for that mineral is exploding. The decision is not only at odds with Maine’s economic interests, as allowing a mining operation in Newry would have a ripple of economic benefits for the community, but it’s also contrary to Mills own stated goal of filling the roads with lithium-battery-powered EVs.
Nearly three-quarters of the lithium produced worldwide each year is used in the production of batteries. Currently, the U.S. has essentially one significant lithium mining operation, located in Nevada, which produces 5,000 tons per year, less than 2% of the world’s annual supply. The Newry deposit could supply that much lithium per year for 2,200 years. Aside from an obvious boost to the world’s supply of a highly important mineral, a mine that could bring $1.5 billion in economic activity into Western Maine should be welcomed, not prohibited by overzealous regulators.
If we continue along an aggressive path toward renewable energy in Maine, the need for these minerals going forward will be tremendous. Though still in its relative infancy, for example, EV production already requires a third of the cobalt mined worldwide. Since there are roughly 2,100 cell phones for every EV on the planet, there is ample room for huge growth in EVs. Each EV battery, however, requires 5,000 times as much lithium as a cell phone.
The demand being created by the aggressive expansion of EV use is simply unsustainable. The world is not producing enough lithium to match the goals set for future EV use. Annual global demand for this mineral has already surpassed the capacity of current mining operations.
Here in Maine, the Mills administration is pushing as hard as it can to expand the use of EVs while preventing new mining operations from extracting the minerals needed to make those vehicles work, no matter how it must stretch current law to do so. Maine’s approach seems to be “give us more, more, more, but do not ask us to bear any of the burden.”
This is an issue that is not going away. On Tuesday, Siddharth Kara’s latest book Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers our Lives will be released. Already it is ranked atop several subcategories on Amazon.com involving African history, African politics, and human rights while preparations are underway to produce a film based on it.
Republicans again in control of Congress are promising to deeply investigate the activities of President Biden’s son, Hunter. This is sure to include the sale of Congolese mining rights by the financial firm known as BHR that he co-founded. This sale to Chinese interests has yet to be thoroughly investigated and will no doubt be a part of this very public discussion.
According to the New York Times, “BHR’s role in the Chinese mine purchase was not a major focus (of past investigations). It has taken on new relevance because the Biden administration warned this year that China might use its growing dominance of cobalt to disrupt America’s retooling of its auto industry to make electric vehicles.”
Despite the threat of Chinese aggression, the horrible conditions under which miners, including children, suffer in order to produce these minerals, and the coming crisis-level worldwide shortage as demand grows well beyond the current supply, neither the government in Washington nor our leaders in Augusta seem to be working to do their part to contribute these essential minerals. Meanwhile, they call for still more EVs, solar panels, and wind turbines.
This is the kind of indulgent, selfish, and arrogant behavior that generates hatred of Americans overseas and plays right into the hands of those who wish to foment anti-American sentiment abroad. Propaganda need only describe American reliance on iPhones, tablets, and Teslas, made possible by the suffering of African children and slave laborers in China, India, and elsewhere, framed against regular news reports of government actions to ban mining of essential minerals on American soil. As a nation and as a state, we are not living up to our responsibilities.
Make no mistake. Clean energy is a dirty business and there are no easy solutions. But Maine’s political leaders could at least attempt to resolve the incoherence of Maine’s green energy policies, and do so in a manner that provides economic benefit for Maine.