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Republicans see conflict in Biden push for critical minerals

Biden administration decisions to block two major mining projects have drawn GOP criticism that U.S. won’t be able to meet future demand

Rep. Pete Stauber says the current permitting landscape is “abused by keep-it-in-the-ground activists who oppose mining solely on ideological grounds.”
Rep. Pete Stauber says the current permitting landscape is “abused by keep-it-in-the-ground activists who oppose mining solely on ideological grounds.” (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Both parties agree that the U.S. will need more critical minerals to fuel the expansion of clean energy, but recent actions from the Biden administration blocking two major mining projects have drawn Republican criticism that it will be unable to meet future demand. 

On Tuesday the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will consider a bill introduced by subcommittee Chairman Pete Stauber, R-Minn., that would set timelines for federal environmental reviews for mineral development projects and require any legal challenge to be filed within a year of the permit being issued. The bill has the support of industry groups, including the National Mining Association, the American Exploration and Mining Association, and the Uranium Producers of America.

Stauber said the current permitting landscape is “abused by keep-it-in-the-ground activists who oppose mining solely on ideological grounds.”

Stauber’s proposal is motivated by the administration’s decision announced Jan. 26 to issue a 20-year mining moratorium for over 225,000 acres of federal land in northeastern Minnesota, an area in Stauber’s district upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that has been eyed for a potential nickel, copper and cobalt mine. 

Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining firm Antofagasta, estimated that the $1.7 billion project would produce 180 million tons of ore over its lifetime. President Barack Obama first proposed withdrawing the area for mineral development in 2016, but the Trump administration reversed course and approved leases for the project in 2019.

The Twin Metals mine is only one project that has been criticized by environmentalists for the potential effects it may have on the surrounding ecosystem. Other projects for minerals the industry argues are necessary for the transition to a green economy have raised concerns about their effects on water quality, critically endangered species and conflicts with tribal and indigenous rights. 

Location matters

Athan Manuel, director of Sierra Club’s lands protection program, said that some places warrant increased protections, such as the Boundary Waters and the watershed of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where a gold and copper mine known as Pebble Mine was proposed and the EPA blocked it using a provision of the Clean Water Act.

“In some places, mining is not appropriate. In some places, it probably is more appropriate,” said Manuel. “Some places are just too important and too special to allow mining to happen. And those are just a couple, just a couple of examples. But it’s always on a case-by-case basis.”

However, the cancellation of Twin Metals and the permitting process for other mining projects has drawn criticism from many Republicans who accuse the Biden administration of looking overseas for minerals. Both the House Natural Resources and Energy and Commerce committees held hearings examining the issue during the first weeks of Congress, offering fixes that largely focus on changes to the federal permitting process. 

The International Energy Agency estimates that additional investments are needed in the short term to meet net-zero carbon emission goals for transportation. While projected mineral supply is currently in line with demand for electric vehicles, the supply of some minerals, such as lithium, may need to grow by up to one-third by the end of the decade in order to satisfy global climate pledges. 

When the Biden administration rejoined the Paris Agreement in 2021, it called for up to a 52 percent reduction from 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade. 

American appetite for larger vehicles that require larger batteries may place further strain on demand. However, the IEA also said that high commodity prices may spur changes in battery chemistries, leading in turn to less demand for cobalt or nickel and reduce pressures for new mines. 

Working group

The administration has sought to enhance domestic supply chains and launched an interagency working group to examine current mining regulations and propose changes to key mining regulations and laws, including the General Mining Law of 1872. But with a lead time between the planning stages of a project and actual mining, and a decline in federal applications to mine over the past decade, in the immediate future the U.S. may be unlikely to source the necessary minerals domestically. 

Under last year’s climate, tax and health care law the electric vehicle tax credit requires that a proportion of the battery minerals must have been extracted or processed in the U.S. or one of the 20 countries with which it has a free trade agreement. Even if processing remains dominated by China, this includes Chile, Australia and Canada – all nations with well-established mining industries. 

The U.S. has also sought to enhance ties with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, two nations with large cobalt and copper reserves that are not free-trade partners. In December the State Department signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly develop a supply chain for electric vehicle batteries while ensuring officials do not run afoul of domestic and international corruption laws. 

However, this move has also drawn criticism from Stauber, who sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Feb. 23 questioning whether the U.S. should seek out minerals from countries with weaker environmental standards and, in the case of Congo, frequent reports of child labor. Instead, he reminded Blinken that his Minnesota district remains home to large cobalt and copper deposits.

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