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A hole in the ground rules


WORLD Radio - A hole in the ground rules

Electric vehicles require mineral mining that is not yet regulated to prevent long-term damage to land

A geologist with a polished core sample typically extracted during lithium mining operations Getty Images/Photo by Logan Cyrus/Bloomberg

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, November 21st, 2023.

This is WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are along with us today. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: mining for electric vehicles.

Last week, Arkansas issued a permit to ExxonMobil to drill for lithium. If it’s approved for production, it would be only the second commercial-scale lithium site in the U.S.

REICHARD: It was only last year that the Biden administration set out goals to bring lithium mining to this country. But, some people say that mining could harm the environment in the name of saving it.

WORLD Radio Reporter Mary Muncy has the story.


MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, or DNR just finished reclaiming part of an old coal mine in Lynnville Park.


When the mine closed in 1964, the company left a lake that snakes around the park, and several sheer cliffs, called high walls. Park-goers used to jump off those cliffs—leading to several injuries.

That’s why park officials called the DNR. Kit Turpin leads the Abandoned Mine Land program, and he’s showing me the reclaimed high wall. Now it’s a slow incline into the lake.

KIT TURPIN: They were mining this way. And then for whatever reason, they stopped right here. So that's what left the wall was because they were mining up the streams unregulated.

Most abandoned mines in the U.S. were built prior to 1977. That year, the federal government passed a law called the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA. The law requires coal mining companies to put up bonds for reclamation before they can start digging.

Basically, companies are required to put the site back the way they found it or pay for the government to do it.

But that’s not the case for hardrock mining. That’s mining for things like gold, silver, and copper.

Right now, the U.S. only mines about one percent of the world’s cobalt, manganese, and nickel, some of the minerals needed for EV batteries.

But the Biden administration’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act wants to change that. It promises tax credits to manufacturers if 80 percent of critical minerals in their batteries are sourced in the US or trade-friendly countries.

DAVID KANAGY: We need to open up 359 new mines across a whole variety of commodities.

David Kanagy is the executive director and CEO of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration.

KANAGY: Whether it be lithium, or cobalt, or graphite, or nickel, or copper, etc, we need to move forward with the development of some of these mines in order to meet the long term supply demand.

Global S&P reports that demand for nickel, lithium, and cobalt will be 23 percent higher in 2035 than it is now.

But not all of that production will look alike. For example, ExxonMobil’s lithium site in Arkansas is not technically a mine. It’s more like drilling for oil, and it’s more environmentally friendly too.

Meanwhile, the majority of hard rock minerals are mined in Africa, Asia, and Australia… and 70 to 90 percent of them are refined in China.

KANAGY: If we really are concerned about the environment, if we're really concerned about worker safety, we're going to mine in the United States.

But that will require careful planning.

Mark Squillace is a professor of Natural Resources Law at the University of Colorado Law School. He has also testified before Congress on mining regulations and has been on committees to create global guidelines.

MARK SQUILLACE: Historically, the federal government has essentially just allowed mining companies to dump their waste rock on whatever public land they thought was available, even if they weren't mining that land.

The other thing that companies do is they basically leave their pit because we don't require that they backfill the pit.

That changed for the coal industry with that 1977 legislation, but the hardrock industry hasn’t changed much.

Right now, there are a few state and federal regulations. Hard rock mining companies do have to put up bonds for reclamation and be permitted before they can start digging, but…

SQUILLACE: The size of those bonds has always been a problem. There are a lot of bankruptcies that occur in the industry, which can be a real problem. And at the international level, there's been a huge amount of resistance to requiring adequate bonds at hardrock mining operations.

Squillace’s other concern is the Mining Law of 1872. That law allows someone to stake a claim on U.S. federal public land and mine any minerals on it without paying any royalties.

SQUILLACE: The mining companies don't pay any fees to basically take our federal minerals away from us. So it's been controversial, probably, since the law was enacted in 1872.

That’s true of domestic and international companies.

No matter what, there’s a cost if the U.S. outsources mining, it loses control of the supply chain. But if it mines domestically, it could harm the environment while depleting its own supply of minerals.

Arlo Hemphill is an environmental activist with Greenpeace USA. He and Squillace say the real environmental solution is to get better at recycling the minerals we already have.

HEMPHILL: The charts look very scary. But then again, that's those charts are based on the trajectory of current technology, that doesn't take into account whether we might use different battery chemistries, or find or find different ways of doing things.


Lynnville Park is now reopened for visitors, and Kit Turpin has moved on to the next abandoned mine on his list. But he’s happy that list is not getting longer.

TURPIN: The coal mines now are regulated. Problem solved with coal mines. Except, you know, there's just a massive amount of issues left behind.

About 300 million dollars worth of issues in Indiana. And unless things change, the list of abandoned hardrock mines could grow exponentially potentially leaving billions of dollars worth of issues.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy in Lynnville, Indiana.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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