No, We Don’t Have to Mine Our Way to Clean Energy

Simona, Cain, and Mason are members of the Burns, Oregon Paiute Tribe. They and their parents attended a gathering at the Thacker Pass mine site on April 10, 2021 - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Opinion

Any regular reader of the Ally will be familiar with the ongoing drama at Thacker Pass, where a Canadian mining corporation wants to mine for lithium. And while we do need lithium, one of the key components of electric car batteries and other low-carbon energy infrastructure, we must source it responsibly.

We face an existential climate crisis, and must move quickly to convert our infrastructure to support low-carbon energy. The challenge is to do so without replacing dirty oil with dirty mining. 

The history of mining in this country is a story of colonialism: white settlers running roughshod over Indigenous communities, displacing them from their ancestral homelands and despoiling sacred sites–along with the drinking water of everybody downstream. We must confront this legacy.

The clean energy era can avoid repeating these mistakes and those of the fossil fuel era by meeting mineral demand in the most sustainable way possible: by recycling, reusing and extending the life of materials and products we already have. Where new mining is necessary, we must take special care to protect communities and natural resources, particularly those relied on by Indigenous peoples and protected by treaties and other rights. 

Thacker Pass, known as Peehee Mu’huh or “Rotton Moon,” is traditional and unceded territory of the Paiute and Shoshone people, home to sage grouse, bighorn sheep, and a variety of rare and endangered plant life. On September 12, 1865, the Federal Government massacred at least 31 Northern Paiute people near this site. The burial grounds and artifacts are of sacred significance to many Indigenous people who demand the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) meaningfully consult them in any decisions about how the land is used. If they don’t want a lithium mine there, BLM should not impose one.

Lithium Nevada likes to talk about how the climate emergency makes mining at Thacker Pass inevitable, but there are better ways to meet our growing mineral demand than new hardrock mining. New research suggests adopting circular economy policies can reduce demand for new lithium by one quarter, and by up to one half for other battery minerals. 

Public and private sector investment all over the world has spurred innovations in recycling and reuse, but the U.S. is falling way behind other countries. Smart policy can incentivize battery collection and recycling, reducing the need for new mining and creating good jobs. In order to incentivize minerals recycling and reuse, we need to reform the laws governing mining on federal lands, which are 150 years old and have never been meaningfully updated.

The 1872 Mining Law gives mining priority over every other land use. This “mining first” approach has made the mining industry the nation’s top source of toxic pollution for decades, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Associated Press has reported that 50 million gallons of polluted water flows from U.S. mine sites every day. 

How has it gotten so bad? A lack of accountability. Unlike other extractive industries, under the 1872 law, mining companies pay no federal royalties. Whoever stakes a claim and discovers valuable minerals on public lands claims those riches–more than $300 billion and counting since 1872–without giving taxpayers anything in return. And unlike coal miners, hardrock miners pay no federal reclamation fee, leaving taxpayers a $50 billion cleanup bill for the country’s 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines.

We need to hold the mining industry accountable for its pollution to protect communities, save taxpayer dollars, and create jobs cleaning up old mines. Thanks to the leadership of New Mexico’s Senator Martin Heinrich, the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill includes funding for a new $3 billion abandoned hardrock mine cleanup program.

It’s progress, but there’s a long way to go. Reform must focus on protecting communities and the environment by balancing industrial scale mining with other important land uses, such as sacred and cultural site protection, conservation, recreation and tourism, municipal water supplies, and renewable energy development. That’s why we (Earthworks), along with a coalition of Tribes, Indigenous groups and conservation groups recently petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior to improve and modernize hardrock mining oversight on public lands.

The petition seeks to significantly update hardrock mining regulations, a need the Biden administration has also identified, to avoid perpetuating the mining industry’s toxic legacy. Current regulations disproportionately burden Indigenous and other disenfranchised communities with pollution and threaten land, water, wildlife and climate. New mining rules would help protect these resources and minimize the damage from the mineral demands of transitioning to a cleaner energy economy.

For far too long, mining companies have had free rein to decimate lands of cultural importance to Tribes and public lands at enormous cost to people, wildlife, and these beautiful wild places of historic and cultural significance. The harm is undeniable, severe and irreparable. Reforming these rules will prevent more damage, help us transition to green infrastructure, and leave a livable planet to future generations.


Aaron Mintzes is the Senior Policy Counsel at Earthworks, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from mineral, oil and gas extraction. 


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.