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Two Key Hard Rock Mining Events Show Progress On Biden Energy Transition Plans

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the future of the energy transition as it relates to the United States and Biden energy policy direction has been whether the U.S. government and public will support a significant increase in hard rock mining as part of efforts to free critical mineral supply chains from their current China-centric configuration.

The U.S. and western European governments essentially made a collective decision surrender control of these mining efforts and supply chains connected to China and its competitive cost advantages during the 1980s. With the manufacturing of batteries, solar panels and wind turbine components so dependent on an array of critical minerals like lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt and antimony, countries seeking to transition away from fossil fuels to a renewable/electric vehicle-heavy energy mix will also be surrendering a great deal of energy security unless these mining operations and supply chains can be liberated from Chinese communist control.

In July of 2021, President Joe Biden committed his administration to mount a “whole of government” effort to promote exploitation of domestic critical mineral resources and onshore their supply chains. The Inflation Reduction Act increased the motivation for the U.S. electric vehicles (EV) industry to support this effort by enacting a new subsidy that requires domestic content in order for buyers to fully qualify.

Despite all the administration’s messaging around it, progress related to this whole-of-government project has been hard to identify over the 18 months since its announcement. But two key events this week indicate that some progress is finally being made.

The first event came on December 19, when the U.S. Department of Defense announced it has approved a $24.8 million critical minerals award under the Defense Production Act (DPA) Investments Program and the Air Force Executive Agent to antimony mining company Perpetua Resources. DoD said in a release that this is the first critical minerals award using Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations funds. The award is designed to help fund Perpetua’s efforts to get to a Final Environmental Impact Statement, a Final Record of Decision, and other ancillary permits related to its Stibnite Gold and Antimony mining project in central Idaho.

I have written about Perpetua and its struggles to obtain these permits several times over the past two years as an example of how the same activist groups who say they support the energy transition also work to delay and ultimately kill the domestic hard rock mining operations that will have to be mounted to secure supplies of this array of critical minerals.

Another company I’ve written about in a similar context is ioneer, a lithium mining company that has struggled for years to obtain the permits needed to tap one of the nation’s largest known deposits of underground lithium at its Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron project in a remote area of Esmerelda County, Nevada. That key energy transition project has been held up for years by efforts mounted by the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the nation’s most active anti-development lobby groups, using the provisions of the Endangered Species Act to protect 10 acres of buckwheat that lie adjacent to the proposed mining operation.

Also on December 19, ioneer announced that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has decided to issue a decision to publish Notice of Intent for Rhyolite Ridge Project. In its release, ioneer says that the BLM decision represents a “major milestone toward completion of the NEPA process and approval of the Project’s Plan of Operations. The Plan is the foundational permitting document for the Project and will become the basis for compliance during operations and closure.” It is a plan that ioneer started working on in earnest four years ago.

It should be noted that, despite these key events in the process taking place, neither of these two key critical minerals mining projects are guaranteed to ultimately come to fruition. The permitting processes of the federal government are highly complex, and activists working to stop them will have many more bites at the obstruction apple before final approvals can be made.

But these two decisions do represent significant progress, and they are emblematic of the kinds of choices that federal bureaucrats are going to have to find ways to make far more rapidly if the United States is going to have any hope of meeting President Biden’s aggressive climate goals while retaining some level of national energy security. The unreasonably long timelines involved in just getting to these key steps in the process also highlight once again the need for congress to act on major reform of these permitting processes, something the current congress failed twice to do just in the past four months.

This is progress, but it’s far too little, and happening far too slowly to make the needed difference on a national scale.

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