Mining lithium poses environmental risks. The Biden administration isn’t ignoring them

Sen. Chuck Grassley claimed that President Joe Biden’s administration is ignoring environmental risks in its attempt to create more electric vehicles.

Mining+lithium+poses+environmental+risks.+The+Biden+administration+isn%E2%80%99t+ignoring+them

Jon Greenberg , PolitiFact Contributor


PolitiFact Iowa is a project of The Daily Iowan’s Ethics & Politics Initiative and PolitiFact to help you find the truth in politics.


If your time is short:

  • President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget plan includes $75 million to increase lithium supplies with less environmental impact through battery recycling.
  • The administration now oversees a large new lithium mine in Nevada that has drawn lawsuits for its environmental impacts. It was approved by the Trump administration.
  • The Bureau of Land Management is vetting another proposed lithium mine against a full menu of environmental concerns.

If President Joe Biden is going to achieve his vision of putting millions more electric cars and trucks on America’s highways, lithium ion batteries will be a key piece of the effort. So far, these relatively lightweight energy cells are the best bet for going electric and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In a recent op-ed that skewered Biden’s budget plan as bloated and wasteful, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley highlighted one of the challenges to getting enough lithium to make that shift to electric vehicles happen.

“The president’s budget showers hundreds of billions of dollars into federal incentives for U.S. consumers to jump on the EV bandwagon, electrify school buses and install EV chargers across the country,” Grassley wrote June 7.

But, Grassley continued, the Biden administration “ignores the negative environmental impact created by lithium mining needed for EV batteries and power storage.”

Biden and his Democratic Party offer themselves as environmental defenders. It would be a big deal if they sacrificed local environmental safety in the quest to meet national or global climate change goals.

Most lithium mining comes with an environmental cost, and a major new Nevada project has drawn lawsuits from environmental groups. But Grassley’s claim goes too far in saying the administration is ignoring the problems lithium extraction poses in its push for electric vehicles.

His staff explained that he was speaking only about Biden’s budget plan, not the administration’s policy across the board. That falls wide of the mark, too.

The Thacker Pass lithium mine

Lithium-ion batteries are used for most plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and all-electric vehicles. Smaller versions also power our cell phones and laptops. Today, most lithium comes from Australia or South America. With demand projected to skyrocket, the U.S. has put a premium on producing more lithium at home.

The Thacker Pass mine in northern Nevada has become the country’s first large expansion of lithium production in a decade.

Grassley’s staff pointed us to news stories about the Thacker Pass mine, a 1,000 acre open-pit mine, expected to produce 60,000 metric tons per year of battery-grade lithium carbonate.

The Bureau of Land Management gave final approval to the mine on Jan. 15, 2021, in the final week of the Trump administration. The move drew a quick reaction from those who saw the mine as a threat. A local rancher sued to reverse the permit, as did several land conservation groups.

They argued that the owner, Lithium Americas, downplayed the millions of gallons of water it would use, and the pressure that would place on limited water supplies. They noted that the government’s own assessment showed that operations would raise the level of antimony, a toxic metal, in the groundwater, high enough to exceed state minimums. There would also be habitat loss.

We asked the Bureau of Land Management if it was taking another look at the permit, and the agency said it had no comment. The government has assigned a Justice Department lawyer to defend against the lawsuits.

It’s fair to say that, as Grassley complained, the Biden administration is now overseeing a project that could hurt the environment. But the administration’s policy goes beyond that one mine.

Efforts to reduce lithium’s environmental downsides

The Bureau of Land Management is currently vetting another lithium mining project in Nevada, more to the south along the border with California. The Clayton Valley lithium pilot plant has an initial environmental assessment that considers the potential impacts on water, air, habitat and cultural resources.

The government has not yet signed off on the permit. Based solely on where the process sits today, the administration is not ignoring the negative effects of lithium mining.

The administration has also shown interest in finding alternatives to traditional mining techniques to extract lithium.

One small Energy Department project offers $4 million to develop ways to get lithium out of the briny waters of geothermal aquifers.

On a larger scale, the department’s budget request asks Congress for $75 million to build a lithium battery recycling system. In its blueprint for lithium batteries, the department said the goal is to “enhance environmental sustainability, and support a U.S.-based circular materials supply chain.”

Our ruling

Grassley said that the Biden administration “ignores the negative environmental impact created by lithium mining.”

There’s not much to back that up. The administration now oversees a project approved by the Trump administration that has drawn lawsuits, but it is vetting another lithium mine proposal against a full menu of environmental considerations.

If Grassley was speaking solely about Biden’s budget plan, the facts support him even less. The Energy Department is seeking $75 million to recycle lithium batteries as a strategy to increase supply with less environmental damage.

People might argue that the administration isn’t doing enough, but there’s no evidence that the administration is ignoring the downsides of lithium mining.

We rate this claim False.


Sources

Iowa Torch, Grassley: Biden’s Bloated Budget, June 7, 2021

White House, FY 2022 Budget of the U.S. government, May 2021

U.S. Energy Department, Energy efficiency and renewable energy — FY 2022 budget request, June 3, 2021

U.S. Interior Department, Thacker Pass lithium mine project – record of decision, January 2021

High Country News, Nevada lithium mine kicks off a new era of Western extraction, Feb. 18, 2021

Lithium Americas, Thacker Pass, accessed June 8, 2021

Grist, The Battle of Thacker Pass, March 12, 2021

Interesting Engineering, The Paradox of “Clean” EVs and the “Dirty” Lithium Mining Business, April 10, 2021

Forbes, Rising U.S. Lithium Industry: A Potential Quandary For Environmental Activists, March 16, 2021

New York Times, The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles, May 6, 2021

U.S. Interior Department, Environmental assessment — Clayton Valley Lithium Pilot Plant Project, March 2021

U.S. Energy Department, National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, June 8, 2021

U.S. Energy Department, DOE Geothermal Competitions Heat Up: New Lithium Extraction Prize and Teams Advance in Manufacturing Prize and Collegiate Competition, March 31, 2021

U.S. Energy Department, Advanced Manufacturing Office FY20 Critical Materials FOA Selections Table, accessed June 7, 2021

American Lithium, American Lithium Co-recipient of U.S. Department of Energy Grant For US$4.5M Lithium Processing Pilot Plant, March 4, 2021

Congressional Research Service, Environmental Effects of Battery Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles, June 16, 2020

University of California-Riverside, Lithium extraction research, accessed June 7, 2021

Sustainable Materials and Technologies, The future of automotive lithium-ion battery recycling: Charting a sustainable course, December 2014

Reuters, Trump moves to loosen mining regulations, approve projects as he exits, Jan. 8, 2021

U.S. District Court – Nevada, Western Watershed Project et al. vs U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Feb. 26, 2021

U.S. District Court – Nevada, U.S. Justice Department notice of appearance, March 16, 2021

Sierra Club, Mining and Mining Law Reform Policy, Feb. 20, 2020

Email exchange, George Hartmann, spokesman, Office of Sen. Chuck Grassley, June 8, 2021

Email exchange, press office, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, June 8, 2021

Email exchange, Cathy Milbourn, press office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, June 7, 2021

Email exchange, press office, U.S. Department of Energy, June 7, 2021

Email exchange, Debora Schneider, press office, Environmental Defense Fund, June 8, 2021

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