What a national push for critical minerals could mean for Oregon

President Joe Biden and US lawmakers are stepping up efforts to mine, manufacture and process more battery materials at home – and it has drawn praise from the company exploring a major lithium deposit in southeast Oregon.

Jindalee Resources Limited, the Australian company that holds lithium leases at a Bureau of Land Management site in Malheur County, Oregon, says the growing push for production of critical minerals in the United States is a sign positive.

“You’ve seen bipartisan support for the development of critical mining projects increase,” said Lindsay Dudfield, executive director of Jindalee. “Jindalee is advancing a critical minerals project, so we are very encouraged by these developments.”

The Intercept reported Thursday that Biden is preparing to invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of batteries for electric vehicles, consumer electronics and renewable energy storage.

The Defense Production Act has recently been used to increase supply and expedite delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. In recent weeks, lawmakers have urged the president to use his authority under the law to do the same for batteries.

“Now is the time to develop, support and encourage investment in the domestic production of graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium, nickel and other critical minerals to ensure that we support our national security and to meet our needs for lithium-ion batteries. — both for consumers and for the Department of Defense,” Sens wrote. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Joe Manchin, DW.Va. ; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Bill Cassidy, R-La., in a letter to the president last week.

The Biden administration released a report last June that found the U.S. battery supply chain was extremely vulnerable as demand for batteries grew. For decades, the United States has relied on foreign imports of the minerals needed to make these batteries, especially lithium.

While the United States has large lithium reserves, it only produces about 1% of the world’s supply. Demand for lithium and other materials is expected to soar as the United States seeks to move away from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency.

The Biden administration report indicates that lithium could be a good candidate for new domestic mining and extraction activities, which would reduce American dependence on foreign sources like Russia and China.

But as the rush for critical minerals like lithium gathers pace in the United States, environmental groups, Native American tribes and others have urged caution, especially around new mining operations. The extractive industry remains extremely destructive to frontline communities as well as land, water and wildlife.

John Hadder, director of mining watchdog group Great Basin Resource Watch, said it’s important not to ignore the effects of mining because the end use of the materials – in this case, batteries – is popular.

“These mining projects are very damaging,” he said. “And so we have to approach them wisely and not in a rushed way. In our view, the fewer mines we develop, the better.

Hadder added that the desire to mine more lithium and other materials in the United States is based on projections of growing demand that may never materialize. He said policy changes and more robust battery recycling would likely reduce the need to mine new materials.

Biden has said he can only support new mining if companies adhere to stringent environmental and labor regulations.

“Environmental protections are paramount,” Biden said at a White House event to address U.S. mineral sourcing in February. “We need to make sure that these resources actually benefit the people of the communities where they live, not just the shareholders.”

A map of the McDermitt Caldera on the Oregon-Nevada border.

Biden also announced at the event the formation of a task force to make changes to the General Mining Act of 1872, which still governs mining and speculation on public lands.

The Jindalee project west of the Oregon-Nevada border town of McDermitt is still in the exploration phase and no mines have been proposed.

The company is in the midst of a drilling program to determine the amount of lithium deposited at the project site and its economic viability. Jindalee says the deposit could eventually support a mine, but Dudfield believes a mining proposal is years away at the earliest.

“We’re a long way from mining, I have to stress that,” Dudfield said. “There is a lot of work to do, and we may never get to the position where we can operate the project.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To learn more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

About Anne Wurtsbach

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