Bipartisan Clean-Energy Mining Push Hits Environmental Snag

Sen. Joe Manchin is pushing to harvest minerals key to clean-energy technologies, but critics fear the effort will jeopardize bedrock environmental laws.

Sen. Joe Manchin
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
May 15, 2019, 8 p.m.

Joe Manchin has a plan to transition the West Virginian economy away from coal production—at least partially.

The senior senator from the Mountain State is now pushing legislation, dubbed the American Mineral Security Act, to boost production of metals that are essential to clean-energy technologies like electric vehicles and batteries.

“We have to diversify our economy. We can help this country,” Manchin told National Journal. “[West Virginians] would love nothing more than to transition and to help the country if you give them the chance. They’ve always done that.”

The U.S. is nearly wholly import-reliant on those metals. But environmental groups and likely many fellow Democrats aren’t going to sign off on Manchin's effort.

Those critics applaud provisions in the legislation to promote workforce development and recycling. But tucked away in the bill is language to expedite permit approvals for new mining projects. And that’s a nonstarter for environmental hawks.

“Metals mining is the leading industrial polluter in the United States,” dozens of environmental groups, including Earthjustice, Earthworks, and Oxfam America, told senators in a letter on Tuesday, the same day the Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill.

“Mines are unique, highly variable, and pose environmental issues that can take significant time to analyze,” the letter said. “Agencies cannot be hurried in grappling with these grave impacts during the permitting process.”

The legislation calls for an expedited permitting process on these projects that would limit the public comment period to 60 days, in line with infrastructure projects included in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Environmental groups say the restrictive comment period is unfit for mining projects that pose serious potential risks like subsurface water contamination.

But industry members and mining experts say the legislation could catalyze U.S. investment in “critical mineral” mining, a category of roughly 50 metals that includes aluminum, cobalt, lithium, and rare-earth elements, and drastically reduce permitting life spans, which mining proponents say often last seven to 10 years or longer.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory, an Energy Department offshoot that has facilities in Morgantown, West Virginia, and in Pittsburgh, says many of these metals are located in coal beds and waste.

Manchin, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources panel, is eyeing critical mineral production and extraction as a lifeline for a state embattled by coal-plant retirements.

Across the country, coal plants are going offline at rapid rates. The number of retirements, including planned retirements, since 2010 is now nearing 300, according to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

New research at NETL labs and West Virginia University is targeting extraction of critical minerals from mining waste, known as tailings, and acid mine drainage. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU, told the committee Tuesday that his research suggests roughly 800 tons of rare-earth elements could be extracted from acid mine drainage. That’s about 1/20th of annual U.S. demand.

“Now, we have the ability from technology to do things so much different with the same product that’s already been mined. So why not?” Manchin said.

Manchin is teaming up on the American Mineral Security Act with committee chair Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans. The senators stress national vulnerability linked to dependence on imports of critical minerals, which are also increasingly used by the Defense Department.

China has a near-stranglehold on the market writ large despite a U.S. abundance of the minerals. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is also the dominant producer of cobalt.

The U.S. is currently 100 percent import-reliant on cobalt and graphite and 92 percent import-reliant on lithium, according to Simon Moores, managing director at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, who testified before the committee earlier this year.

That’s helping to leave the U.S. behind in developing a supply chain to manufacture advanced products such as clean-energy technologies. Seventy lithium-ion-battery mega-factories are now being constructed globally, only five of which are in the U.S., according to Moores. The Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada is the only currently operational one in the U.S.

But Manchin's push likely faces a challenge from Senate Democrats, who last year warned against a White House Council on Environmental Quality proposal to limit the public comment period on these mining projects to 60 days.

The minerals legislation would put the inclusion into law, and that’s likely to trigger Democratic opposition.

“‘Expedited permitting’ is too often used as an excuse to bypass the federal and state environmental-review processes,” said Martina McLennan, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Merkley, the lead signatory on the letter Democrats sent to CEQ. “Senator Merkley believes we don’t need to compromise the health and safety of women, men, and children living in our communities to get good projects built.”

Murkowski, who has notched an array of legislative wins since President Trump took office, said she’s moving ahead with a markup on the legislation in the near future, with hopes of tacking it onto an infrastructure bill or the next National Defense Authorization Act. The Alaska Republican said she’d consider tweaks.

“If there’s trimming that we need to do, I’ll look to what has to be done to do that,” she said. “But I think my view right now is that we’ve got a good piece of legislation that has had considerable review and input from a lot of different corners. So I’d like to think that what we’ve introduced is a pretty good product.”

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