To Create a Clean Energy Future, Mining Reform Must Be Front and Center

We are advocating for four solutions that together can ensure a sustainable supply chain for critical minerals.

We all know that to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis, we must quickly ramp down our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to clean energy. As we transition to a clean energy economy, we have the opportunity to do what the fossil fuel industry never did — to set out from the beginning to better protect the communities and environments impacted by energy development. The transition to clean energy for all will require more of certain types of metals to build out solar panels and battery storage. These metals, including lithium and cobalt, are referred to in the policy world as “critical minerals.” The current policies we have in place are not sufficient to ensure a sustainable supply chain that protects communities from the impacts of mining and extraction of critical and other minerals.

One example of a community at the confluence of this issue is the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. They are threatened by the Rosemont Mine, a proposed mine that would dig a mile-wide pit in sacred lands. In Minnesota, local communities whose livelihoods depend on the Boundary Waters, the most visited wilderness area in the country, are threatened by the Twin Metals Mine. In Alaska, the world’s greatest sockeye salmon run and the region’s Native Tribes are threatened by the Pebble Mine, the largest proposed mine in North America.

We cannot justly move to a clean energy future at the cost of harming people or the environment. It is imperative that we protect communities that could be harmed by critical mineral mining and development by providing sufficient environmental, health, and cultural resource protections, and by creating a more sustainable supply chain for the products we use for our clean energy. We can’t move energy “sacrifice zones” — where people bear the brunt of the impact — from oil-and-gas-impacted communities to mining-impacted communities.

Earthjustice is leading the way on developing sustainable policy answers as we decarbonize as quickly as possible, and on advocating for those answers with Congress and the White House. Last year, the Biden administration released a series of reports laying out its plan for creating a secure supply for products like critical minerals, which are currently needed for clean energy technology. We were pleased to see that many of our sustainable policy solutions were included, and that the administration has continued seeking feedback on the creation and implementation of various solutions.  However, action is urgently needed to create the rules, standards and incentives to create a truly sustainable supply chain. We will continue to advocate strongly and swiftly to ensure that destructive mining is reined in and doesn’t include corporate bailouts and subsidies for mining companies and their lobbyists.

We are advocating for four solutions that together can ensure a sustainable supply chain for critical minerals:

Boost the Circular Economy: We must seek to meet the demand for critical minerals in the most sustainable way possible: by reducing, reusing, and recycling, and by extending the life of materials and products we already have. The U.S. is woefully behind our international partners on the creation of a circular economy for our minerals recycling, reuse, and substitution. If we put the right policies in place, we can reduce the need for raw materials and create new clean energy jobs in the recycling sector, such as the thousands of employees that Umicore currently employs in the European Union at its critical minerals recycling facilities. While recycling technology exists today, few mineral recycling facilities are located in the United States, in large part due to the lack of a policy framework that incentivizes and eases collection of products such as Electric Vehicle batteries and phones, and lack of policy that incentivizes the use of recycled minerals in our products. With the correct policies in place, we can create a market in the U.S. that provides a pathway for these minerals to be locally and sustainably sourced. Legislative and regulatory policy changes are needed to ensure that the collection, recycling, and safe disposal of these critical materials is affordable and reliable for years to come.

We can also reduce the amount of new material needed for the clean energy transition. Incentivizing more energy efficient homes and buildings, or funding research and development to make better, lighter, more energy dense batteries, for example, means less material needed to keep the lights on or to drive more miles in an electric vehicle. Policymakers can also promote alternatives to driving alone, like public transit, carsharing, walking, and biking, and should explore other ways to increase EVs’ efficiency and reduce their environmental impact. We can work together to ensure that the transition to clean energy recognizes that critical minerals are limited resources, and their extraction comes with real consequences for communities and the climate that can and should be avoided to the greatest extent possible.

Reform Domestic Mining Laws: Mining in the U.S. is controlled by a law from 1872, a relic of the Wild West, passed to help entice colonizers to settle these lands and in the process evict indigenous people from their lands.

The law does not require mining companies to clean up their toxic messes. This is why there are more than 500,000 abandoned mines across the West, many of them with legacy pollution that continues to pollute clean water, cause ongoing health problems for indigenous communities, harm wildlife and habitat, and permanently scar natural landscapes. The law does not require companies to compensate taxpayers by paying a royalty for harming the public lands we all share. It offers virtually no discretion to land managers who want to deny a mine proposed in a problematic or special place — because mining is considered the highest and best use of our public lands under this outdated law.

This means the U.S. has some of the least protective mining laws in the world. It effectively has no safeguards for lands, water, or habitat protections. It has few protections for the frontline communities that face devastating mining impacts, including the destruction of sacred sites. That is why the Environmental Protection Agency identifies metal mining as the most toxic industry in America. The U.S. must update its mining laws, and the regulations at the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Services implementing those mining laws, so that when mining does occur it is sustainable and happens only in the lowest risk areas. House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva’s Hardrock and Leasing Reclamation Act accomplishes the necessary reforms, and Earthjustice fully supports that bill.

Set Standards for Imported Minerals: If we want other countries to have a higher bar on labor and environmental standards for mining, the U.S. must lead by example and implement high standards for itself, as well as negotiate high standards in trade agreements — including through verifications and certifications such as Institute for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). IRMA defines good practices for what responsible mining should look like. It provides the list of expectations that independent auditors use as the benchmark for responsible mines, regarding labor standards, environmental standards, and business standards.

Employ a Precautionary Approach to Deep Seabed Mining: The exploitation of the deep sea for critical minerals poses unknown risk to the ocean, the climate, valuable fisheries, invaluable biodiversity, and to the people, economies, and communities that depend on the ocean. The mining of the deep seabed could disrupt fragile carbon cycles and threaten ecosystems we still know almost nothing about, and yet there is a push to plunder the deep ocean before the risks are fully understood, and before we have any global consensus on if and how it can be done safely. We must use the precautionary approach to ensure we adequately protect these ecosystems and resources for generations to come.

If we are able to effectively implement these solutions and build a sustainable and just clean energy supply chain, we will be able to reduce the need for raw materials and mining, and ensure that what mining does occur is sustainable, held to high environmental and labor standards, and occurs in acceptable locations. Earthjustice will continue to advocate for these priority solutions.

A senior legislative representative, Blaine works with Congress, federal agencies, and partner organizations to protect public lands and advance environmental health.

The Biodiversity Defense Program fights to reshape our relationship to lands, water, and wildlife everywhere by confronting the major drivers of the decline in nature, including habitat destruction and over-exploitation of wildlife.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.