Electric Vehicle Push Returns North Carolina to Its Lithium Mining Roots

The Kings Mountain hiking trail known as Cardio Hill overlooks a pit full of rainwater the size of a lake, but the craggy terrain situated about 30 miles west of Charlotte is now one of the most precious pieces of real estate in the United States.

Beneath that ground is a mine that has been stagnant since the 1980s and is believed to contain one of the nation’s largest deposits of lithium, a critical ingredient in the batteries needed to power electric vehicles.

Albemarle Corporation, the world’s largest lithium producer, is trying to revive the mine and capitalize on the Biden administration’s push to develop a domestic electric vehicle industry. It is just one of several projects underway in North Carolina, where companies are racing to secure permits for multibillion dollar lithium investments, in part to try and benefit from lucrative incentives included in President Biden’s new climate law.

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen traveled to North Carolina to visit Livent, a lithium hydroxide processing company that currently gets its lithium from Canada and Argentina. The company expanded its plant in Bessemer City, N.C., and increased its manufacturing capacity there by 50 percent, a decision it attributed to the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains tax incentives for American-made electric vehicles.

During her tour, Ms. Yellen said that the United States was making progress in reducing its dependence on China through its energy initiatives.

“Key supply chains in areas like clean energy are over-concentrated in China, in part due to unfair nonmarket practices over decades,” Ms. Yellen said. “With massive increases in domestic manufacturing capacity, our country will become less dependent on other countries for the inputs we need and we will make great strides toward energy security.”

Ms. Yellen suggested that investments such as those in North Carolina would reduce energy costs and bring higher wages to low-income communities.

Yet not everyone in this state is welcoming the revival of lithium mining. Neighbors of proposed mine projects have tried to derail plans to start digging by raising concerns about pollution, soil erosion and the release of toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, that could contaminate local water supplies. Some environmental experts warn that promoters of lithium as a green energy solution overlook how carbon intensive it is to mine the material, comparing it to fracking or mining for coal.

“The real truth is that lithium extraction impacts the environment tremendously,” said Marco Tedesco, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

North Carolina was once a lithium production hub, but the industry fizzled decades ago amid foreign competition and a lack of domestic demand. That has been changing since the 2022 climate and tax law created major subsidies to build a domestic electric vehicle supply chain that could compete with China. States such as North Carolina have benefited from a lithium rush and have become frontiers in an emerging Battery Belt.

The Biden administration will seek to further bolster domestic production on Friday, when it releases proposed rules that will dictate the extent to which foreign companies, particularly in China, can supply parts and products for American-made vehicles that are set to receive billions of dollars in subsidies.

Eric Norris, the president of energy storage at Albemarle, said the law had helped revitalize an industry that had been battered by globalization and a weak market for lithium products in the United States.

“When you get a form of policy that says we all want you to build and there’s money in it for you, then you’ve taken risk out of the equation,” Mr. Norris said. “It’s a way to compete globally in an industry that, frankly, we weren’t as invested in or paying as much attention to.”

He added, “You know the story — China has been paying a lot of attention.”

Albemarle has received approximately $250 million in federal grants in the past year, part of which came from Inflation Reduction Act funds, to promote domestic lithium production. It is one of several companies in North Carolina that is rapidly accelerating operations for extracting and processing lithium, which is essential to the flow of electricity within a battery, that can be sold to carmakers.

Although there has been progress in expanding North Carolina’s lithium industry, obstacles abound when it comes to permits and the pace of approvals that producers need to move forward with their plans. Political backlash against electric vehicles, often fueled by Republicans including former President Donald J. Trump, also presents headwinds.

Albemarle has been doing an extensive community outreach campaign to confront concerns about its mine proposal. That has included town-hall meetings, regular public tours of the site and a dedicated office in a converted pharmacy where residents can visit to ask questions. Even if the permit process goes smoothly, however, the company does not expect the mine to be able to operate until 2027 or 2028.

In North Carolina’s Gaston County, Piedmont Lithium has been struggling to win backing from local officials who oversee zoning for its Carolina Lithium project. The company projects that it could produce 30,000 metric tons of battery grade lithium per year when its mine and processing plants are operational. It plans to hire 500 workers with an average salary of more than $80,000 per year.

“We see ourselves very much at the cutting edge of what skilled labor employment has to offer for people in terms of wage opportunities,” said Patrick H. Brindle, chief operating officer of Piedmont.

But many residents remain skeptical about what a mine will mean for their community. At a Gaston County Board of Commissioners meeting in August, homeowners voiced concerns about traffic and noise associated with the mine and expressed fears about toxic chemicals infiltrating the water system.

“Why should I be financially devastated so that they can make billions of dollars?” Sandra Foster, whose home is near the proposed mine, asked.

Electric vehicles are intended to reduce carbon emissions and improve the health of the environment, but in many of the projects around the country local officials are anxious about the short-term environmental risks posed by the transition.

Chad Brown, a member of the board, said that it is not certain that Piedmont will get its permits, noting that the community is “up in arms.”

“Everybody worries about the environment,” Mr. Brown said.

The challenges have been amplified by the fact that the transition to clean energy technology has been the subject of political backlash from many Republican lawmakers.

Last year, a North Carolina State Representative, Ben Moss, a Republican, introduced legislation that would ban free electric vehicle chargers unless free gasoline pumps were made available in the same location.

However, other Republican lawmakers, such as Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, have been supportive of a revival of lithium mining in the state. The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has said that the environment needs to be protected but that having a mine that can provide raw materials for electric vehicle batteries is a positive development.

And local officials may ultimately be loathe to turn away thousands of new and well-paying jobs.

“My sense is that the potential benefits from this are going to be large enough that any of these political considerations will take a back seat,” said Mark Curtis, an economics professor at Wake Forest University who researches green energy jobs. “It’s a question of how do you minimize the costs that are going to be faced by these local communities.”

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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