There’s a lithium mining boom, but it’s not a good business: NPR

Traffic on October 6, 2022 in Tonopah, Nev. passes through

Bridget Bennett for NPR

hide title

change the title

Bridget Bennett for NPR

Traffic on October 6, 2022 in Tonopah, Nev. passes through

Bridget Bennett for NPR

The city of Tonopah, Nev., was born out of the silver rush. A mad race to extract natural wealth created a city of more than 10,000 people – for a time.

Today, just over 2,000 people live in Tonopah. But there’s a new mining boom in town.

You can see it when you check in at the old Mitzpah Hotel, all its faded glory, ghost stories and tales of Wyatt Earp. Above the cash register, next to the chandelier, a screen advertises a lithium exploration company.

Forty minutes outside the city, the Silver Peak lithium mine is in the process of doubling production.

Lithium is essential for the production of rechargeable batteries, such as the giant batteries used in electric cars. Demand is increasing. After decades of moving manufacturing overseas, the auto industry is now racing to move its supply chains back to the U.S. — especially for batteries, from raw materials to assembly.

It’s a top priority for the Biden administration, which it says will reduce dependence on countries like China and boost American jobs.

Mining is part of that push—sometimes controversially. And there is a strong case for how domestic production of essential minerals improves the security of American supply chains.

But employment is another story. Unlike the glory days of Tonopah—or, for example, the oil boom towns of North Dakota and West Texas today—this race to extract resources from the earth does not seem to be good for business.

Take Silver Peak’s investment double the output. “I believe we’re increasing — it probably doesn’t sound like a lot — I think it’s about 5 to 10 new employees,” said Karen Narwold, Albemarle’s chief administrative officer.

Silver Peak is a brine mine that harnesses the power of the sun to concentrate lithium in brine. He employed only about 70 people to operate the pumps and maintain the equipment.

Other mines require relatively more workers. Lithium Americas CEO John Evans is trying to open a mine in northern Nevada’s Thacker Pass. (The mine is currently facing legal challenges from local opponents.) He said the mine will employ about 300 workers once it’s up and running.

But he also notes that the total number of mines opened simply won’t be large.

“If we have five or six of these in the next decade, I think we’re doing pretty well,” Evans said.

This generally adds up to a relatively modest business impact. Phil Jordan is vice president of BW Research, a workforce and energy consulting firm. He has done modeling work on how government incentives affect different parts of the supply chain, such as this summer’s major climate bill.

“There are certainly increases in mining,” he says. “But those increases will be, you know, a thousand jobs that will last for ten years.”

This is dwarfed by jobs created in manufacturing or clean energy construction. And that’s a small fraction of the more than half a million jobs supported by these incentives overall.

Kwasi Ampofo, head of metals and mining at BloombergNEF, says the modest job numbers are not surprising. “Mining in developed countries has a very, very low labor footprint,” he says, and automation and other technological improvements are only reducing the need for workers.

The mining industry, for its part, points out that the jobs involved are highly compensated and located in rural areas with few other options.

“Our average salary is over $95,000 a year,” says Tire Gray, president and CEO of the Nevada Mining Association. “And when you’re talking about wages like that, those are the kinds of wages that can change your family’s life.”

Evans of the Thacker Pass project says the real value of building mines in the U.S. is not the mining jobs it creates, but what it enables further down the supply chain by creating a safer source for minerals.

“All the battery components — the cathodes, the anodes, the separators, all of that goes where the big jobs are going to be,” he said. As an example, he points to a plant LG Chem has set up in Tennessee to make cathodes — battery components.

“You’ll have 2,000 people working there,” he says. “But you need the material from 300 people in northern Nevada to make this cathode factory work.”

Atlas Public Policy recently gathered all the factories announced to build electric cars, batteries and chargers. They counted 143,575 advertised jobs.

Source link