North America needs lithium mines to compete with China’s dominance of the electric vehicle battery chain. There are some clear candidates, but no clear winner as bankruptcies and environmentalists get in the way of new mine openings. Despite the United States having over 3 percent of the world’s reserves, it has only one producing lithium mine with production at a modest 5,000 tons a year — less than 2 percent of the world’s annual supply. Several new lithium mines in Nevada have been tied up for years with environmental lawsuits. Other U.S. states (California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Dakota and North Carolina) also have lithium deposits, but no clear path to production. Even Maine has a deposit, reportedly one of the richest grade ores in the world. In Quebec, Canada, a lithium mine owned by the Australian company Sayona Mining is scheduled to open early next year. The mine has had several owners and some owners have filed for bankruptcy protection, so folks are dubious of its production potential, particularly since mining and processing the materials needed for electric vehicles is an arduous process and lithium mining is no exception. Some companies lack the expertise to blast ore, haul it out of the earth and separate the lithium from the surrounding rock, causing delays and cost overruns.
Lithium is the lightest known metal, and its ability to store energy makes it attractive for batteries. Because lithium deposits come embedded in other metals and minerals, extracting lithium can be incredibly difficult. More refineries—the plants where raw lithium is processed into a concentrated form of the metal that goes into batteries—need to be built in North America. Currently, China dominates the processing of critical metals that EVs and renewable technologies need. Lithium processing also requires expertise that is in short supply in the United States and among our allies, as environmentalist opponents have driven mines from our shores.
The Biden climate/tax bill, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed in August, provides incentives and subsidies for car buyers and automakers. To qualify for the subsidies, which are worth over $10,000 per electric vehicle, battery makers must use raw materials from North America or a country with which the United States has a trade agreement. That presents a dilemma. Despite dozens of potential lithium mines in the United States and in Canada, most projects are in various stages of development and many are years away from production, particularly with environmental lawsuits delaying development due to multiple entry points for litigation in U.S. regulatory law. Many of these mines need to raise billions of investment dollars without any guarantee that they will yield enough lithium to meet North America’s needs.
The price of lithium has increased fivefold since mid-2021, pushing the cost of electric vehicles to about $66,000–just a few thousand dollars less than the median household income and $20,000 more than the average for all new car sales. And costs are still rising. High EV prices are caused by shortages of batteries and raw materials like lithium and of components like semiconductors. Automakers also have little incentive to build and sell cheaper EV models when there is strong demand from affluent buyers who want to own a Tesla or be the first on their street with a fancy electric vehicle. Further, many low- and middle-income people do not have their own garages or driveways, and there is a lack of enough public facilities to recharge their vehicles should they purchase an EV.
The bottlenecks will take years to undo as automakers and suppliers of batteries and chips must permit, build and equip new factories. Commodity suppliers need to open new mines and build refineries that take years for permitting and surmounting lawsuits. Charging companies are struggling to install stations fast enough despite incentives from the federal government.
Albemarle operates the only active lithium mine in the United States at Silver Peak, Nevada. At that mine, lithium is extracted from brine, a liquid found beneath the ground. Some Tesla batteries contain lithium from Nevada, but the site’s total annual output is enough for about 80,000 vehicles—about a fifth of the EVs bought in the first six months of this year in the United States (370,000 EVs). Albemarle also produces lithium in Chile and Australia, is working to reopen a lithium mine in Kings Mountain, N.C., and plans to build a refinery in the Southeast. But those projects will be insufficient to satisfy demand should other states follow California’s lead to ban internal combustion engines.
At the Quebec mine, rock is blasted loose and crushed, and then processed in several stages to remove waste material. A short drive from the mine, inside a large building with walls of corrugated blue metal, a laser scanner uses jets of compressed air to separate light-colored lithium ore. The ore is then refined in vats filled with detergent and water, where the lithium floats to the surface and is skimmed away. The end product looks like fine white sand but it is still only about 6 percent lithium. The rest includes aluminum, silicon and other substances. The material is sent to refineries, most of them in China, to be further purified. The operation uses electricity from Quebec’s hydropower plants, and only recycled water in the separation process. Still, environmentalists are wary.
Production and processing of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel are essential for the manufacturing of electric vehicles and renewable technologies. Currently, China, where regulations on mining and manufacturing are not as rigorous as in the United States, is dominant in the battery supply chain, particularly in the processing of these raw materials. Environmentalists in the United States do not see the mining and the processing of these materials as “green” and are using the nation’s laws and regulations to delay or remove the projects. Canada is a bit more lenient than the United States, and as a result, might be able to succeed with the lithium mine in Quebec, particularly if lithium prices stay elevated.