This story was originally published by High Country News and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Southern Arizona’s Patagonia Mountains, long inhabited by the Sobaipuri O’odham and Hohokam people, occupy the nexus of several different biological provinces. They are home to hundreds of species of birds, bees, bats, and butterflies, as well as the unique Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands.
It was here that, in 1877, a rancher named David Tecumseh Harshaw staked a couple of mining claims on stolen land that had been put in the public domain. The General Mining Law, passed by Congress five years earlier to encourage the settlement, privatization, and exploitation of public land in the Western U.S., enabled him to do so. Harshaw did the obligatory “improvements” to the claims and obtained title to the property.
Harshaw sold one of them to the Hermosa Mining Co. of New York, which hired 150 men to shovel the mountain’s innards into something resembling Swiss cheese. Over the next few decades, the Hermosa Mine changed hands several times while reportedly producing some $1.5 million worth of manganese-silver ore—and paying zero royalties, thanks to the 1872 Mining Law. But a drop in silver prices in the late 1800s hit the mine hard, and in 1903, it puttered out and never fully recovered.
Until now, that is. South32 Ltd, the Australian company that has owned Hermosa since 2018, told Bloomberg that it’s accelerating its plans to reopen and expand the mine in order to supply electric vehicle manufacturers, which are “super keen” to get their hands on the battery-grade manganese buried on the property. Its PR material includes a super-keen press release headlined: “Putting Arizona in the driver’s seat of clean transportation.”
The Hermosa Mine is just one of scores of mining projects sprouting across the West to feed the global hunger for the so-called green metals used in clean energy technologies and electric vehicles, from the lithium, cobalt, and nickel in EV and grid-scale batteries, to the rare earth elements in EV transmissions and solar panels.
It’s not just new projects that are getting a boost; decades-old proposals that withered in the face of environmental opposition are now being dusted off and given a new green sheen. What were once just gaping global corporate-profit machines are being reborn as essential to the push to decarbonize—with the added benefit of maybe showering oodles of cash on mining executives and shareholders.
This any-minute-now boom will be fueled by federal enticements and incentives designed to spur domestic production of these critical minerals. The Inflation Reduction Act’s $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases, for example, will apply only to cars with domestically mined battery materials. Plus, lithium, cobalt, and nickel mine production will net mine operators a 10 percent tax credit, nothing to scoff at if you’re a billion-dollar corporation, or even if you’re not.
Here’s an update on few of the projects in the works:
On Oct. 7, Australia-based Jervois Global officially launched operations at its cobalt mine in a historic mining district a few miles outside Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness. It’s the only cobalt mine in the U.S. so far, and it should be lucrative: Cobalt is currently trading for more than $50,000 per ton; earlier this year, it hit $80,000. Jervois expects to produce enough material for up to 7 million EVs over its eight-year lifespan.
First, there was the Rosemont, a massive open-pit copper mine proposed for the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Arizona, on ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Pascua Yaqui and Hopi tribes. The Forest Service was OK with letting Rosemont dump 1.9 billion tons of mine waste on public lands, but that plan was kiboshed after a federal court upheld an earlier ruling revoking the agency’s approval. Now, Canada-based Hudbay has rebranded the proposal as the “Copper World Complex,” a three-pit mine that, according to the company, “will support a stronger domestic supply of the copper we need to drive our green energy future.” Its first phase will be on patented mining claims—i.e., private land acquired through the 1872 General Mining Law. Hudbay plans to expand onto Forest Service land at a later date. In the meantime, it’ll need around 3 billion gallons of groundwater for the project. Good thing Tucson’s not in a desert or anything.
Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of global mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto, has been yearning to mine the massive deposit of copper buried deep beneath Chíchʼil Bił Dagoteel, or Oak Flat, since before Tesla was even founded. The original goal was to profit from the high copper prices spurred by China’s huge infrastructure push and the U.S. housing boom. But the project is fiercely opposed by the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which holds Oak Flat sacred. Now, Resolution’s marketing material and Twitter feed are abuzz with soundbites about how extracting that copper is necessary to achieve our green energy goals. There’s nary a word about the resulting destruction of Chíchʼil Bił Dagoteel and the 250 billion or so gallons of water the mine will guzzle over its lifetime.
Energy Fuels’ White Mesa uranium mill in southeastern Utah fell on hard times once more and more uranium started coming from overseas. So, Energy Fuels has taken to running radioactive waste through the facility, then dumping it in its tailings ponds in return for “recycling fees,” effectively becoming a nuclear waste dump for hire. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, whose land is nearby, has fought to hold the company accountable for its shoddy waste storage practices and groundwater contamination. The company has responded with a major PR blitz touting its new endeavor: processing rare earth elements, which are used in EV transmissions. Energy Fuels’ website says the company is “helping to produce in the U.S. the materials for many clean energy and advanced technologies.”
Several proposals for lithium mines are on the table, most notably the Thacker Pass project on the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribes’ ancestral land in Nevada and the Big Sandy project on land sacred to the Hualapai Tribe in western Arizona.
Some mining is inevitable; if we want to clean up America’s dirty power and transportation sectors, we’ll need minerals. And minerals usually come from mines—though advances are being made in “mining” old EV batteries and solar panels for their critical minerals. But as things stand, this new wave of hardrock mining will be governed by the same old 1872 law under which Harshaw first staked the Hermosa claims 145 years ago. And yet there are those who, afflicted perhaps with “carbon tunnel vision,” would streamline the permitting process even further, simply because some of the metals these projects produce will be used for “clean” applications.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.