The Advance of Electric Vehicles Returns North Carolina to its Lithium Mining Roots – The New York Times

The Kings Mountain trail known as Cardio Hill overlooks a rainwater-filled pit the size of a lake, but the rugged terrain about 30 miles west of Charlotte is now one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the United States.

Beneath that earth is a mine that has been abandoned since the 1980s and is believed to contain one of the country’s largest deposits of lithium, a key component of the batteries needed to power electric vehicles.

Albemarle Corporation, the world’s largest lithium producer, is seeking to revive the mine and capitalize on the Biden administration’s efforts to build a domestic electric vehicle industry. It’s just one of several projects underway in North Carolina, where companies are vying to win approvals for multibillion-dollar lithium investments, in part to take advantage of 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 sources its lithium from Canada and Argentina. The company expanded its facility in Bessemer City, North Carolina, increasing its production capacity there by 50 percent. It attributed this decision to the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides tax incentives for electric vehicles manufactured in the United States.

During her trip, Ms. Yellen said 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, due in part to decades of unfair, non-market practices,” Ms. Yellen said. “By massively expanding domestic production capacity, our country will become less dependent on other countries for the inputs we need and we will make great progress towards energy security.”

Ms. Yellen suggested that investments like those in North Carolina would lower energy costs and provide higher wages to low-income communities.

But not everyone in this state welcomes the revival of lithium mining. Neighbors of proposed mining projects have tried to thwart plans to begin excavations 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 proponents of lithium as a green energy solution are overlooking how carbon-intensive mining the material is, comparing it to fracking or coal mining.

“The real truth is that lithium extraction has a huge impact on the environment,” said Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

North Carolina was once a hub of lithium production, but the industry faltered decades ago due to foreign competition and a lack of domestic demand. That has changed since the Climate and Tax Act of 2022 provided large subsidies to build a domestic electric vehicle supply chain that could compete with China. States like North Carolina have benefited from a lithium rush and become leaders in an emerging battery belt.

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

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

“If 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 haven’t invested as much in or paid as much attention to.”

He added: “You know the story – China has been paying a lot of attention to it.”

Albemarle received about $250 million in federal grants last year through Defense Department and Energy Department programs to boost domestic lithium production. It is one of several North Carolina companies that are rapidly accelerating the extraction and processing of lithium, which is essential to powering electricity in a battery that can be sold to automakers.

Although progress has been made in expanding the lithium industry in North Carolina, there are numerous obstacles when it comes to permits and the pace of permits producers need to move forward with their plans. Political opposition to electric vehicles, often fueled by Republicans like former President Donald J. Trump, is also creating headwinds. And lithium hydroxide prices have fallen sharply this year due to slowing global demand, increasing financial pressure on companies to make their investments pay off.

Albemarle has conducted an extensive public outreach campaign to address concerns about its mine proposal. This included town hall meetings, regular public tours of the site and a dedicated office in a converted pharmacy where residents could stop by and ask questions. However, even if the permitting process goes smoothly, the company does not expect the mine to be operational until 2027 or 2028.

In North Carolina’s Gaston County, Piedmont Lithium is struggling to win support from local officials overseeing zoning for its Carolina Lithium project. The company estimates it could produce 30,000 tons of battery-grade lithium per year when its mining and processing facilities are operational. It plans to hire 500 workers with an average salary of more than $80,000 per year.

“We see ourselves as a pioneer in the wage opportunities that employing skilled workers can offer people,” said Patrick H. Brindle, Piedmont’s chief operating officer.

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

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

Electric vehicles are intended to reduce carbon emissions and improve environmental health, but in many projects across the country, local authorities are concerned about the short-term environmental risks posed by the transition.

Chad Brown, a board member, said it was uncertain whether Piedmont would receive its permits, noting the community was “in turmoil.”

“Everyone is concerned about the environment,” Mr. Brown said.

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

Last year, Republican Ben Moss, a North Carolina state representative, introduced a bill that would ban free electric vehicle chargers unless free gas pumps were provided at the same location.

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

And local officials may ultimately be unwilling to turn down thousands of new, well-paying jobs.

“I feel like the potential benefits of this are going to be so great that all of these policy considerations are going to fade into the background,” said Mark Curtis, an economics professor at Wake Forest University who studies green energy jobs.

Ms. Yellen said Thursday that she was aware of the environmental concerns but that the Biden administration supported lithium production as long as there were safeguards in place.

“It would be nice to see lithium being mined in the United States, but in an environmentally friendly way,” she told reporters.