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Environment, Energy and Transportation

What a national push for critical minerals could mean for Oregon

Bradley W. Parks
Disaster Peak, left, punctuates the northwest rim of the McDermitt Caldera in southeast Oregon in this Jan. 14, 2022, photo. The historic lakebed in the foreground contains some of the highest concentrations of lithium in the United States.

The company exploring an Oregon lithium deposit is encouraged by efforts to bolster the U.S. critical minerals supply chain, but a mining pitch is still years away.

President Joe Biden and U.S. lawmakers are ramping up their efforts to mine, manufacture and process more battery materials at home — and that’s drawn praise from the company exploring a large lithium deposit in southeast Oregon.

Jindalee Resources Limited, the Australian company with lithium claims at a Bureau of Land Management site in Oregon’s Malheur County, says the growing push for U.S. critical minerals production is a positive sign.

“You’ve seen bipartisan support for the development of critical minerals projects growing,” said Lindsay Dudfield, Jindalee’s executive director. “Jindalee is advancing a critical minerals project, and so we’re very encouraged by these developments.”

The Intercept reported Thursday that Biden is preparing to invoke the Defense Production Act to expedite production of batteries for electric vehicles, consumer electronics and renewable energy storage.

The Defense Production Act was recently used to increase supply and hasten delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. Lawmakers in recent weeks have urged the president to use his authority under the law to do the same for batteries.

“The time is now to grow, support, and encourage investment in the domestic production of graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other critical minerals to ensure we support our national security, and to fulfill our need for lithium-ion batteries — both for consumers and for the Department of Defense,” wrote Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Joe Manchin,D-W.Va.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Bill Cassidy, R-La., in a letter to the president last week.

The Biden administration published a report last June that found the American battery supply chain to be extremely vulnerable as demand for batteries increases. For decades, the U.S. has relied on foreign imports of minerals needed to make those batteries, especially lithium.

While the U.S. has large lithium reserves, it only produces about 1% of the world’s supply. Demand for lithium and other materials is expected to skyrocket as the U.S. seeks to transition away from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency.

The Biden administration’s report says lithium could be a good candidate for new domestic mining and extraction, which would reduce American dependence on foreign sources like Russia and China.

But as the rush for critical minerals like lithium speeds up in the U.S., environmental groups, Native American tribes and others have urged caution, especially when it comes to new mining. The extractive industry remains enormously destructive to frontline communities as well as land, water and wildlife.

John Hadder, director of the mining watchdog group Great Basin Resource Watch, said it’s important not to ignore the effects of mining because the end use of the materials — in this case, batteries — is popular.

“These mine projects are very damaging,” he said. “And so we must approach them judiciously and not in a rushed fashion. In our view, the fewer mines that we develop, the better.”

Hadder added that the desire to extract more lithium and other materials in the U.S. is based on soaring demand projections that may never materialize. He said policy changes and more robust battery recycling would likely reduce the need for extracting new materials.

Biden has said he can only get behind new mining if companies adhere to rigorous environmental and labor regulations.

“Environmental protections are paramount,” Biden said at a White House event to address the American mineral supply in February. “We have to ensure that these resources actually benefit folks in the communities where they live, not just shareholders.”

A map of the McDermitt Caldera on the Oregon-Nevada border.
MacGregor Campbell /
A map of the McDermitt Caldera on the Oregon-Nevada border.

Biden also announced at that event the formation of a working group to make changes to the General Mining Law of 1872, which still governs mining and speculation on public lands.

The Jindalee project west of the Oregon-Nevada border town of McDermitt is still in the exploration phase, and no mine has been proposed.

The company is in the midst of a drilling program to determine how much lithium is deposited at the project site and whether it is economically viable. Jindalee says the deposit could eventually support a mine, but Dudfield estimates a mining proposal is years away at the earliest.

“We’re a long way from mining, I have to stress that,” Dudfield said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and we may never get to the position where we are able to mine the project.”

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