The Biden administration looks to domestic lithium mining to boost U.S. energy security and counter China.

By Christina Lu

JUNE 26, 2024, 4:17 PM 

Thousands of miles west of Washington, D.C., in the sprawling, lithium-rich expanses of Nevada, the Biden administration is pushing for a mining boom that it hopes will boost the country’s energy security.

Few minerals are as crucial to the global energy transition as lithium—also known as white gold—which underpins the powerful lithium-ion batteries in many of the world’s green technologies, including electric vehicles and wind turbines. Given its importance, demand for the mineral is projected to explode in the coming decades, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Washington’s problem is that it has been out of the lithium game for decades. Despite having some of the world’s biggest lithium deposits, the United States is home to just one operational lithium mine: Albemarle’s Silver Peak mine in Nevada, which today accounts for a minuscule fraction of global production. But as demand has surged and fears have grown concerning strategic vulnerabilities, Washington has ramped up efforts to jump-start its domestic industry through the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and a raft of hefty investments in the sector. 

“The United States has very aggressive—and grandiose—ambitions with respect to lithium mining in particular,” said Chris Berry, the president of House Mountain Partners, an independent metals analysis consultancy.

In the Biden administration’s latest move, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm wrapped a trip to northern Nevada last week, where she toured American Battery Technology Company’s lithium-ion battery production facility. The facility is backed by a $115 million Department of Energy grant. 

“Nineteen companies have announced that they are opening because of the Inflation Reduction Act here, so it’s very exciting to be able to compete with China and really not allow all of these jobs to leave without us doing something about it,” Granholm told reporters.

Washington’s lithium push is just one part of a broader effort to build out its energy security and slash its dependence on rivals—namely China, which commands many of the world’s mineral supply chains. 

While the United States was once home to a robust minerals mining industry, the sector underwent a sharp decline in the 1970s, as mining companies struggled to stay afloat and outcry grew over the industry’s environmental and health costs. In the decades since, Washington largely saw mining as an industry that should be outsourced globally. But rising tensions with Beijing have changed that calculus

“The U.S. realized, recently, that it lost control of the lithium supply chain to China,” said Federico Gay, a lithium analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Washington is now trying to “get back on track.” 

Today, the United States imports most of its lithium from Argentina and Chile, which—alongside Bolivia—form the so-called lithium triangle in South America. Yet China maintains deep investments in mines around the world, including in South America, and commands some 58 percent of global lithium processing

Washington has grown increasingly wary of that status quo. “We’ve been very happy importing it, particularly from South America,” said Gracelin Baskaran, a critical minerals security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). But that thinking has changed in the past decade or so, she said, as “we realized that minerals could be weaponized” and that “demand was going to be higher than we initially forecasted.” 

Published by Foreign Policy