The war over ‘white gold’ in North Carolina
A fight over the biggest proposed lithium project east of the Mississippi is a stark microcosm of the critical minerals debate.
Good morning from sunny Astoria, Queens, where it’s certifiably a hot one as summer arrives early. I returned earlier this week from a reporting trip to the Netherlands, and I will have some stories for you coming very soon.
But for now, I’m writing to invite you with me to Gaston County, North Carolina, a rural pocket about 45 minutes northwest of Charlotte. I spent a week down there in January, reporting on a billion-dollar startup’s plan to open a massive pit mine and processing plant to dig up and produce lithium for the growing number of electric car factories popping up in the American Southeast. After months of work, the story is finally live.
If you drive the country roads that crisscross Gaston County, you will see rolling farm fields and stands of towering pines, oaks and hickories, weathered old churches and gleaming new office parks. You will also see hundreds of yard signs sounding the alarm over the pit mine.
Originally headquartered in Australia, Piedmont Lithium started quietly buying up properties in this county in late 2016. But last year, things started to finally get real. With thousands of acres under its control, the company came before the county Board of Commissioners for a public hearing. It was not a warm welcome.
Commissioners, whose vote on whether to rezone the area from agricultural to industrial use will ultimately decide the project’s fate, complained the company left them in the dark for too long. And residents lined up to lament what this mine would do to their homes. Already, it was hurting property values, making it impossible for one man to sell his house, he said. Others raised fears that a mine with plans to pump up to 1.1 million gallons from the water table that feeds most homes’ wells and idyllic woodland streams would leave the area parched. Some spoke in support, proclaiming themselves “dreamers” who saw the opportunity here.
But Brian Harper, the owner of a precise gear manufacturer who makes parts for such clients as Duracell and Nestlé, said his “dreams” were “going away.” He has built what he saw as the ideal life for himself here. He lives in a stately brick home on a 12-acre piece of property, with his workshop on one plot and his sister-in-law and her family on another. On a sunny afternoon, he walked me down to his stream, where crayfish burrows abounded.
“This, to me, is paradise,” he said. “And all this, when they start mining, will disappear.”
Thanks to surging sales of electric vehicles and batteries for renewable energy, lithium is a hot commodity at the moment. The price of the soft, flaky metal surged some 500% between 2021 and 2022. Demand is expected to grow another fourfold by the end of the decade. The lithium product Piedmont plans to sell – lithium hydroxide – is the most valued version of the commodity on the market today, selling for nearly $72,000 per metric ton in mid May.
China wields unrivaled power over the supply chain, which buttresses claims from people like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, widely seen as the most conservative and fossil-fuel-friendly member of the Democrats’ razor-thin majority caucus, that switching from gas and oil to electric alternatives will leave us vulnerable to the whims of a geopolitical rival. It’s not a completely unfounded fear. The most recent example is how Russia’s control over Europe’s gas supplies set the stage for its invasion of Ukraine. But one need only look back a decade to 2010, when China briefly cut off exports of rare earths – another metal needed for electronics and clean energy technology – to Japan.
To this end, the Biden administration, Manchin and a growing number of Republicans are pushing to increase domestic mining and processing of metals like lithium, copper and rare earths.
But those projects are facing mounting local opposition. In Nevada, Native American tribes, ranchers and environmentalists complain that a big proposed lithium mine in the desert threatens to desecrate sacred land, deplete a drought-dried water table, and kill off rare plant species. In California, plans to extract lithium from the inland Salton Sea have stoked concerns over air pollution and toxic contaminants. Projects to mine copper, nickel and rare earth minerals — all critical ingredients to a post-fossil future — have faced similar complaints across Western states.
The mine in Gaston County would be the only major lithium project east of the Mississippi, and could come online faster than others, since it would be entirely on private land and therefore subject to fewer of the regulations that come with digging on tracts owned by states or the federal government. For that to happen, however, Piedmont will not only need its state and federal mining permits. It needs the county to rezone the area. And neighbors here are fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen
The full story is here on HuffPost, and I urge you to read it. We co-published this story with The Assembly, a North Carolina-based digital magazine my wonderful longtime editor and mentor Kate Sheppard is now helping to lead. You can read their version of the story here.
In other news:
A tiny town in Utah is building the world’s largest green-hydrogen power plant, stoking demand for the controversial, zero-emissions fuel. Los Angeles Times
Utilities that run the electrical grid have long been accused of anti-competitive and abusive practices. Now a massive coalition of 235 organizations is pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to investigate them. The New Republic
A new bill in the House of Representatives would clear the way to decolonize Puerto Rico, giving the world’s oldest colony three options: Independence, statehood, or a free association pact with the U.S. Bianca Graulau’s YouTube channel
Here’s a delightful ode to Manhattan’s 10th Street baths, where my great grandpa shvitzed weekly, and my cousin and I were regulars until COVID: "It’s not an insignificant thing in this awful, late-stage world to have a place of your own that doesn’t change." Hell Gate
“Not a single panel at Milken was devoted to a key physical commodity like oil or lithium, at a conference where half a dozen talks zeroed in on private markets with hopeful names like ‘Private Credit Comes of Age’ and ‘Time to Shine? Private Markets in Periods of Uncertainty.’” The American Prospect
I’m convinced the catchiest pop ballad of 2022 is “See Tình” by Vietnamese singer and actress Hoàng Thuỳ Linh. Her entire album is great, too.
Thank you for reading.