Just Minerals for a Just Transition

Today, Earthworks published Just Minerals: Safeguarding protections for community rights, sacred places, and public lands from the unfounded push for mining expansion.  The report shares why a responsible energy transition hinges on prioritizing mineral recycling, reuse, and substitution over new extraction. We also discuss the structural inequity created by our current public lands mining laws that precipitated 19th and 20th century mining rushes that killed or forcibly displaced untold numbers of Indigenous and other marginalized communities. Before we embark on this century’s minerals rush, justice and equity demand updates to this regime. 

Just Minerals also takes head on the mining industry’s false scarcity rhetoric stoking fears that foreign adversaries may suddenly choke off material supplies. A 2010 trade dispute over territorial fishing rights in the Sea of Japan led Chain to temporarily restrict exports of four minerals. The market responded by restarting mines elsewhere and China dropped the restrictions after the World Trade Organization ruled against them in 2014. Yet, mining proponents continue to distort this incident, misleading us to believe only new public lands mines will rescue us from losing access to the material supplies we need. From there, its proponents peddle nationalism and xenophobia claiming all domestic mines as “critical” to meet clean energy, national security, or other legitimate objectives. 

This false narrative’s desired solution is faster domestic mining with less oversight. It crescendoed in 2018 when the government listed 56 elements as “critical minerals”. This decision effectively designated every domestic mine a critical mine, even those built to excavate gold or silver, because of trace elements always found near precious metals.

The mining industry constructed the false-scarcity narrative to justify maintaining the United States’ structurally inequitable mining laws.  These laws privilege mines over some of the most sacred and beloved places in the country, including the Grand Canyon and Oak Flat. Indigenous communities always have and continue to live on the frontlines of extraction, and without the right to say no to a mine, neither environmental justice nor a just transition can occur. 

If we want to meet our 21st century material needs, we must transform our minerals policy to build a more circular economy that reduces demand for new mines. Just Minerals builds on Earthworks’ previous report, Reducing new mining for electric vehicle battery metals: responsible sourcing through demand reduction strategies and recycling, finding that with the right recycling policies in place, we can approximately halve demand for electric vehicle battery minerals thereby reducing the need for new mines.

The solutions begin with reform to the law and rules governing public lands mines. They also include investments in material recycling, reuse, substitution, and building circular economy infrastructure. Properly implemented, President Biden’s supply chain Executive Order may create the room for circular economy policy that improves EV battery collection and reuse.  Together, these three pillars—mining reform, circular economy, and consumer demand—will better serve our material sourcing needs than more mines.