One might expect the American mining industry to enjoy bipartisan support. The conservative case is simple: mining has long contributed to rural economic growth, and miners vote Republican over Democratic at a rate of nine to one. At the same time, the industry plays a vital role in the nation’s growing clean-energy sector. As Mark Mills has observed, the path to net zero carbon emissions is fraught with mineral dependencies, from the cobalt and nickel in electric vehicle batteries to the copper and silicon in solar panels. And demand is skyrocketing: one recent White House report predicts as much as a 4,000 percent increase in the global appetite for graphite and lithium by 2040. Any serious plan to reduce emissions, then, must tend to the question of the critical-minerals supply chain.
The environmentalist Left, however, has opposed mining for decades. As early as the 1970s, labor organizations such as Miners for Democracy argued that “if mining could not be done . . . without destroying mountains or killing streams, then miners should refuse to do it.” By the end of the twentieth century, protesters had notched so many wins against new mining operations that the industry had been all but wiped out in the United States. “Battle after battle, the war on mining is taking its toll in the West,” noted a New York Times article from 1998. “With more and more jobs going offshore . . . the United States [has now become] a net importer of nonfuel minerals for the first time in modern memory.”
As a result of this sustained campaign, the American minerals industry has hollowed out. Since the mid-twentieth century, America’s critical-mineral import dependence has nearly tripled. China has secured near monopolistic control of the global mineral-supply chain, threatening American access to crucial military and energy technology. And Mountain Pass Mine, America’s only rare earth mining and processing facility, is now partially owned by the Chinese state-affiliated company Shenghe Resources.
The political situation for mining has deteriorated, too. Progressive advocates attack mining not only for polluting but also for violating indigenous rights or being racist. Just last year, a group of environmental activists and legal scholars argued that mining should be prosecuted along with war crimes and genocide at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
But opposition to mining makes an awkward fit with progressive policy goals. The 2019 Green New Deal resolution called for “good-paying jobs”; the average mining salary in the United States is $61,110. The resolution called for a “just [energy] transition for all communities and workers”; shifting coal miners toward other extractive industries would be more effective than telling them to “learn to code.” And then, of course, tucked away at the bottom of the proposal, there is the question of climate change. The United States has 189 domestic facilities currently capable of producing critical minerals. As China asserts more control over the critical-mineral supply chain abroad, these facilities will be crucial to securing the renewable resources needed for decarbonizing the national economy.
Yet over the past few years, the only congressional Democrat seriously taking up the mantle of critical-minerals mining has been Joe Manchin. In late April, Manchin organized a first-of-its-kind bipartisan Senate energy group, including four Republicans and seven Democrats. While it remains to be seen how committed the group is to passing real policy, a host of ideas have already emerged—chief among them the expansion of our domestic critical-minerals infrastructure. “[Vladimir] Putin’s aggression is bringing the free world closer together, setting the stage for a new alliance around energy, minerals, and climate,” remarked Manchin at a Senate committee hearing last month. “Building this alliance should start here in North America.” He hardly sounds like the sinister climate villain he’s been made out to be.
Not so long ago, it’d be difficult to imagine policy solutions to climate change emanating from the right side of the political spectrum. But as the U.S. makes progress toward decarbonizing, it is progressives, not conservatives, who continue to oppose the policies and technologies—from nuclear power to regulatory reform—that will help developed economies reduce emissions.
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