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Tomorrow's world

The green goldmine under sacred soil

Members of a Native American tribe doing a protest dance about a proposed mine. Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Joe Biden’s “aggressive timeline” for America’s transition to renewable energy has hit an unexpected snag, says The Economist: vast deposits of crucial minerals lie under sacred tribal lands. Thanks to net zero, the global demand for lithium, used in batteries, is expected to grow more than 40-fold by 2040. Demand for cobalt and nickel should grow by about 20 times in the same period. But by one estimate, “97% of America’s nickel reserves, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt are found within 35 miles of Native American reservations”. Churning up land sacred to native tribes to get at valuable deposits underneath, say critics, would be “yet another example of America’s exploitation of indigenous peoples”.

But it’s not just environmental dogoodery pushing the US to mine these critical metals. America is also desperate to develop its own supplies so it can stop relying on China, which has lately become a “raw-materials juggernaut”. Mining lithium, says the US Department of Energy, is not just about climate change. It’s a matter of national security. And thanks to the General Mining Act of 1872, prospectors can mine land owned by the federal government without paying any royalties. That includes about 80% of Nevada, 65% of Utah and 46% of California. The most that tribal folk can hope for is whatever mining firms are willing to cough up, mostly jobs and the odd school. As one Utah local put it: “If all I’m going to get is a kick in the ass, because we’re getting the mine regardless, then I may as well get a kick in the ass and a brand new school.”