The lithium mining boom will not be a jobs bonanza for the U.S. The promised surge in clean-energy jobs from the growing popularity of electric vehicles in the U.S. is mostly focused farther down the supply chain, like at battery assembly plants.

There's a lithium mining boom, but it's not a jobs bonanza

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1140424922/1140807518" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It will take a lot of work to switch from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones. And a lot of work means a lot of jobs for Americans. That's the pitch made by the Biden administration, among others. But as NPR's Camila Domonoske reports, this transition is not a recipe for a mining jobs bonanza.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE: Allen Metscher lives in central Nevada because of a very old mining boom.

ALLEN METSCHER: My grandfather, he had gold fever. My dad and uncle, they had gold fever.

DOMONOSKE: Gold fever and silver fever brought thousands of people to these hills. Metscher never caught the bug, although he thinks about it.

METSCHER: I'm always tempted to go out and pan after heavy rains in washes when they dry out a little bit.

DOMONOSKE: He digs into history instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

DOMONOSKE: At the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah, halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, Metscher shows me photos from the town's busy days.

METSCHER: At its height, there was around 11,000 people here. But it's boom and bust.

DOMONOSKE: Today, it's more of a bust - closer to 2,000 people. But there's a new mining boom underway in Tonopah. It's so-called white gold - lithium. The mineral is essential to rechargeable batteries. President Biden wants to make electric vehicles in the U.S. step by step, starting from the mine, both to make supply chains more secure and to create jobs. So you might be expecting lithium boomtowns like there have been gold boomtowns and oil boomtowns. You might expect the town of Tonopah to be surging. Karen Narwold is the chief administration officer of Albemarle, which owns Silver Peak Lithium Mine nearby. They're doubling output right now. Boom.

KAREN NARWOLD: I believe we're increasing. Probably, it won't sound like a lot. I think it's probably five to 10 new employees.

DOMONOSKE: Boom?

NARWOLD: As you can see from the site, a lot of the work is done for us by nature and by the sun.

DOMONOSKE: Silver Peak is what's called a brine mine. There's no giant pit. The lithium is extracted from salty water using evaporation. About 70 workers maintain equipment and run pumps. But it just doesn't take very many people to get the sun to shine. There are other types of mines, and some proposed lithium mines would have more employees.

JON EVANS: We are - where we are, we have, like, 300 permanent jobs, which is a lot for a humble county.

DOMONOSKE: Jon Evans is the CEO of Lithium Americas, which is trying to open a lithium mine in northern Nevada called Thacker Pass. But he points out some big differences between lithium mining and, say, the oil and gas industry. For one thing, America doesn't need and can't build hundreds of these mines. There are big environmental and local concerns. The Thacker Pass Project has been challenged in court for years now.

EVANS: Look; if there is five or six cities in the next 10 years, I think we're doing pretty good.

DOMONOSKE: Tyre Gray is the president and CEO of the Nevada Mining Association. He says the number of jobs is only part of the picture.

TYRE GRAY: Our average wage is over $95,000 a year. And when you talk about wages like that, those are the types of wages that allow you to change your family's life.

DOMONOSKE: And Evans, from the Thacker Pass Project, says if you're looking for a bunch of jobs in the electric vehicle supply chain, look at what gets made out of mined materials, like LG Chem is launching a plan to build cathodes - battery components - in Tennessee.

EVANS: Yeah, you're going to have 2,000 people that work there. But for that cathode factory to work, you need material from the 300 people out in northern Nevada.

DOMONOSKE: That's one plant. Atlas Public Policy recently tallied up all the announced factories to build electric vehicles and batteries and chargers. They counted 143,000 new jobs. So, yes, there is a mining boom. But if you're looking for a boomtown, it's probably all about the batteries. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.