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A government program hopes to find critical minerals right beneath our feet

Federal scientists are using recon flights and field research to track down metals that are key to the energy transition.

In a remote and heavily forested region of northern Maine, a critical resource in the fight against climate change has been hiding beneath the trees. In November, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, announced the discovery of rocks that are rich in rare earth elements near Pennington Mountain. A category of metals that play an essential role in technologies ranging from smartphones to wind turbines to electric vehicle motors, rare earths are currently mined only at a single site in the United States. Now, researchers say a place that’s been geologically overlooked for decades could be sitting on the next big deposit of them — although a more thorough survey would be needed to confirm that. While the U.S. government frets over shortages of the metals and minerals needed to transition off fossil fuels, it also lacks the basic geological knowledge needed to say where many of those resources are. Less than 40 percent of the nation has been mapped in enough detail to support the discovery of new mineral deposits, hampering the Biden administration’s plan to boost domestic mining of energy transition metals like rare earths and lithium, an essential ingredient in electric vehicle batteries. But the administration and Congress are now attempting to fill the maps in, by ramping up funding for the USGS’s Earth Mapping Resources Initiative, or Earth MRI. Geologists Chunzeng Wang and Preston Bass in the field near Pennington Mountain. Bass carries a tool called a portable gamma spectrometer. United States Geological Survey A partnership between the federal government and state geological surveys, Earth MRI was established in 2019 with the goal of improving America’s knowledge of its “critical mineral” resources, a list of dozens of minerals considered vital for energy, defense, and other sectors. The initiative was quietly humming along to the tune of about $11 million per year in funding until 2022, when Earth MRI received an additional influx of $320 million, spread out over five years, through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Since then, Earth MRI has kicked into overdrive, with the USGS launching dozens of new critical mineral-mapping efforts from Alaska to the Great Plains. The USGS will be hunting for minerals both in the ground and at abandoned mines, where there may be valuable metals sitting in piles of toxic waste. The deposits they identify could eventually be extracted by mining companies, though experts say lawmakers and regulators will need to carefully weigh the benefits of mining against its social and environmental costs. For now, says Earth MRI science coordinator Warren Day, the goal is to accomplish something that’s never been done before. “Nobody’s ever mapped all the critical minerals for the nation,” Day told Grist. “This is a huge undertaking.” Indeed, the process of mapping the Earth is both labor intensive and time consuming: Geologists must be sent out into the field to record observations and locations of geological features like faults, take measurements, and make detailed interpretations of a landscape. Those interpretations might be augmented with laboratory analyses of soil and rock samples, as well as data collected by aircraft and other remote sensing instruments. It can take several years for researchers to synthesize all of that information into a map with a resolution of an inch to 2,000 feet, the standard scale that state geological surveys work at. Those geological maps don’t fully characterize ore deposits to determine whether they are economical to mine. But they often form a starting point for private companies to conduct that more detailed exploratory work.  “Our part is the definition of the geological framework where deposits could occur,” Day said. “Private industry takes that and tries to define the resources.” That industry-led exploration can take an additional several years, after which it might take up to a decade to permit and build a mine, says Allan Restauro, a metals and mining analyst at the energy consultancy BloombergNEF. The mismatch between the time from exploration to mining, and the anticipated near-term ramp-up in demand for energy transition metals, has led many experts to predict we’ll see shortfalls of resources like lithium within the decade.  “Even if something were to be discovered right at this very instant, it may not be an actual producing mine until beyond 2030, when demand has shot up,” Restauro told Grist.  To help close the gap between mineral discovery and future demand, Earth MRI scientists are racing to collect as much baseline geological data as they can. The federal government is contracting private companies to do airborne geophysical surveys — flying specialized instruments over a region to measure specific properties of the rocks underfoot. The primary approach the USGS is using, called aeromagnetic surveying, measures slight variations in the Earth’s magnetic field that relate to the magnetic properties of local rocks. In some cases, the agency is also conducting radiometric surveys, which detect natural radioactive emissions from rocks and soils containing elements like thorium and uranium. These elements can indicate the presence of specific mineral types of interest: Thorium, for example, is often found alongside rare earth elements.  The boom on this Earth MRI helicopter contains sensitive equipment for conducting airborne geophysical surveys. United States Geological Survey As the USGS is conducting reconnaissance from the air, state geologists are sent out to the field for detailed surface mapping and sampling. Earth MRI scientists have identified more than 800 focus areas around the nation — regions with at least some potential to host critical minerals. With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law boosting the initiative’s total budget to $74 million annually from 2022 to 2026, the effort to survey all of them has ramped up “significantly,” says Jim Faulds, the president of the American Association of State Geologists. About twice as many states are now engaged in mapping projects as before the law, and individual projects are receiving three times the funding they were before. That’s expected to be a major boon for Western states like Nevada and Arizona, which have only had a quarter to a third of the land mapped in detail and are among the most promising places in the country to find energy transition metals. “Many Western states are mineral rich,” Faulds said. “But we don’t necessarily know where those minerals are.”  Even in places where large mineral deposits have been discovered already, we don’t necessarily have detailed maps of the region. That’s the case for the Thacker Pass area near the Oregon border, host to some of the largest lithium resources in North America, as well as an area of west-central Nevada that has large lithium deposits. New Earth MRI-funded survey work in these areas will help define the full extent of these resources, says Faulds, who directs Nevada’s state Bureau of Mines and Geology. In the eastern U.S., where some states are relatively well mapped, there’s still a potential for new discoveries. Geologists had no idea, for example, that the Pennington Mountain area of northern Maine was host to rare earth-rich rocks: Earth MRI funded a project in the area because it had previously been mined for elements like copper and manganese, said Anji Shah, a USGS geophysicist who contributed to the study.  “When we chose the area, we were thinking about those particular mineral resources,” Shah said. “It was only when we got the [airborne survey] data and we noticed some anomalies that we said, ‘Hey, this might be high in rare earth elements.’” Follow-up work in the field and lab confirmed not just elevated levels of rare earths, but also niobium and zirconium, minerals used in jet engine components and nuclear control rods. A fine-grained volcanic rock, found on Pennington Mountain in Maine, that hosts rare earth elements, niobium, and zirconium. United States Geological Survey / Chunzeng Wang, University of Maine-Presque Isle Discoveries like this could ultimately lead to the establishment of new mines and new domestic supply chains for critical minerals, a key policy goal of the Biden administration. But as companies start clamoring to dig these rocks out of the ground, the administration will have to think carefully about how to balance its climate and national security priorities with the potential harms of mining, which can degrade local ecosystems, cause air and water pollution, and transform rural communities. Projects that aren’t sited carefully are likely to meet local resistance, as illustrated by a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass that recently began construction despite fierce opposition from conservationists, a local rancher, and Native American tribes. “We’re going to discover many more deposits” out of Earth MRI, said Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College in Rhode Island who studies the intersection between resource extraction and green energy. But the benefits of extracting those minerals, Riofrancos said, “should not be presumed.”  Riofrancos would like to see the government thinking holistically about better and worse places for mining, perhaps combining maps of mineral deposits with maps showing biodiversity, water resources, historically marginalized communities, and Indigenous lands, where a large fraction of today’s energy transition metal mining occurs, according to a recent study. (Day says the USGS always obtains written consent from tribes before mapping reservation lands.) Taking all of these factors into account when deciding where to permit new mining will help ensure that harm is minimized, Riofrancos says. One of the more attractive places to hunt for energy transition metals could be abandoned mine land, which has already been degraded. Coal mining waste, for instance, can be enriched in rare earth elements; scientists with the Department of Energy are currently working out the best ways to extract them. Several years ago, Shah and her colleagues discovered that mining waste at abandoned 19th- and 20th-century iron mines in the eastern Adirondack Mountains in New York is also enriched in rare earths — in particular, the so-called heavy rare earths that are more economically valuable. Riofrancos sees the USGS’s inclusion of mine wastes in its mapping efforts as a positive sign. “The more industrially developed an area is, the less new harm is created by mining,” she said, adding that it might be possible to extract new metals from mine waste in tandem with environmental cleanup efforts. But ultimately, it’s private companies that will decide, based on the trove of new information the government is collecting, which areas it wants to explore further for possible mining. And at this point, Faulds says, “there’s quite a bit of interest at all levels” in Earth MRI data. “I would say companies are on the edge of their seats,” he said. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A government program hopes to find critical minerals right beneath our feet on Mar 17, 2023.

Rural America gets $315 million for cleaner, more affordable energy

One-sixth of U.S. households are in rural communities. The Biden administration wants to help modernize their grids, invest in renewables, and improve the efficiency of their homes.

One-sixth of U.S households are in rural communities, where people often pay a larger share of their income for electricity. Reliability can be spotty, and investment in decarbonization scant. Geographically scattered towns and aging infrastructure can make maintaining the grid expensive. Even simple steps to improve energy efficiency, like insulating an attic, can be out of reach for cash-poor residents, especially renters.  The Department of Energy hopes to address these longstanding challenges by dedicating $315 million toward a sweeping effort to help rural and tribal communities nationwide modernize their electrical grids, invest in renewables, and help residents increase the energy efficiency of their homes.  The initiative, announced last week, is part of the Energy Improvements in Remote and Rural Areas program. The funding is part of a broader effort to allocate more than $1 billion over the next five years to support energy projects in communities of less than 10,000 people. The goal is to promote climate resilience and address rural energy cost burden — defined as the percentage of a household’s income allocated toward energy bills each month — through “replicable energy projects that lower energy costs, improve energy access/resilience, and/or reduce environmental harm.”  “There isn’t one ideal project – we’re casting a wide net,” a senior Energy Department official told Grist. “[Rural] communities are not one-size-fits-all.”  Applications for the funds are due in June, and must include a “community benefits plan” outlining how the project will ensure worker safety, fair wages, and diversity in hiring. Advocates for rural and tribal communities say the funding does more than facilitate the green energy transition – it facilitates safe, affordable housing. According to a 2018 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, rural households experience a higher energy cost burden than urban households. About a quarter of them occupy poorly insulated mobile homes. Electricity disconnects are high, and storms can knock out power for days. According to the study, even simple household improvements would save the average resident hundreds of dollars every year.  Another study found that renewable energy costs consumers less than coal, with 99 percent of coal-fired generation plants costing more to run than wind and solar facilities. Small utilities and advocates for energy equity say federal investment is sorely needed, particularly in cash-poor, rural areas. Some communities already have pioneered exactly the types of projects encouraged by the federal program announced last week, and hope to secure the funds to launch more.  The Ouachita Electric Cooperative in Arkansas is part of the country’s sprawling rural electric co-op system in which ratepayers are both members and owners of their utility and play a role in decision-making. Based in the small town of Camden,  100 miles south of Little Rock, Ouachita Electric recently embraced renewable energy to better serve its members, who often struggle to make ends meet. “Our median income is $31,000 – blue collar factory workers,” said co-op membership manager Leslie Holloway. Some members face an energy burden 30 percent above the national average, she said. Many lack the capital to invest in their homes, most of which are over 30 years old and in dire need of upgrades. Although loans for energy efficiency upgrades are available to homeowners, they’re often out of reach for rural, working class renters. To address that, Ouachita secured an $8 million federal grant to kickstart an energy savings program and build a solar array. It used the funding to help improve members’ homes with duct sealing, insulation, and other energy-saving upgrades. Ultimately, the program allowed the cooperative to reduce rates 3.4 percent and saved Ouachita Electric enough money to recoup almost all of its investment. Rural utilities and power companies that are working toward a green transition say half the work lies in overcoming decades of economic disadvantage and disinvestment. Brett Isaac, the founder and executive chairman of public benefit renewable energy corporation Navajo Power, says public assistance in funding the energy transition is essential for communities that have long been left behind.     “The investment from the various different opportunities under the Biden administration, from Infrastructure to the Inflation Reduction Act….these are all monumental, because they’re actually putting quantifiable investments into certain areas that have never really experienced them,”  said Isaac, a 2022 Grist 50 honoree. “We don’t have the institutions that created our economies, like we’re not in control of those things.”  Since its beginning, uranium, coal, and other minerals have been mined on Navajo territory, but nevertheless left most of the people living there in poverty. That era may be passing.  The Navajo Generating Station, formerly the largest coal-fired power plant in the country, powered down in 2019, leaving its massive service area in need of both new jobs and new energy resources. Almost 30 percent of the reservation’s homes still don’t have electricity.  But Navajo Power is currently in Phase I of a plan to build utility-scale solar projects on tribal land and install panels on residents’ homes.   In Kentucky, Chris Woolery, a residential energy coordinator with the Mountain Association, can’t wait to help rural power companies and electric cooperatives access the federal funding. Advocates throughout the state have been laying the groundwork for renewable transition for many years. The Mountain Association, for example, provides loans for small solar projects and works with other groups to push for state policies friendlier to small-scale solar development.  “What we are saying is, we know that we have the tools to address our problems. We pioneered them ourselves,” Woolery said. A big barrier, he says, could be legislative – for instance, state lawmakers are trying to pass a bill banning utilities from accepting federal funds to shut down coal plants. Meanwhile, the outdated grid in central Kentucky left thousands without power for days after a windstorm last month. Woolery said energy efficiency and distributed renewables could increase grid resiliency during extreme weather – a necessity in remote communities where roads can be damaged and emergency services can be hours away. Ultimately, he said, providing energy equity and reliability is a matter of not just savings, but survival – a promise that no one should ever have to choose between their energy bill and their next meal.  “We’re working towards a vision in which access to energy is just a human right,” Woolery said. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Rural America gets $315 million for cleaner, more affordable energy on Mar 16, 2023.

The dubious economic calculus behind the Willow Project

The ConocoPhillips venture is supposed to secure energy independence and Alaskan prosperity. It probably won’t achieve either.

President Joe Biden’s decision to approve the massive Willow oil project earlier this week infuriated climate advocates and environmentalists while drawing praise from Alaska politicians and oil industry figures. As the Biden administration weighed the benefits and drawbacks of the project over the past year, the latter camp argued that the project would help replace Russian oil supplies as well as deliver an economic boon for Alaskans. The Willow Project’s champions have stressed the need for the U.S. to achieve energy independence in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said last month that Willow could help “reduce our energy imports from some of the worst regimes in the world.” Mary Peltola, a Democratic representative and Alaska Native who was elected to Congress last year, said just last week that the project could “make us all safer in a world that has grown more unpredictable after Russia invaded Ukraine.” There’s no doubt that the Willow Project, led by ConocoPhillips, represents the largest new Alaskan oil project in decades. At full capacity, it could increase total oil production in the state by more than a third. But experts told Grist that the energy and economic benefits of the project are smaller and less certain than its boosters have suggested. Not only will the Willow Project provide an insufficient substitute for Russian oil, but it will also deliver an ambiguous mix of costs and benefits to Alaska state coffers, which have long relied on fossil fuel revenue that is increasingly hard to come by — even with new drilling in the Arctic. It’s not clear how much the Willow Project would help replace Russian oil supplies. First there’s the matter of timing: The project will not deliver its first barrels until 2028 or 2029, and it will take even longer for all three well pads that the Biden administration approved to start producing at full capacity. It’s possible the global oil supply picture will look very different by then: Western countries may have access to new sources of oil, like recent offshore projects in places like Guyana, and where crude prices will be is anyone’s guess. Second, the particular kind of oil that Willow will produce isn’t a perfect substitute for the oil that the U.S. once bought from Russia. The chemistry of petroleum beneath Alaska’s North Slope is different from both light shale oil and the heavier oil that tends to come from places like Russia and Venezuela, so it will need to be blended with other oil in order to enter domestic refineries, which are mostly designed to refine specific types of crude. That’s why the United States kept importing oil even after the fracking boom began, and it’s why much of Willow’s oil wouldn’t replace imports from other countries. “Alaska remains an important energy state, but it will not make or break the nation’s energy independence in the coming decades,” Phil Wight, an assistant professor of history and northern studies at the University Alaska Fairbanks, told Grist.  Indeed, the federal Bureau of Land Management’s own analysis found that Willow’s effect on the global energy market and American energy independence will be muted. According to the Bureau’s final environmental impact statement, only around half of the oil produced from the project will replace foreign imports from tankers and pipelines, with around 30 percent replacing other oil extracted in the United States.  Furthermore, the project’s position on the North Slope of Alaska will constrain potential demand for the new crude from refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, since it would need to travel through the Panama Canal to get there. The top domestic markets for the oil will be California, Oregon, and Washington, three states that are all making aggressive attempts to promote electric vehicles and transition away from fossil fuels. Given that some estimates suggest electric vehicles could make up the majority of U.S. passenger car sales by 2030, it’s difficult to gauge how much West Coast demand there will be for Willow’s oil over the coming decades. Even if ConocoPhillips does find buyers on the West Coast and overseas, Willow’s overall impact on oil prices will likely be small. According to the Bureau’s model, Willow will lower global oil prices by about 20 cents a barrel for as long as it operated at peak capacity. As of late Wednesday, the Brent oil benchmark was trading at around $75 a barrel. “It’s hard to say that this will make a dent in either prices or supply,” said Chanda Meek, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The project’s economic impact within Alaska isn’t clearcut, either, despite what the state’s politicians say. Alaska is the third-most oil-reliant state in the nation, behind Wyoming and North Dakota. According to the state’s own estimate, nearly 85 percent of the state budget comes from oil revenues. Taxes on oil have funded the construction of new buildings and hospitals, and oil prices affect how much funding public schools get. Alaskans, who don’t pay an income or sales tax, also get a check every year from a pot of money called the Permanent Fund Dividend, which is funded by oil royalties. (Each check topped more than $3,000 each last year, the highest amount residents have ever received.) But this picture is changing. In 1988, Alaska’s trans-Alaska pipeline, or TAPS, was pumping a tremendous amount of petroleum from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez on the state’s southern coast — approximately 2 million barrels a day. Now, however, depleted reserves within Alaska and the competing fracking boom in the Southwest’s Permian Basin have made the state’s oil less relevant — Alaska is currently pumping less than a quarter of the oil it was moving in the 1980s. Alaskan oil production hit a 40-year low in 2020.  That’s why the Alaska congressional delegation lobbied the Biden administration long and hard to approve the Willow Project.  “Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Murkowski said after the Biden administration announced its decision. “We are now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state, and adding vital energy to TAPS to fuel the nation and the world.” Experts in Alaskan economic policy say those assertions don’t hold up under scrutiny, and the Willow Project is unlikely to bring back the kind of economic security oil provided the state a few decades ago. Some estimates say Alaska could see $6 billion in revenue from the Willow Project, but that payout is years away. In the short term, the state may actually see a decrease in revenue. Because the project is on federal land, the state can only collect production taxes on the project and can’t collect royalties on the oil produced there. More importantly, ConocoPhillips can use a carveout in the state’s tax law to write off its expenses for this project against the taxes the company pays on its other oil developments in the state. One analysis, conducted by the governor’s office in 2018, forecast that the state wouldn’t see a positive economic impact from the Willow Project until 2026 and that the development would result in up to $1.6 billion in negative revenue through 2025 — a 6 percent decrease to the state’s overall revenue. An analysis from this year, conducted by Alaska’s Department of Revenue, says the project wouldn’t become “cash flow positive” for the state until 2035.    While the state would see negative revenue from the project’s first years of operation, municipalities will admittedly see more immediate positive benefits. Production taxes from the project are earmarked as grant programs for local communities, especially in the North Slope borough. The Department of Revenue’s recent analysis shows the North Slope will get $1.3 billion through 2053, and the cash will start flowing in the coming months. Communities impacted by the project will get an additional $3.7 billion over the next three decades. Of course, the communities closest to drilling face a complex and sobering set of tradeoffs. The Alaska Native Village of Nuiqsut is going to be virtually surrounded by oil fields as a result of the approval of Willow, which threatens the subsistence hunting and fishing that has long sustained the town’s households. Nuiqsut’s mayor has been vocally opposed to the Willow Project, and local tribal leaders passed a resolution opposing it in 2019. Zooming out, Wight said, the project signals to Alaskans, oil companies, and the rest of the world that the United States believes there will still be a market for Conoco’s oil three decades from now. At that time, however, the world’s governments should be completing a transition to clean energy. Indeed, President Biden recently signed a law that puts the nation on track to slash emissions 50 percent by 2030. How can that be the same world that needs 600 million new barrels of oil from Willow? “We have the policy to build a renewable energy future,” Wight told Grist. “It’s much less clear how a managed decline of fossil fuels is going to happen.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The dubious economic calculus behind the Willow Project on Mar 16, 2023.

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