Is mining lithium in Maine a cost of going electric?

Electric vehicles come with their own environmental costs

WHETHER THEY know it or not, both Maine Gov. Janet Mills and Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey have bet big on lithium, a critical element for making batteries for electric vehicles and other “green” technologies.

Their administrations, to varying degrees, have supported electrifying everything. Massachusetts is now following California as one of several states to mandate that only electric vehicles can be sold in the state by 2035; this de facto ban on internal combustion engine vehicles is part of the Bay State’s plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Soon, cars, trucks, trains, and appliances will increasingly be powered by electricity across our region and hand in hand with this major shift towards electrification will be a major increase in our need for lithium.

In 2022, President Biden and Congress passed the so-called Inflation Reduction Act and, in an effort to reduce dependence on “blood batteries” made from lithium and other minerals mined in places like Africa and China, tied consumer electric vehicle subsidies to those with battery inputs sourced from North America. Since the typical electric vehicle requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, the US needs to step up its mineral production if these laws are to be followed.

This is where Maine comes in.

Western Maine is home to one of the densest lithium deposits known to exist on Earth, located in Newry. According to some, its value is estimated in the billions, with heightened demand for electric vehicles driving a surging global price for lithium.

Mainers can reap immense economic benefits and Massachusetts consumers could know their lithium was extracted under high environmental standards and ethical conditions. But Maine lawmakers need to get on board soon and Massachusetts leaders need to push them. Without an expanded domestic supply chain for minerals like lithium, new federal regulations will make it much more difficult for Mills and Healey to meet their states’ ambitious electric vehicle adoption plans.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Maine could have helped Massachusetts and the region achieve their climate plans. A transmission line was proposed from Canada, through Maine, to help Massachusetts with importing hydro-powered Canadian electricity. In November 2021, Maine voters rejected that proposal at the ballot box due to the project’s environmental impact on woodlands that would have been cut down to accommodate the power line. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court last year declared the voter-approved law unconstitutional, giving the transmission line project new life.

Electricity generated from hydroelectric power, solar, and wind all come with an environmental cost. The same is true with electric vehicles. However, lawmakers from Maine and Massachusetts can better manage the negative impacts associated with mining if it’s done in our backyard as opposed to overseas.

These New England governors love talking tough and imposing harsh mandates to serve their fantastical climate goals. Now it’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is.

Paul Diego Craney is the spokesperson for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and Nick Murray is director of policy at the Maine Policy Institute.