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

Traffic passes through Tonopah, Nev. on Oct. 6, 2022.
Traffic passes through Tonopah, Nev. on Oct. 6, 2022.

The town of Tonopah, Nev., was born out of a silver rush, when more than 10,000 people moved in during the early 1900s, racing to make money from a prized natural resource.

It didn't last. Today, Tonopah is home to a little over 2,000 people.

But now a new mining boom has arrived to this town halfway between Reno and Las Vegas.

You can see it when you check in at the old Mizpah Hotel, all faded glory, ghost stories and tales about Wyatt Earp. Above the cash register, a screen advertises a lithium exploration company.

And 40 minutes outside of town, Silver Peak lithium mine is doubling production.

Lithium is essential to producing rechargeable batteries, like the giant ones used in electric vehicles. Demand is soaring. And, after decades of shifting production overseas, the auto industry is now racing to move supply chains back to the U.S. and make batteries all the way from raw materials to final assembly.

It's a major priority for the Biden administration, which says this onshoring will reduce dependency on countries like China and boost American jobs.

Mining is a part of this push — sometimes a controversial one.

But employment is another story. Unlike the glory days of Tonopah — or, for a modern example, the oil boomtowns in North Dakota and West Texas — this race to pull resources from the ground isn't looking like a jobs bonanza.

It all adds up to... not much

Take Silver Peak's investment to double its output.

"I believe we're increasing — probably it won't sound like a lot — I think it's about 5 to 10 new employees," says Karen Narwold, the chief administration officer of Albemarle, which owns Silver Peak.

Silver Peak is a brine mine, harvesting the power of the sun to concentrate lithium inside salty water. It only employed about 70 people to begin with, running pumps and maintaining equipment.

Other mines require more workers, relatively speaking.

John Evans, the CEO of Lithium Americas, is trying to open a mine in Thacker Pass, in northern Nevada. The mine, once operational, would employ about 300 people, he said. (It's currently facing legal challenges.)

The total number of mines opening simply won't be huge, he adds.

"If there's five or six of these in the next ten years I think we're doing pretty good," Evans says.

Modeling of how government incentives, like in the big climate bill this summer, can affect different parts of the supply chain show that the job gains will be modest, according to Phil Jordan, vice president of BW Research, a consultancy that focuses on workforce and energy.

"There certainly are increases in mining jobs," he says. "But those increases would be, you know, maybe a thousand jobs that would last for ten years."

That's dwarfed by the jobs created in manufacturing, or in clean energy construction. And it's a tiny fraction of the more than half a million jobs supported by those incentives overall.

The projections follow an established pattern, says Kwasi Ampofo, head of metals and mining for BloombergNEF.

"Mines in developed countries have had a very, very low labor footprint," he says, and automation and other technological improvements only reduce the labor needs.

Solid wages and the promise of jobs beyond mining

The mining industry, for its part, emphasizes that the jobs involved are highly compensated, and located in rural areas that may have few other options.

The average wage of a Nevada miner is more than $95,000, says Tyre Gray, the president and CEO of the state's mining association.

"Those are the types of wages that allow you to change your family's life," he says.

The real value of building mines in the U.S. isn't the mining jobs it creates, says Evans, from the Thacker Pass project, but what it enables further down the road, by creating a more secure source for minerals.

"All the battery components — cathodes, anodes, the separators, all that stuff — that's going to where the big jobs are going to be," he says.

For example, LG Chem is launching a plant in Tennessee to build cathodes, a battery component.

"You're going to have 2000 people that work there," Evans says says. "But for that cathode factory to work, you need material from the 300 people...out in northern Nevada."

Atlas Public Policy recently tallied up all the announced factories to build electric vehicles and batteries and chargers. They counted 143,575 announced jobs.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :


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.


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.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.