Lithium Americas on March 2 announced the start of construction on the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada, a day after a federal appeals court rejected a request by environmental groups and tribes for an injunction to stop development.
The company said it received a notice to proceed from the Bureau of Land Management. "Starting construction is a momentous milestone for Thacker Pass and one we have been working towards for over a decade," Jonathan Evans, the company's president and CEO, said in a statement.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on March 1 denied the request for an injunction pending appeal; the court scheduled the appeal hearing for June. The Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch, Wildlands Defense, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Burns Paiute Tribe filed the injunction request.
"By the time our general appeal to the 9th Circuit is heard, irreversible damage to the environmentally and culturally sensitive area known as Thacker Pass will have occurred unnecessarily, if only a stay on the mine had been ordered," Great Basin Resource Watch Director John Hadder said in a statement on the court action.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du, chief judge for the Nevada District, on Feb. 24 rejected the groups' request for an injunction halting the project pending appeal. Bartell Ranch LLC and Edward Bartell also asked Du for an injunction.
Du acknowledged the plaintiffs' arguments about the proposed mine's environmental impacts. The court "indeed expects that Lithium Nevada unfortunately will soon begin ripping out sage brush that will not grow back for a very long time," Du wrote. She ruled, however, that plaintiffs "have not made the requisite strong showing" that the court erred in remanding the case to BLM without voiding the agency's approval.
Du on Feb. 6 affirmed BLM's approval of the proposed mine, but also ruled that BLM violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in failing to determine whether valid mining rights existed for the mine's plan to bury tailings under 1,300 acres of land. Du remanded the case to BLM to "fix the error," but did not throw out the agency's 2021 approval of the project.
Citing the use of lithium in enabling "various clean technologies," Du acknowledged that "there is, if nothing else, a tension between the macro environmental benefit that could result from the project and the micro (relatively speaking) environmental harm that will likely flow from the [Feb. 6 order] unenjoined.
"The court does not resolve that tension here," she wrote.
The $5.7 billion open-pit mine is proposed on 5,700 acres of federal land in Humboldt County, 53 miles north of Winnemucca. The mine could produce 80,000 tons per year of battery-grade lithium carbonate, enough to supply lithium for up to 1 million electric-vehicle batteries per year, according to Lithium Americas figures.
Lithium Americas is seeking a federal loan through the Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, which the company said would cover up to 75 percent of mine-development capital costs.
Senate OKs Overturning ESG Rule; Veto Looms
The Senate on March 1 passed a Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn a Department of Labor rule that allows retirement-plan fiduciaries to consider climate and other environmental, social and governance factors in making investment decisions.
The measure faces a veto from President Joe Biden.
The Senate voted 50-46 to pass the measure, House Joint Resolution 30, a day after the House of Representatives passed it on a mostly party-line vote of 216-204. Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined 48 Republicans to support overturning the rule.
In a statement, Tester said, "I'm opposing the Biden administration's rule because I believe it undermines retirement accounts for working Montanans and is wrong for my state."
In a statement of administration policy, the White House said, "The rule reflects what successful marketplace investors already know—there is an extensive body of evidence that environmental, social and governance factors can have material impacts on certain markets, industries and companies."
The Labor Department finalized the rule Dec. 1, overturning two 2020 rules that blocked retirement-plan fiduciaries from considering those factors in making investment decisions. The White House statement said the 2020 rule "stepped between workers and the investment advisers they have trusted to protect their hard-earned life savings."
CPSC Seeks Input on Gas-Stove 'Chronic Hazards'
The Consumer Product Safety Commission on March 1 said it will issue an information request seeking public input on "chronic hazards" associated with natural gas stoves.
In a notice, the CPSC said it "has been clear that there are no regulatory proceedings planned for gas stoves or range emissions. As CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric has said, CPSC is not looking to ban gas stoves and has no proceedings to do so."
The commission voted 3-1 to approve the request for information. Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr., who earlier this year suggested gas-stove regulations might be in the works, issued a statement noting his interest in research on the long-term effects of low-level carbon monoxide exposure and chronic health impacts of nitrogen dioxide and particulate emissions from gas stoves.
Trumka said the information request "will set records for consumer and scientific participation."
"More people are discussing their concerns. More people are talking about available alternatives and local, state and federal incentives, such as the up-to-$840 rebate authorized in the Inflation Reduction Act to reduce the cost of purchasing an electric or induction stove," Trumka said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on Feb. 22 asked the Energy Department to clarify what he called "conflicting estimates" of the percentage of gas cooktops currently on the market that would fail to meet efficiency standards DOE proposed last month.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Daines said that in statements, DOE officials estimated about half of gas cooktops currently on the market would comply with the proposed standard, "yet nowhere in the current proposed rule published on [Feb. 1] or the accompanying technical support document can this number be located."
Daines' letter was the latest criticism lawmakers have raised about the proposed standard.
In his letter, Daines noted the proposed rule "clearly states" that "only 4% of the current market share meet[s] the extremely high new proposed standard. This means that, according to the department's own analysis published in the proposed rule . . . 96% of existing gas cooking tops would be banned from future manufacturing and sales."
Daines said after he raised questions about the proposal at a Feb. 16 Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, DOE released a notification of data availability that "outlines different data not previously supplied by the department, that seemingly contradicts the data supplied in the official proposed rule. This has led to greater confusion among lawmakers, manufacturers and consumers."
He asked DOE to brief committee members and staff on the proposed rule's impacts before the April 3 comment deadline.
DOE's notification says that in drafting the proposed standards, it did not consider efficiency levels that could not be met by gas cooktops that have at least one high-input-rate burner with input of at least 14,000 Btu per hour and continuous cast-iron grates.
"DOE recognizes that HIR burners provide unique consumer utility and allow consumers to perform high-heat cooking activities, such as searing and stir-frying. DOE is also aware that some consumers derive utility from continuous cast-iron grates, such as the ability to use heavy pans or to shift cookware between burners without needing to lift them," the notification says.
DOE added it has "tentatively determined" that cooktops that have steel grates, noncontinuous grates and/or burners with inputs less than 14,000 Btu hourly, "many of which are entry-level models," would meet the proposed standards.
The proposal would set maximum energy-consumption standards for cooktops: 199 kWh per year for electric coil-element, 207 kWh annually for electric smooth-element and 1.204 MMBtu per year for gas cooktops.
DOE Releases Nuclear Credit Guidance
The Department of Energy on March 2 released guidance for the second round of applications for the $6 billion nuclear power credit program authorized by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The credit program aims to prevent the impending retirement of nuclear reactors across the country.
In the second round, eligible power plants include those at risk of closure by the end of the four-year award period, including those that stopped operating after Nov. 15, 2021. Applications are due by May 31.
In the first round, DOE in November gave conditional approval to $1.1 billion in credits for California's Diablo Canyon Power Plant.
Appeals Court Reverses Voiding of Water Rule
A federal appeals court on Feb. 21 ruled that a lower court lacked authority for its 2021 decision to throw out a 2020 Clean Water Act certification rule.
The Supreme Court last year put the lower court's ruling on ice pending appeal, an action that in effect reinstated the 2020 rule. The Biden administration last year proposed a replacement rule.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California overstepped by throwing out the rule without first holding that it was unlawful.
Writing for the court, Judge Michelle Friedland said that "permanent equitable remedies can be awarded against only illegal executive action. And illegality, of course, requires establishing that there has been (or will be) a violation of the law."
The Environmental Protection Agency had asked Alsup to remand the rule without vacating it. In his 2021 ruling, however, Alsup said "significant doubt exists that EPA correctly promulgated the  rule," citing what he called "lack of reasoned decision-making and apparent errors in the rule's scope of certification."
Under the Clean Water Act's Section 401, states have authority to certify that proposed infrastructure projects comply with requirements of state water-quality laws. The 2020 rule sets a one-year deadline for states to act on water-quality certification requests. In addition, the rule specifies that state authority under Section 401 is triggered only for projects with potential to discharge from a point source into a water body.
The Biden administration's replacement rule would expand state governments' authority to certify energy and other infrastructure projects.
Reliability Worries Aired at Confirmation Hearing
Biden's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency's air-quality office faced questions about grid reliability at a March 1 confirmation hearing.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, raised concerns about impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act and EPA's power plant regulations in her questioning of Joseph Goffman, Biden's choice to be assistant administrator heading the agency's Office of Air and Radiation.
Goffman's nomination fell short last year when the committee tied on reporting it out and the full Senate did not vote before the 117th Congress adjourned. Biden on Jan. 23 resubmitted Goffman's name to the Senate.
Capito raised concerns that Goffman has called for "capacious readings of the Clean Air Act" in regulating emissions from power plants. She displayed graphs from a Feb. 15 EPA presentation showing estimates that in 2040, coal capacity under IRA policies would be approximately half that of a no-IRA scenario.
"Because of the IRA, not only were more coal plants retiring, but the usage of those still in service will be much lower," Capito said in her opening remarks.
"How are we going to power our nation and meet the demand of electric vehicles? We're not going to do it with what we're seeing," she said in questioning Goffman.
"What the Inflation Reduction Act did was to give utilities a wider range of choices as to the kinds of fuels and technologies they could look to in generating electricity going forward," Goffman replied. On the EPA presentation, he said, "A computer model is not a utility. A computer model does not make decisions. Communities make decisions. Utility regulators make decisions. Utility investors make decisions, and of course, the utilities themselves do as well."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee chairman, said Goffman's nomination has gained broad support, including endorsements from the Edison Electric Institute, United Mine Workers and environmental organizations.
CISA Head Calls on Tech to Beef Up Security
The head of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency on Feb. 27 said tech companies should hard-wire security into the designs of their products rather than put the onus on consumers to stay safe from cyberattacks.
In a speech at Carnegie Mellon University, CISA Director Jen Easterly warned that failure to design strong security into tech products would leave U.S. gas pipelines, waterworks and telecommunications systems vulnerable to mass cyberattack if China invades Taiwan.
Easterly's speech was part of the White House's rollout of a national cybersecurity strategy that includes shifting federal grant programs "to promote investments in new infrastructure that are secure and resilient."
Easterly said tech manufacturers "are using us, the users, as their crash test dummies—and we're feeling the effects of those crashes every day with real-world consequences. This situation is not sustainable. We need a new model."
She added, "Strong security should be a standard feature of virtually every technology product, and especially those that support the critical infrastructure that Americans rely on daily."
DOE to Spend $315 Million on Rural Energy
The Department of Energy on March 1 announced $300 million in funding for cost-shared projects aimed at lowering energy costs and reducing environmental harm in rural areas.
In addition, DOE announced a $15 million prize competition to help rural communities build capacity for deploying clean energy.
The $300 million pot, included in the 2021 infrastructure law, will be channeled to rural areas—defined as areas with fewer than 10,000 people—in nine regions, "each with its own set of energy challenges," DOE said.
The grants could support single-site demonstration projects with $5 million to $10 million in funding and up to $100 million for a project benefiting multiple communities, DOE said.
Lawmakers Spar on Permitting Reform
A long-running congressional debate on permitting reform for energy, mining and other projects returned to the spotlight Feb. 28 at a pair of House hearings on proposed legislation to speed up reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee introduced legislation to set deadlines and page limits for environmental reviews and time limits for filing litigation that challenges environmental documents.
The House Natural Resources Committee and the panel's Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee held separate hearings on the bills.
The full committee took testimony on Rep. Garret Graves' (R-La.) bill to revise NEPA.
The subcommittee took testimony on a bill sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the full committee's chairman, to roll back Inflation Reduction Act-mandated increases in oil and gas royalties, bonus bids and rental rates, and to mandate quarterly lease sales on federal lands. In addition, the subcommittee took testimony on legislation introduced by Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), the subcommittee's chairman, to speed permitting of mining projects.
If the bills pass the House, their prospects in the Democrat-controlled Senate are uncertain. Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) said Graves' bill is likely to "go nowhere."
"Let's cut the posturing and get to work on finding an approach that will allow us to get the permitting reform to the benefit of the American people and climate in crisis," Lee said.
Graves said expansion of the transmission grid to accommodate accelerated renewables development and electrification would require permitting reform. "You can't implement it under these conditions," he said.
John Carr, vice president of Dairyland Power Cooperative in Wisconsin, who represented the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association at the hearing, said in written testimony that Graves' bill is a "step in the right direction." He said finalizing environmental impact statements takes an average of 4.5 years and the documents average 661 pages in length.
The Graves bill would set two-year deadlines for finishing an EIS and would limit the length to 150 pages, or 300 pages for projects of "extraordinary complexity."
Graves noted that two top White House officials, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and former National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, told him that permitting reform is needed. "I think they're right," Graves said.
Committee Democrats said they are open to permitting-reform legislation but raised concerns about Graves' bill, including a provision that Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) said would limit consideration of climate impacts. The legislation would limit reviews to studies of "reasonably foreseeable" impacts, defined as no later than 10 years after document preparation begins.
Testifying in support of Stauber's bill, National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan pointed to forecasts of significant demand growth for minerals required by clean-energy technologies, including copper, cobalt, lithium and rare earths.
"Automakers are warning with ever greater frequency that the coming battery material shortfall could stop the EV revolution in its tracks," Nolan said in written testimony.
Stauber said "we need hundreds of millions of pounds of copper just for the turbines" to meet the Biden administration's goal of deploying 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030. "The answer for this administration is to import and recycle. But that's not based in reality," he added.
Professor Mark Squillace from the University of Colorado Law School said, "We're going to have to recognize that we're going to need more domestic mining in this country. But if we're going to have it, it needs to be done right."
In his written testimony, Squillace said Stauber's bill would go too far in allowing mining companies to use federal lands for waste-rock disposal and other ancillary mining activities. "For all its problems, even the  General Mining Law does not give a mineral locator carte blanche to use whatever public lands they might desire to facilitate mining," Squillace testified.
Lawmaker Raises Africa Mineral-Pact Issue
The State Department's agreement with Congo and Zambia to help those countries develop an electric-vehicle mineral supply chain drew fire Feb. 23 from a House subcommittee chairman, who raised concerns about child laborers working in cobalt mines.
Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee's Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, said in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the agreement "validates and rewards" mineral production in the two countries that uses child labor and causes environmental harm, including deforestation and water pollution.
Congo is the world's leading producer of cobalt, while China is the world's leading cobalt processor.
"Secretary Blinken, it does not have to be this way. America can supply our needs and the world with cobalt mined by American miners," Stauber said.
He noted that the Department of the Interior earlier this year withdrew 225,000 acres in Minnesota's Superior National Forest from mining development, "taking away a huge portion of our nation's cobalt reserves, along with copper, nickel, taconite and other salable minerals."
Stauber asked Blinken for details on actions the administration will take to ensure minerals covered by the agreement "will not be sourced using child and/or slave labor," as well as assurances that mines in the two countries will follow "stringent environmental standards." He also wanted to know whether any of the mines will have Chinese ownership.
In a 2021 special report, the International Energy Agency estimated that to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, worldwide cobalt demand could increase by a factor of 21.
A 2021 DOE backgrounder said cobalt is considered the highest material supply chain risk" for EVs in the short and medium terms. Lithium-ion EV batteries can have up to 20 kilograms of cobalt in each 100-kWh battery pack, and cobalt can make up to 20 percent of a cathode's weight, DOE figures show.
Biden Puts 200-Percent Tariff on Russian Aluminum
Biden on Feb. 24 imposed 200-percent tariffs on Russian aluminum products and on products from third countries made with aluminum smelted or cast in Russia.
"The Russian aluminum industry is a key part of Russia's defense industrial base and has played a major role in supplying Russia with weapons and ammunition used in the war" against Ukraine, Biden's proclamation says.
Russia "remains the fifth largest source of imported aluminum in the United States," the proclamation says, adding that U.S. imports of Russian aluminum increased 53 percent between March and July of last year.
Energy price increases linked to the war are causing "direct harm to the United States aluminum industry," the proclamation says. Two of the five remaining aluminum smelters in the U.S. "are in danger of closing" because of high imports and energy prices, it adds.
Biden has maintained 10-percent tariffs on aluminum imports from outside North America that were imposed in 2018 by President Donald Trump. In 2021, however, Biden reached agreement with the European Union and the United Kingdom to replace tariffs with import quotas.
EPA: Power Plant Emissions Down in 2022
Power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide fell in 2022 from the previous year, EPA said in a Feb. 24 report.
Emissions of CO2 were down 1 percent and mercury emissions fell 3 percent last year, EPA said. NOx emissions fell 4 percent and SO2 emissions decreased 10 percent, the agency's figures show.
During the ozone season from May 1 to Sept. 30, NOx emissions were down 10 percent, EPA said.
Highway Agency Drops GHG in Guidance
The Federal Highway Administration on Feb. 24 dropped language from a guidance that would have prodded states to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in carrying out road projects funded by the 2021 infrastructure law.
The agency issued a revised guidance that supersedes a document issued in December 2021.
"By issuing a revised memorandum, FHWA admitted that it was wrong in their attempts to undo the flexibility provided to states in the law by establishing preferences for certain policies and projects," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said in a statement. Capito is the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's ranking Republican and Graves chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.