When the United States entered World War I, the country needed to ramp up weapons production, which meant it needed to ramp up steel production, which meant it needed to ramp up the mining of manganese, an ore that helps remove oxygen and sulfur from iron to convert it to steel.
One the places it turned was to Crimora, a small community in Augusta County north of Waynesboro at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Manganese had been mined off and on in Dorsey Hanger Hollow since 1866 but during World War I the Crimora Manganese Mine became the largest manganese mine in the world. The Duke of Wellington supposedly once said the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (meaning that’s where the character of the British officers was shaped); it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the Battle of Argonne Forest was won in the mine pits of Crimora.
The Crimora mine shut down after the war, was re-started in 1937 as the United States started re-arming again, closed once more after World War II, then was re-opened in 1954 when Congress authorized stockpiling minerals critical to the military during the Cold War – and helped subsidize their extraction. Those subsidies ended in 1958, and so did the economics of manganese mining. The Crimora mines shut down in 1959. Today the property is the Crimora Mine Retreat, which advertises a log home that can sleep 12, three man-made lakes, and a “perfect place for a getaway with family and friends.” There are no manganese mines left anywhere in the United States. If we need manganese, we import it. The world’s top producers are, in order, South Africa, Australia, China, Brazil and Gabon, all of which mine more in a year – far more – than Crimora ever did, even at its height as the world’s biggest manganese mine.
The question today: Will Virginia ever see manganese mining again?
The reason for asking is the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress recently passed. Whether this bill will really reduce inflation is a matter of dispute, which I touched on in a previous column. This isn’t about that. The measure has also been called a “landmark climate bill” because many of its provisions deal with energy, specifically encouraging renewables and reducing our dependence on carbon-heavy fossil fuels. One section of the bill encourages the adoption of electric vehicles – and “reshoring” much of the supply chain for them, an unusual confluence of environmental interests with those who believe the United States relies too heavily on imports, particularly from China.
E&E News, which covers energy and the environment, sums up that part of the legislation this way: “The bill would require EVs by 2024 to have batteries made with at least 40 percent minerals extracted or processed by a nation that is party to a U.S. free trade agreement, with the percentage measured by the value of the total minerals in the battery. Minerals recycled in North America could also be included in the percentage requirement. The critical minerals content requirement for batteries would increase to 80 percent by 2027. A similar requirement would apply to battery components, requiring 100 percent of battery components in qualifying EVs be made in North America by 2029.”
Some on the pro-environmental side fear this provision will actually slow down the adoption of electric vehicles. Yes, there’s a generous $7,500 tax credit for those buying an electric vehicle that meets all these requirements. “But there’s a catch,” E&E News reports. “The EV supply chain required for the tax credit doesn’t exist.”
Let’s assume, though, that the basic laws of the free market haven’t been repealed. Electric vehicles might feel some short-term pinch for lack of this “made in USA” supply chain but ultimately the free market will correct that and we will see that EV supply chain created in the United States – which is, after all, the goal of that particular provision. What’s that mean for us? I dealt with one part of that earlier this week: We’ll see more automakers building plants for electric vehicle batteries in the United States, which increases the chances that the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania County will land a major employer.
Now let’s dig down a bit further. The key to electric vehicle batteries are five so-called “critical minerals” – lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. Four of these five minerals have been mined in Virginia in the past; the fifth (lithium) is suspected in Virginia but has yet to be proven. Will increased demand for these minerals make these deposits economically viable again?
To some extent, this is unknowable because we don’t know what that demand – and those future prices – will be. In theory, if a single fleck of something is worth a billion dollars, then some company could spend a half billion to dig it out and still make a fortune. We also don’t know whether mining for these minerals will be allowed in Virginia. There’s a large deposit of uranium in Virginia that’s never been mined and probably won’t be. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining. There’s a gold vein in Virginia, too, that’s been mined in the past. There’s also a state study underway over whether to allow or ban gold mining in the future. Even just the potential of gold mining has stirred controversy in Buckingham County. (See Randy Walker’s story earlier this year on why a lot of these interesting minerals occur in Southside.) All the minerals we’ll deal with today occur outside the traditional coal-mining country of Southwest Virginia, so who knows what the state or local reaction will be if and when someone proposes to open a mine somewhere else?
So let’s look at what we do know.
Electric vehicles may be environmentally friendly in the sense that they’re not spewing carbon into the atmosphere, but they do require six times more minerals than conventional vehicles, according to the International Energy Administration – so a lot more mining will be needed to support electric vehicles than the ones we have now. Mining is generally not considered an environmentally friendly thing to do so here’s a classic trade-off: A green-friendly climate bill is actually going to promote more mining somewhere, if not in the United States then somewhere on the planet.
Here’s a rundown of the top five critical minerals for electric vehicle batteries and their presence in Virginia:
Manganese. Of all the critical minerals, “Virginia’s greatest potential is for manganese,” says David Spear, the state geologist with the Department of Energy. “We were a major producer of manganese in the first half of the 20th century and preliminary analysis indicates that significant resources probably remain in the Commonwealth.” A map by the U.S. Geological Survey puts parts of Southwest and Southside in the highest percentile of deposits by size in the country – but lots of the Appalachian chain, the Midwest and Pacific Northwest show up there, too. The Virginia Department of Energy says that all the American deposits are considered “small,” so being in the highest percentile in a country with only small deposits may not mean very much. Whether those small deposits ever get mined will depend largely on the economics and the regulations, but here’s what we can say about where the stuff is: It’s mostly up and down the eastern and western slopes of the Blue Ridge. The first manganese mine in Virginia was in 1834 at Paddy’s Run in Frederick County; the last in 1959 at Crimora in Augusta County. While Crimora was the biggest, it wasn’t the only one in the Shenandoah Valley. In the early 1900s, there were 15 little manganese mines on the western side of the Blue Ridge, from Troutville to Front Royal, according to U.S. Geological Survey records. Other manganese deposits of “significance” in Virginia are in a belt that runs from through Giles, Bland and Tazewell counties (where mining continued into the 1940s) as well as through Amherst, Appomattox, Buckingham, Campbell and Nelson counties (which saw a mining room in the 1880s). Kitco News, which covers the precious minerals market, says that the demand for electric vehicles means the supply of “high-purity manganese has to increase 10-fold by 2030.” If that surge in demand drives the price up enough to make Virginia’s deposits economical, the locations above are where prospectors will look. The state officially lists Virginia as having “moderate potential” for manganese mining.
Graphite. This is the poster child for critical minerals and our dependence on a single, not-so-friendly country: 79% of the world’s graphite comes from China. Graphite hasn’t been produced in the United States since the 1950s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The demand for graphite is also expected to more than triple by 2030, according to Standard and Poors, driven primarily by batteries for electric vehicles. There’s now prospecting taking place across the world to find other, non-Chinese sources, primarily in Africa, Scandinavia and the Americas. If there’s domestic graphite production in the United States, it will probably be in Alaska. That’s where the largest known deposit is, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In the past, there have been graphite mines in Albemarle, Halifax and Orange counties. The Virginia Department of Energy lists graphite under “moderate potential” but also says the majority of sites are “minor deposits” that “are too small for economic development.” However, the site in Halifax, near South Boston, was explored more than 40 years ago, the department says, and “samples from the overgrown pit collected in 1980 were reportedly largely graphite.”
Cobalt: Here’s another poster-child mineral. About three-quarters of all EV batteries contain cobalt, according to the Green Car Congress. We’re also dependent on an unstable country for cobalt: 74% comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose politics can best be described as turbulent, rife with wars, secessionist movements, coups and human rights abuses. The demand for cobalt is also expected to grow by 83% over the next five years, virtually all of that driven by electric vehicles.
The biggest cobalt deposit in the United States is in Idaho, and what would be the nation’s only cobalt mine is expected to open there later this year. Mining.com says these Idaho deposits are substantial enough that they could supply 30% of the nation’s cobalt demand over the next 30 years. The mine company says it’s capable of producing 1,525 tons of cobalt annually.
The U.S. Geological Survey does not list Virginia among the states having substantial cobalt deposits (Michigan and Missouri are said to also have deposits), but it does have some. Cobalt has also been found in Carroll and Grayson as part of other deposits; mining for those minerals ceased in 1962, according to the Virginia Department of Energy. Sites in Floyd County were prospected in the early 20th century and mined intermittently, the department says, but “none produced cobalt on an economic scale.” Cobalt is often found with copper and there’s a reason why Copper Hill in Floyd County has its name. Estimates put the reserve of the most common host materials for cobalt in Virginia at somewhere between 18,000 tons and 181,000 tons but don’t address the current economics. The state officially lists cobalt under “moderate potential.”
Nickel. The world’s largest producer of nickel is Indonesia, which mines 30% of the world’s supply. The Philippines comes in second at 16%, Russia third at 7.2%. The United States has just one nickel mine, in Michigan. We’re mostly dependent on imports for Canada (43% of U.S. imports) and other friendly nations (Norway, 10%; Finland, 9% and Australia, 8%), so nickel probably isn’t our biggest concern from a national security standpoint. The state Department of Energy shows the nonly nickel deposits in Virginia to be in Floyd County. Nickel was mined there before the Civil War, the Virginia Department of Energy says, and again early in the 20th century but only “on a small scale.” Nonetheless, the global demand for nickel – again, driven by the growing use of batteries – is projected to double each year, according to the market analyst firm Wood Mackenzie. The state’s website lists nickel under “moderate potential.”
Lithium. The mineral most necessary for EV batteries is lithium. According to the International Energy Agency, the EV battery industry used 0.4 million tons of lithium in 2020. By 2050, that demand is projected to grow to 11.8 million tons. Of the five critical minerals, this is the only one not confirmed in Virginia — although from the 1950s into the 1990s there was a processing plant near Duffield in Scott County that handled lithium from North Carolina. Lepidolite, which is often a host mineral, has been tentatively identified near Lake Anna in Louisa and Spotsylvania counties but no lithium has been confirmed, according to the Virginia Department of Energy. It might be present in Amelia County, the department said, but that’s not confirmed either. We probably don’t need to concern ourselves with lithium. Right now, there’s just one lithium mine in the United States, in Nevada. The world’s biggest producer of lithium is Australia, which accounts for 46% of the global supply. If we’re going to be dependent on somebody, Australia’s not a bad place to be dependent on. Somebody Down Under may be about to become very rich.
So, bottom line? Well, we don’t really know the bottom line yet. We probably won’t see mining for many of these minerals in Virginia, but we don’t know the economics yet on manganese, although we can guess the politics from afar.
“It appears that few people want to see a new metal mine anywhere near where they live or play, even if that mine will provide very real contributions to products they will eventually need,” says Spears, the state geologist. “The people (writ large) need to recognize that the energy transition will require metals, and that those metals must come from a hole in the ground somewhere. Those holes will have to be placed where the metals naturally occur.”Everything has a trade-off. This is the one for electric vehicles: We’ll have cleaner air but more holes in the ground, be they in Augusta County or Africa. Unless … there is another way, though: What if we could extract all these minerals from existing products – electronics that have outlived their usefulness, for instance? “That’s more sustainable than mining,” says Subodh Das, a Kentucky-based engineer whose company is exploring that very option. We’ll have more to say about that another day.