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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.
Bridget Bennett for NPR
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.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.