For decades, General Motors was the global leader in manufacturing the so-called “rare-earth” magnets that have become essential components of the electric vehicles now powering the global transition to a greener future.
But in 1995, the company sold its entire magnet division, along with all its patents, to a consortium of Chinese partners, including one led by the son-in-law of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
As veteran investigative journalist Ernest Scheyder explains in his book, “The War Below: Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives (Atria Books), the deal was a Faustian bargain of epic proportions.
Although GM gained access to the lucrative Chinese market, the entire rare earth industry is now located in China, with American carmakers and defense contracts beholden to a country that is increasingly adversary.
The GM deal is one of countless missteps that have put America on the back foot in its struggle to secure the critical minerals and technology, like rare-earth elements, that will be needed to wean humanity off fossil fuels.
Decades after their fateful blunder with China, Scheyder writes, GM executives are now scrambling “to control our own destiny.”
“The War Below”is not just about securing critical minerals, but rebuilding their accompanying industrial capacity and know-how. And, just as crucially, questioning the ecological and social costs we are prepared to pay in order to make this happen.
“Throughout the world, supplies of metal sit atop land considered too sacred, or too special, or too ecologically sensitive to disturb,” Scheyder declares. “Whether these lands should be dug up in an attempt to defuse climate change is one of the defining questions of our time.”
But doing nothing would be ceding the lead to China, says Scheyder, leaving the US forever playing catch-up.
The result: Supply chains will remain vulnerable, while the energy transition so crucial to our collective future may be delayed with disastrous consequences.
Despite their name, rare earths – along with lithium, copper, cobalt, and other resources key to securing a greener future — are actually not so rare at all.
There are vast troves of these materials right here in America, Scheyder notes.
The real ‘War Below,’ he declares, is over the political will to retrieve them from the earth itself.
The book provides a sweeping account of nearly a dozen mine projects in America (and one in Bolivia) whose futures are being fiercely contested.
This is an all too familiar story — the war above — which features business owners, politicians, indigenous groups, environmentalists, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, NGOs, and radical de-growers, who want to return civilization to an agrarian state of nature.
And in Scheyler’s telling, it’s a game where the stakes could not be higher.
To be sure, some mines should probably not get built.
The Pebble Mine in Alaska, for instance, united Democrats, Republicans, and the powerful fishing lobby 2019, and the tourism industry against its potential to destroy vulnerable wetlands.
In South Carolina, plans to build a mine would have required the removal of a cemetery for veterans from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
In another instance, a potential mine would have torn up land sacred to the Apache.
“Are we really going to choose electric cars over nature itself?” Scheyder asks.
But in other cases, the prospects seemed brighter, only to be doomed by the vagaries of the market, a lack of funding, or the fierce opposition of a special interest group.
Then there are the byzantine and often arbitrary regulatory processes governing mining concerns — along with politicians jockeying for votes.
When describing how the Biden administration pursued many seemingly conflicting priorities, Scheyder says “It was enough to give someone whiplash.”
No new mines for lithium, copper, cobalt, or any of the other materials critical to America’s energy transition have been approved by Washington for decades.
And Scheyder’s reporting makes it easy to see why.
Mining fueled America’s economic and industrial rise but it has a nasty legacy — from forced relocation of indigenous populations to polluted waterways and exploited workers.
Clearly, mistakes were made and lessons are to be learned.
But Scheyder also looks toward the future, noting the many entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors who want to make a fresh start.
Some are environmentalists themselves and their motives, Scheyder notes, feel sincere.
“I want to do . . . everything I can possibly do to leave this place more livable for my children and grandchildren,” says one frustrated entrepreneur James Calloway, who’s struggled for years to build a lithium project in Nevada. Under Scheyder’s careful prose, you’re likely to believe him.
In other cases, the green transition is clearly a wafer-thin pretense to fast-track mine developments in the pursuit of pure profit.
Like many new frontiers, the American critical minerals industry has its share of charlatans and pretenders.
And the about-face from many mining companies who’ve pivoted to the “Green energy” narrative has left some observers understandably skeptical.
Gary McKinney, a member of the People of Red Mountain Tribe of Nevada, spoke for many when he told Scheyder, “The green transition is just all about money.”
Scheyder’s reporting leaves little doubt about the challenges facing the US as it races to play catch-up in the quest to mine rare minerals.
The regulatory process is maddeningly complex and mines remain deeply unpopular and politically polarizing.
The book is not kind to the Biden administration, which is characterized as lacking a clear strategy — along with conflicting goals — for the nation’s mining future.
While some government offices are busy doling out loans to lithium mining projects, Scheyder writes, others are simultaneously holding up permits on the same exact projects.
The Trump administration fares little better, in one case killing a copper project in Alaska after President Donald Trump was lobbied by Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr., who felt the mine would disturb one of his favorite hunting and fishing haunts.
These types of easily approachable vignettes help “The War Below” make the seemingly arcane topic of critical minerals approachable and enjoyable.
Missing, however, is any focus by Scheyder on how the alternative – fossil fuels – is often far worse. Indeed, the US is the world’s largest oil producer largely due to the shale boom Scheyder previously covered for years at Reuters.
The fact that Scheyder fails to draw sharper contrasts between the challenges posed by fossil fuels and the race for critical metals like lithium is clearly a missed opportunity.
Scheyder also fails to deliver a clear verdict on America’s quest for mining independence in general, never taking a clear position on whether these metal finds truly do sit atop land that, as he writes, is “too sacred, or too special, or too ecologically sensitive to disturb.”
Scheyder reports the facts, but he lets the readers ultimately draw their own conclusions.
“The War Below” offers a much-needed introduction to one of the defining issues of our time.
It tells a story with global implications at a very human level.
Above all, it is a wake-up call to America’s need to start building on the land above if it is serious about developing the capability to lead the energy transition.
It will be an uphill battle.
“There is no way around the fact,” Scheyder makes clear, “that mining is loud, dangerous, and disruptive and will remain so for the foreseeable future.”
Alex Tapscott is the managing director of the Ninepoint Digital Asset Group at Ninepoint Partners and the author of the book “Web3: Charting the Internet’s Next Economic and Cultural Frontier.”