The building blocks of climate solutions are right under our feet. Lithium, nickel and other minerals are essential to building technologies that will move us off fossil fuels. Mining and processing these critical minerals are now at the heart of environmental policy in the U.S and abroad. This year, debate over how — and where — to allow mining operations is expected to dominate environmental policymaking.

This growing debate is the topic of the 2024 spring symposium hosted by the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law. The Emmett Institute, which is UCLA’s environmental law center, will convene thinkers and policymakers on March 8 to confront the various legal issues surrounding critical minerals. Keynote speaker Christina Snider-Ashtari, the Tribal Affairs Secretary for California, is an alum of UCLA and UCLA Law.

Among these issues: how to rapidly create domestic supply chains for critical minerals, whether it’s gallium for solar panels; manganese in EV batteries; or aluminum needed for wind turbines. Two years ago, the Biden administration passed historic climate laws that invest heavily in clean energy. Part of that legislation is an emphasis on boosting U.S. manufacturing.

“Critical minerals have become a battleground, among the major superpower nations and in Global South countries seeking to climb the value chain,” said Alex Wang, faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute. “Carefully managed, this competition can help to accelerate the global clean energy transition. But policy missteps can exacerbate tensions and make climate action more costly.”

Wang is leading a panel discussion about the geopolitics of mineral supply chains. Faculty co-director William Boyd will lead the day’s first panel introducing important themes, including the rise of resource nationalism.

Like most industries, there are also serious dangers and environmental harms posed by these mining operations, especially to vulnerable communities. Lithium Valley is the nickname for the region around the Salton Sea, about 150 miles south of Los Angeles, where an Australian firm recently broke ground on a major new lithium extraction and geothermal power plant facility. It’s the first of what could be many such facilities for the area, which brings economic opportunities as well as environmental justice concerns.

“There is no way around it — we need minerals to power our clean energy future,” said Juan Pablo Escudero, staff attorney at the Emmett Institute. “But these mining operations need to be carried out in the right way, in the right place, and include robust protections. Whether it’s in South America or Southern California, local frontline communities should have ample opportunity for input and influence on projects that affect them.”  

Escudero will lead a panel discussion that explores the impacts on historically disadvantaged communities, including Indigenous and low-income residents. The discussion will use case studies at the Salton Sea and in Chile to develop workable ideas for reducing the risk that the clean energy transition could repeat the same harms as earlier industrial developments. “These ideas are not new but there is new urgency to implementing them,” Escudero said.

The all-day event is open to all UCLA students, faculty and staff, as well as the public. Register here to attend.