GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — As Piedmont Lithium continues to go through the regulatory process to open a lithium mine in Gaston County, the company said they're moving forward with projects abroad to produce the material needed for electric vehicle batteries.
Reuters reported on Wednesday the company's initial supply lines would not come from North Carolina, but rather from Ghana and the Canadian province of Quebec. Reuters characterized state regulatory reviews as delays, and the wire agency reported chief executive Keith Phillips told them the international projects appeared more likely to happen quicker.
Phillips responded to a request for comment from WCNC Charlotte, confirming that the Quebec project is expected to come online in the first half of 2023. Meanwhile, the Ghana-based line is set to start up in 2024.
"Our goal is to be the leading American producer of lithium hydroxide. While the Carolina Lithium Project is our flagship project, we have strategically invested in a portfolio of assets that will allow us to be a large, low-cost, integrated producer, bringing operations online in 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026," he said. "We are continuing to work steadily and collaboratively through the planning process with regulators, Gaston County, and residents, as well as local education partners, community organizations and businesses. We are confident that there will be a positive outcome for all parties in due time."
Phillips notes the company hopes to be fully permitted and rezoned by 2023, with construction in 2024 and production starting late in 2025 or in 2026.
How did we get here?
The Carolina Lithium Project has not come without opposition from Gaston County residents. In June 2021, an online petition began circulating by residents worried the mine would disrupt the area's landscape and relatively quiet background. The mine, if approved, would be set up near Cherryville, where residents also cited health concerns should the mine go online.
The concerns reached county commissioners, who in August 2021 imposed a 60-day moratorium on all mining activities in Gaston County. That prevented Piedmont Lithium from doing any exploratory drilling as commissioners developed new regulations to govern the company's proposed mine. The mine would be the first of its kind in the county.
Opposition to Piedmont Lithium still continued, even as the company submitted a mining permit application to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ). The company faced a shareholder-started lawsuit after stock prices dropped due to the criticism.
Eventually, internal emails between county commissioners showed frustrations were coming to a head, with commissioners accusing the company of being "flippant" and saying Piedmont Lithium was falling short on communication. The company also was found to have reached out to commissioner Chad Brown about his steel distribution business at his personal email address; Brown told WCNC Charlotte he did not respond to it and instead forwarded it to the county manager.
The future of electric
The concerns about dust from the mine still persist, even as Piedmont Lithium insists it could inject millions of dollars into Gaston County's economy. However, county commissioners in their internal emails noted Cherryville would still need to contend with issues like increased traffic. Brown noted his own belief the company should have started asking questions at the local level instead of coming to them as the last step.
The Reuters report notes Piedmont Lithium notably found favor with electric car giant Tesla, which would be a key customer for them as more electric cars hit the roads. The mining operation could also be part of a larger movement to help make electric car batteries more affordable, thus lowering the overall price for several models down the line. Major auto manufacturers are already highlighting their latest vehicles, but some start around the $40,000 mark.
That price point isn't low enough for most potential customers, but CNET editor-at-large Brian Cooley told WCNC Charlotte in April 2022 he expects the price of electric cars to fall in the next few years. Cooley also said it was important for companies like Piedmont Lithium to show their hand and work with the communities they want to work with.
"I think companies that are going into this business need to be transparent with how their process works, and what the side effects of it are," he said.