A drill rig is parked on the northeast rim of the McDermitt Caldera in southeast Oregon Jan. 14, 2022. The caldera hosts what could be the largest lithium deposit in the U.S.

A drill rig is parked on the northeast rim of the McDermitt Caldera in southeast Oregon Jan. 14, 2022. The caldera hosts what could be the largest lithium deposit in the U.S.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is proposing a $50 million grant program to support domestic mining, processing and recycling of lithium and other critical minerals.

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The Oregon Democrat introduced the idea in a bill this week. He says the program would help decrease the country’s reliance on foreign imports of minerals used in electric vehicles, cellphones and solar panels.

“It’s past time the United States became a competitive producer of critical minerals and weans itself off of both foreign oil and gas imports and the critical minerals that are essential to building the next generation of clean energy products like batteries,” Wyden said in a press release announcing the bill on Tuesday.

The senator’s pitch comes as exploration continues in Southeast Oregon on what could be the nation’s largest known lithium deposit. Lithium is the world’s lightest metal and is a key ingredient in batteries.

Related: How Oregon landed a lithium bounty

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The Australian company Jindalee Resources has been exploring a lithium deposit on a Bureau of Land Management site in Malheur County. The company says the deposit could eventually support a lithium mine and refinery, but neither has been proposed for the site.

Wyden’s bill would award money to companies constructing, expanding or modernizing critical mineral facilities. During a virtual town hall on Friday, Wyden said these types of projects can be carried out “without throwing environmental laws in the trash can.”

“What my bill does is revive and modernize critical mineral production sites around the country,” Wyden said. “It can be used in Eastern Oregon. It can be used elsewhere.”

Environmental groups, Native American tribes, ranchers and others have raised concerns about the potentially ruinous effects of lithium mining projects on communities, land, water and wildlife.

A 2017 report from the U.S. Geological Survey found Americans are heavily dependent on foreign nations for their supply of critical minerals, including lithium. Russia is one of the top suppliers.

Wyden said the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and resulting economic sanctions — have emphasized the need to wean the U.S. off Russian oil, gas and mineral imports.

The Biden administration in late February announced plans to invest in U.S. production and processing of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and others.

Wyden’s bill has been referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“I’m gonna pull out all the stops to get this passed,” Wyden said.

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How Oregon landed a lithium bounty

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