The Wall Street Journal recently reported that automakers are worried that the Inflation Reduction Act’s renewable energy incentives, which often require materials sourced in the U.S., are going to make the “green transition” more expensive. But the Biden administration’s all-out push for electric vehicles, solar panels, and other mineral-intensive green technologies fails to recognize the dangers of U.S. dependence on a hostile China. Before the U.S. can undergo any semblance of a “green transition,” it needs to wean itself off of foreign-sourced minerals — and the sooner, the better.
Electric vehicles, solar panels, and other renewable energy technologies use many critical minerals — including copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, and rare earth elements — in larger quantities than traditional technologies. Electric vehicle batteries use six times the minerals of conventional cars and can weigh 1,000 pounds or more. To provide energy when the sun isn’t shining, solar farms need batteries, which use 35 of the 50 critical minerals vital to national security. A single wind turbine can use more than 1,000 pounds of rare earth elements.
The U.S. does not have reliable domestic supply chains for almost all of these minerals. In 2022, the U.S. was 56% reliant on foreign sources for nickel, 76% reliant on foreign sources for cobalt, and completely reliant on foreign sources for graphite and manganese.
What’s worse is that the Biden administration subsidies have spurred demand such that there will need to be a “42-fold increase in lithium demand, a 25-fold increase in graphite demand, [and] a 21-fold increase in cobalt demand” by 2040.
China aims to capture more supply chains and expand its dominance in those it already controls. China’s authoritarian government prevents foreign companies from mining for rare earth minerals within its borders and supports its companies with export tax rebates. Until 2015, China incentivized the processing and usage of rare earth minerals within its borders, which fueled its production of electric vehicles and consumer electronics.
China has aggressively financed mining in developing African and South American countries. Over the past two years, Chinese companies have sunk $4.5 billion into lithium mining in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mali. There is a similar level of investment in South America and Mexico.
The U.S. should be wary of depending on any single country for minerals which the economy and military could not function without. But the dangers of dependence on China should be obvious, as the nation is currently menacing Taiwan, engaging in corporate espionage, and conducting cyberattacks.
A China that controls critical minerals may decide to withhold them in the event of escalating tensions — or more likely, make the U.S. pay a steep price. Already in 2021 and 2022, mineral prices rose, with lithium prices rising an astonishing 738%, and prices remain elevated above historical levels into 2023.
Foreign countries also do not follow U.S. environmental and labor standards when mining and processing critical minerals. Indonesia, which has eagerly participated in joint ventures through China’s Belt and Road initiative, has seen nickel production double between 2020 and 2022 to more than 48% of the world’s supply. Reports of grueling workdays, weak safety protocols, and accidental deaths in the country have fueled protests. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Chinese-owned companies control 70% of the world’s cobalt, as many as 40,000 children mine the mineral, some as young as six.
Promising developments in battery technology may eventually reduce the quantity, cost, and environmental and human toll of sourcing minerals. But few are likely to be commercially feasible, and none will be ready in time to meet the Biden administration’s tailpipe emissions standards, which, if adopted, would require electric vehicles to comprise two-thirds of small passenger vehicle sales by 2032.
Given these realities, a sensible administration might promote domestic mining and forge partnerships with allies and developing countries with an eye toward safety and minimizing environmental impact. Instead, the Biden administration is spurring mineral demand through the Inflation Reduction Act — encouraging environmental destruction and hazardous working conditions overseas while weakening national security at home.
Sarah Montalbano is the education policy analyst at Alaska Policy Forum, Northwest Regional Leader at Young Voices, and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.