The Biden administration supports more electric vehicles and wind turbines and solar panels in order to address climate change. It should also support more domestic mining, because there cannot be one without the other.
It is hard to overstate how much the president’s climate agenda depends on minerals. A May 2021 International Energy Agency report estimates that “a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and on onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant.” This includes lithium, cobalt, rare earths, nickel, copper, graphite, and others.
These minerals have to be mined and processed somewhere, and a recently released U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report quantifies the extent to which they are imported. The study notes:
[I]n 2021, imports made up more than one-half of the U.S. apparent consumption for 47 nonfuel mineral commodities, and the United States was 100% net import reliant for 17 of those. Of the 35 minerals or mineral material groups identified as “critical minerals” … the United States was 100% net import reliant for 14, and an additional 15 critical mineral commodities had a net import reliance greater than 50% of apparent consumption.
The USGS report emphasizes how much America is dependent on mineral imports from China— more than 50 percent for 25 different minerals. Chinese companies have achieved this dominant position not just via domestic mining and processing but also through substantial investments in production around the world. In other words, China has made a deliberate effort to dominate the markets for many of the necessary minerals should the U.S. and Europe move away from fossil fuels and toward alternatives. For the U.S., doing so would mean trading a strong domestic position in the production of fossil fuels for a highly import-dependent one on critical minerals.
The USGS survey is based on current demand for these minerals, but supplies would have to increase substantially to meet the administration’s aggressive goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, sales of electric vehicles, and the required mineral inputs, would have to increase 10-fold for them to take half of the new vehicle market away from gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks. The Biden administration wants to reach this goal as soon as 2030, and then go up from there.
Without increased mining and processing in the U.S., such goals would greatly increase import dependence and likely cause mineral prices to skyrocket, quite possibly to prohibitive levels.
The environmental objections to domestic mineral production make little sense. Again, the stuff has to be mined and processed somewhere, and to the extent it is done abroad it will usually be subject to far less stringent environmental safeguards than in the U.S.
But as it now stands, only a fraction of America’s mineral wealth is currently being produced, due to vast areas having been placed off-limits and the rest being subject to an environmental permitting process that averages 10 years for a new mine, and after which the answer is often no. Efforts to streamline this red tape have been stridently opposed by both the Biden administration and the environmental activist community. And in the last month alone, the administration has gone after two proposed mines.
There is plenty of reason to question whether climate change is a crisis, but those who do believe should at least ditch the hypocrisy on mining.