Invoking Defense Production Act Won’t Unleash Domestic Mining

Photo Credit: Getty

President Biden is reportedly going to invoke the Defense Production Act for the minerals needed to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries. But it’s all empty talk coming from an administration that’s simultaneously using every piece of environmental red tape available to strangle domestic mining of those minerals.

In one of the most hypocritical policy positions of our time, Biden’s environmental base is demanding more EVs as well as wind turbines and solar panels in order to address climate change, but at the same time is stridently opposing domestic mining and processing of the minerals needed to make them. And so far, the administration is playing along with the sham.

A May 2021 report from the International Energy Agency notes that “a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant.” This includes lithium, cobalt, rare earths, nickel, copper, palladium, manganese, graphite, and others.

A January 2022 U.S. Geological Survey report documents the heavy reliance on foreign sources for many of these minerals. The study emphasizes China, which, both through its own mining and processing as well as acquisitions around the world, has a dominant position on the minerals needed to make EVs and generate renewable electricity. The report notes that the U.S. is more than 50 percent reliant on China for 25 different minerals. To a lesser extent, Russia’s mining sector also stands to gain from the U.S. going green.

Ironically, by switching from petroleum-derived transportation fuels to EVs, America would be trading less reliance on foreign supplies of the former for much greater reliance on the minerals needed to make the latter.

It may be good PR for Biden to use the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law that gives the White House limited authority to acquire needed goods under emergency conditions. But beyond the headlines, the Defense Production Act does not supersede the environmental statutes that are being used to full effect to squelch domestic mining.

Take the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), under which getting the permit for a new mine takes an average of 10 years. Modest measures under the Trump administration to streamline NEPA were recently reversed under Biden. Biden is also pushing to make more federal lands off-limits to mining. These and other environmental impediments render the Defense Production Act announcement meaningless.

Defense Production Act or not, the bottom line is that new mines and processing facilities either get approved or they don’t, and the Biden track record is one of rejection after rejection. In the last two months alone, the federal government blocked a new mine in Minnesota that would have provided several needed metals and another in Nevada that would have produced lithium. 

Estimates of the value of America’s off-limits mineral wealth stretch into the trillions of dollars. Tapping that mineral wealth could create thousands of jobs and would be done with environmental safeguards far stronger than comparable mining and processing in China or Russia.

Instead of empty gestures like invoking the Defense Production Act, the Biden Administration could take concrete steps toward encouraging domestic production of the minerals without which EVs and wind turbines cannot be built. That includes streamlining the regulatory roadblocks and approving new mines and processing facilities, but doing so would require a complete U-turn from what we have seen in Biden’s first year in office.