The U.S. Geological Survey’s recent report, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022, documents the significant extent to which America relies on imports of numerous critical minerals, including many needed for electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines. While imports are not a problem per se—free trade has significant net benefits and should not be discouraged—this case may be an exception given that the Biden administration is both artificially increasing the demand for these minerals in pursuit of its climate agenda while suppressing domestic output through burdensome regulatory and permitting constraints on mining and processing. Of particular concern is the heavy reliance on China for many critical minerals.
The extent of import dependence is striking. The study notes that, “in 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’ published in the Federal Register on May 18, 2018 (83 FR 23295), 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.”
America is dependent on China for the more than 50 percent of it supply for 25 different minerals. Chinese companies have achieved this dominant position through domestic mining and processing and substantial investments in facilities around the world.
Many of these minerals would be needed in much greater supply should the nation seek to meet the administration’s goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. For example, a May 2021 International Energy Agency (IEA) report found 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.” Electric vehicle production, and associated mineral demands, would have to increase 10-fold for such vehicles to equal internal combustion engine vehicle sales. This includes cobalt and rare earths, for which the nation is heavily dependent on Chinese imports.
The IEA was founded in response to the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, so it is noteworthy that the agency now raises similar geopolitical concerns regarding China and critical minerals.
Of course, the extent of the increased demand for mined materials depends on the stringency of the climate targets. The IEA finds that the set of goals currently in place “suggests that the world is currently on track for a doubling of overall mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040.” The Paris Agreement’s goals “would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements” and the goal of net zero by 2050 would “require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today.” The U.S. Geological Survey study underscores the extent of dependence on imports such policies may create.
At the same time the Biden administration has set out climate goals that require substantially greater mineral inputs, it has done little to cut the permitting and regulatory constraints hampering domestic mining and processing that could reduce future dependence on China. In fact, the administration has taken steps in the wrong direction, such as reversing Trump-era efforts to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act, which routinely creates decade-long delays in permit approvals. In the last two weeks 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. Vast mineral-rich federal lands remain off limits and the administration has proposed to add to them. It should be noted that mining and processing in the U.S. would be subject to more stringent environmental safeguards than in China or most other nations that serve as non-domestic sources.
The Biden Administration’s climate agenda is highly problematic in its own right, but as the U.S. Geological Survey study attests, it would create dangerous dependence on China for minerals that could be produced domestically.