“Electrification” has become a watchword for the Biden administration, particularly as part of the push for net-zero emissions in the U.S. economy by 2050.
In November 2021 remarks to General Motors CEO Mary Barra, for example, President Joe Biden credited GM with having “electrified the automobile industry”—a claim that was immediately questioned by Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk.
The U.S. net-zero by 2050 commitment, shared in one form or another by countries, companies, and nongovernmental organizations across the planet, first gained traction through the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Paris signatories are supposed to “undertake rapid reductions [of greenhouse gas emissions] … so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”
President Donald Trump formally left the Paris Agreement on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after Election Day, after first starting to withdraw in 2017. Yet Biden moved to rejoin the deal on his first day in office via executive order. On Jan. 27, 2021, as part of Executive Order 14008, he directed the country to reach “net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”
Biden’s moves toward electrification include multiple executive orders.
In addition to the above-mentioned 14008, which asked federal agencies to develop a plan for purchasing “clean and zero-emission vehicles” for the federal fleet, those orders encompass Executive Order 14037, which established the goal that “50 percent of all new passenger vehicles and light trucks sold in 2030 be zero-emission vehicles,” and Executive Order 14057, which relays plans for the federal government to reduce carbon emissions.
Biden also wants the United States to have “100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035,” as described in an April 2021 fact sheet.
November 2021’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation includes multibillion-dollar outlays related to electrification. One that was detailed on Feb. 10 was a $5 billion, five-year program to develop a national network for charging electric vehicles.
The Biden administration is far from alone in advocating rapid electrification to meet net-zero goals. In an October 2021 blog post published shortly before the COP26 climate meeting, the World Economic Forum (WEF) stated that “clean electrification” could “get us three-quarters of the way to net zero.”
Amid this pressure to change how the world gets its energy, the scale and risk of the new investments required for such a transition are coming into focus.
A 2021 International Energy Agency (IEA) report on critical minerals envisions a massive growth in demand for chromium (75 times), copper (67 times), and other minerals, in order to deploy solar installations, electric vehicles, and similar infrastructure on a large scale by 2040.
That means a lot more mining—and more mining could translate to more pollution, especially where environmental laws are lax or poorly enforced.
A commentary from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) describes some of the environmental costs of lithium production, which it calls “far more environmentally harmful than what turned out to be the unfounded issues with fracking.”
“Mining, processing, and disposing of these metals can contaminate the drinking water, land, and environment if done improperly,” the IER stated, citing issues that have arisen in Tibet, Australia, and South America’s ‘Lithium Triangle,’ which is made up of parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.
Some lawmakers have argued that the Biden administration is stymying domestic mining, even as it becomes integral to the sort of electrification and net-zero emissions envisioned by the administration—a conflict only sharpened as the United States tries to reduce its dependence on China, which currently dominates the battery supply chain.
At an October 2021 Republican forum on Biden’s departure from Afghanistan, speakers said the administration’s flight from the country left huge reserves of lithium, uranium, platinum, and other key minerals under Taliban and, potentially, Chinese control, even at a time when stateside mining ventures, such as Arizona’s Resolution copper mine and Minnesota’s Twin Metals mine, have been slowed or halted.
“It’s almost like it’s intentional to stop U.S. production of these critical minerals and elements,” said Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Natural Resources, during the forum.
Speaking to a panel at the Hudson Institute, Anthony Vinci, a national security expert who served as chief technology officer for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency under Trump, commented on the challenge China presents by dint of its control of batteries.
“Has the issue of batteries and supply chain tripped over that wire to where we’re now moved from normal, quote-unquote ‘normal,’ economic competition to economic coercion and into economic warfare?” Vinci said. “I would propose that we’re not quite there yet, but we’re in a state that I would call ‘preparation of the battlefield.’ Batteries are so key to Department of Defense capabilities in the next five to 10 years.”
A few core questions must be asked: What would it take for large-scale electrification in the pursuit of net-zero, and what would it mean for U.S. reliance on China?
A Look at the Numbers
That 2021 report from the IEA is a good place to start. It predicts a stark rise in demand for many critical minerals, in keeping with trends that are already underway.
“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 power plant,” the report reads. “Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation has increased 50 percent as the share of renewables has risen.”
The report stresses the need to step up the mining of lithium, cobalt, and other minerals used in electric vehicles, solar plants, and wind farms. Today, the mining and particularly the processing of many of those minerals is concentrated in China.
Even in cases where extraction doesn’t occur in China, the country often occupies a dominant position. Cobalt, which is used in the cathodes of many lithium-ion batteries, was almost entirely obtained from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019, according to the report—but up to half of that production is controlled by Chinese companies.
The United States, by contrast, imported 76 percent of its cobalt in 2020, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
“China owns eight of the 14 largest cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they account for about half of the country’s output. An American company once owned the largest DRC mine, but sold it in 2016 to China Molybdenum,” said Mary Hutzler, distinguished fellow at the IER.
Similarly, although the IEA projects that global demand for graphite—a key battery anode material—will soar, the United States remains dependent on other countries for its graphite supply. It imported 100 percent of its graphite in 2020, according to USGS. China, meanwhile, produces more than 60 percent of the world’s graphite per the IEA’s 2021 report.
In her remarks to the Republican forum on the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, Hutzler expanded on the scale of U.S. dependence on China for minerals used in electric vehicles, solar panels, and similar technologies.
“Our reliance on China is about 80 percent for these minerals right now, where the high for us in 2001 on oil from the Middle East was 23 percent. We’re going to be four times as dependent on China as we were on the Middle East,” she said.
Hutzler has also previously highlighted China’s dominance in new lithium-ion battery factories. In a 2020 analysis, she noted that “of the 136 lithium-ion battery plants in the pipeline to 2029, 101 are based in China.”
Hutlzer’s worries mirrored those of Nadia Schadlow, who served as U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategy under Trump. Schadlow told the Hudson Institute that one of her briefers described China as “about a decade ahead of the United States” in the supply chain for advanced batteries.
Along similar lines, a 2020 report on lithium-ion batteries from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (BMI) underscores the scale of Chinese investment in battery cathodes, including lithium and cobalt chemical supplies, as well as nickel and overall cathode supply.
BMI also drew attention to some of the environmental hazards of lithium-ion batteries.
“Against a backdrop of rising ESG concerns in mining investing, the environmental footprint of this supply chain has faced tough scrutiny,” the report reads, citing figures from Volkswagen that suggested production of the company’s battery-electric vehicles had almost double the carbon footprint of producing one of its diesel vehicles.
As the United States and the world have gone ahead with top-down net-zero and electrification plans, the lithium supply has dwindled, and demand has predictably risen. Lithium carbonate prices in China have increased more than tenfold between late 2020 and mid-February 2022, according to Trading Economics.
Hutzler has highlighted environmental challenges to new mines in the West as factors behind that increase. She drew attention to actions against approved lithium mines in Chile and Serbia, as well as the proposed Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Nevada, currently embroiled in a court battle.
“When demand exceeds supply, prices increase, as is the case with lithium, which could end the spiraling down of electric vehicle battery prices, making the green energy transition even harder to achieve,” she said.
The IEA’s 2021 report similarly states that the price of raw materials could rise and, as other production costs drop, heavily dictate the prices of future batteries.
“It is therefore of paramount importance for governments and industry to work to ensure adequate supply of battery metals to mitigate any price increases, and the resulting challenges for clean electrification,” the report reads.
Nickel may also be poised to experience shortages, Hutzler said. In November 2021, Musk asked mining companies to step up their nickel mining operations in anticipation of rising demand.
“Any mining companies out there, please mine more nickel,” Musk said.
“Go for efficiency, obviously environmentally friendly nickel mining at high volume. Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.”
Giga Metals CEO Mark Jarvis responded, “If you want environmentally responsible nickel, I really think you have to look at sulphide deposits in first-world jurisdictions such as Canada and Australia.”
In the United States, one proposed mine, the Tamarack nickel mine in northern Minnesota, would be only the second high-quality nickel operation in the United States. It’s already facing pushback from environmental groups.
WaterLegacy, a group opposed to sulfide mining in northern Minnesota, has written that the proposed mine “poses a unique threat” because of its potential for yielding copper, nickel, cobalt ore, platinum, palladium, and gold near various state and federal lands as well as “high-quality rice waters.”
“I suspect more groups are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach in their opposition given how vocal they have been in supporting mandates for electric vehicles,” Isaac Orr, a policy fellow with the Center of the American Experiment, told The Epoch Times in an email.
Orr has written about the proposed mine for the center.
“These groups typically argue there’s no guarantee that the nickel will go to Tesla. In this case, they can’t do that,” he said. “I’m confident more environmental groups like the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy will oppose the project as it moves forward.”
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy told The Epoch Times the organization doesn’t have a policy on the Tamarack mine, noting that the group is “currently gathering information about the proposal.”
“The folks who think they’re special because they drink fair trade coffee don’t seem to have much concern about whether their electric car is made using fair-trade cobalt or fair-trade nickel. It’s a classic case of affluent urbanites denying opportunities for high-paying jobs in the natural resource industry for rural communities,” Orr said, noting that mining in Minnesota and similar states could be displaced to countries with looser environmental standards.
Hutzler, for her part, believes that rapid electrification could have dire consequences for the United States.
“It is clear that electrification of the U.S. economy and its transportation system will mean the ‘Chinafication’ of these important parts of our economy,” she said.
WEF officials didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time, nor did representatives for the Electrification Coalition, an organization working on electric vehicle policy; BMI; and various researchers studying net-zero pathways for the United States.
In addition, The Epoch Times has reached out to the Department of Energy regarding some of the concerns raised by the IEA, Hutzler, and others, but didn’t receive a response by press time.