The Future of Electric Vehicles Depends on Stable U.S. Rare Earth Minerals Production
Electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids are the future, but getting past our current reliance on internal combustion engines will require secure, domestic sources for a plethora of important minerals, such as rare earth metals. While the future of EVs and other green technologies is promising, reliance on overseas sources for these critical minerals creates significant strategic and economic risks that policy makers must mitigate by increasing U.S. production.
Passenger electric vehicles constitute a growing portion of the vehicle market, with more than 354,000 EVs sold in 2018, a 72% increase from 2017. Such vehicles could make up 7% or more of the U.S. vehicle fleet by 2030 if the current pace of growth can be sustained.
The Pentagon is also beginning to integrate electric vehicles into its wheeled fleets. Donald Sando, Director of Capabilities Development and Integration for the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, told an audience in 2017 that “In 10 years, some of our brigade combat teams will be all-electric.” Although DoD has benefited from the recent decline in energy prices, gasoline and diesel fuels are still a major expense. In 2018, the agency estimated it spent $9.2 billion on operational fuel costs.
A reduction in fuel consumption would have major operational benefits as well. Transporting gasoline and other fuels to U.S. troops in the field is a major logistical challenge that puts lives at risk and reduces the availability of forces that could otherwise be tasked with combat missions. At the strategic level, reduced fossil fuel demand will translate into a reduced demand for deployed U.S. forces to protect vital oil supplies and shipping capabilities.
Domestic electric vehicle production and other green technologies depend on foreign sources of supply for critical minerals such as manganese, lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, aluminum, copper, and various rare earth elements. For some of these, the U.S. is 100% import-reliant.
Unfortunately, global production for many of the minerals on which the U.S. is reliant, is controlled by competitor countries, like China and Russia, or is located within unstable countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The U.S. cannot afford to fall even further behind in the competition for strategic mineral production and it cannot continue to let potential adversaries control the markets. While the U.S. is currently highly import-reliant for many important minerals, we actually possess substantial reserves that could reduce our dependency on China and other nations.
According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, we possess rare earth element reserves of 1.4 million metric tons — more than enough to satisfy domestic consumption of 11,000 tons per year for the foreseeable future.
The main impediment to accessing such abundant reserves is a bureaucratic permitting process which adds cost and uncertainty to a mine project, often with marginal environmental or safety value. Obtaining a new U.S. mine permit takes an average of seven years and frequently longer, while similar projects in Australia and Canada, each with exemplary environmental protections, average only two.
Our burdensome permitting process significantly reduces the value of U.S. mines. A mining project generally loses more than a third of its value due bureaucratic delays of the federal permitting process. The regulatory red tape has the effect of making new mining projects, even for critical, sought-after minerals, financially unviable. Environmental concerns are of obvious importance. But increasing domestic minerals production and upholding our environmental safeguards are not mutually exclusive.
Cutting unnecessary and superfluous red tape and making the federal permitting process more efficient and accountable should be a priority for U.S. policy makers. An amendment to the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contained language which would have greatly streamlined the mine permitting process by designating a ‘lead agency’ to coordinate permit reviews and would limit review time to 30 months. Despite strong bipartisan support, the amendment was ultimately stripped from the bill.
Independence from foreign sources of oil and key minerals is critical to U.S. competitiveness and to national security. It is imperative that Congressional leaders take up these issues again.
Major General Robert H. Latiff, Ph.D, is a retired Air Force general with a background in materials science and manufacturing technology.