Build the U.S. EV Supply Chain from the Mine Up
President Biden's bold infrastructure plan aggressively pushes electric vehicles (EVs) to cut carbon emissions while ensuring the American auto industry remains a world leader in the rapidly changing global car market. The goal is to drive up the number of EVs on the road such that half of all new cars sold in the U.S. will be zero-emission models by 2030.
This is indeed a laudable goal, however the transition to EVs simply cannot succeed, economically or otherwise, without a robust, reliable supply of the batteries required to power these electric vehicles, and the minerals and metals necessary to produce them.
Although EVs and battery manufacturing are central to President Biden’s clean transportation agenda, a sound plan to ensure a corresponding EV battery supply is missing. The administration’s own supply chain review found the U.S. woefully unprepared for the enormous mineral quantities rapid EV production will demand, yet actions to address the mineral gap have yet to materialize. Instead, we’ve heard only vague assurances about a “materials recycling revolution” – a major red flag.
Yes, recycling batteries from cell phones, and eventually EVs themselves, will be critical elements of a sustainable materials ecosystem, but recycling alone will not be sufficient to address the materials challenges that lie ahead. The mineral quantities required to build enough batteries just to support existing EVs already outpaces our current stockpiles of recycled minerals. Today’s challenge will become tomorrow’s crisis as the huge quantities of minerals and metals needed to support rapid EV production simply cannot keep pace.
You can’t recycle what you haven’t even mined yet – and the scale of what must be mined is stunning. For example, the International Energy Agency predicts the demand for just the lithium used to produce lithium-ion batteries will increase 100-fold by 2050, followed by soaring new demand for graphite, cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper.
The danger of exploding world demand for crucial minerals and metals, combined with an insecure supply chain, means we're likely to encounter severe battery shortages throughout the 2020s. According to an analysis by Steve LeVine, editor of “The Electric” and author of The Powerhouse: America, China and the Great Battery War, by 2030 automakers will be unable to fill as many as 35 million EV orders in a timely fashion because they will lack the materials to build the needed batteries.
If recycling alone isn’t the answer for the minerals demand challenge now on our doorstep, what is? Working with reliable allies like Canada and Australia has to be part of the equation but ramping up our own domestic production, and reducing the barriers to doing so, must be our priority.
Current U.S. battery metal production is a fraction of what it needs to be. For example, we have just one operating lithium mine. But U.S. constraints on production are not the result of geology; we are fortunate to enjoy vast stores of the strategically vital mineral resources used in EV battery production. Instead, our domestic challenge is rooted in decades of misrepresentation about the mining industry which has led to regulatory overburden and bureaucratic morass.
We must reshape U.S. domestic mining policies at all levels of our government to ensure we can access, produce and process our vast mineral resources. The alternative is trading today’s OPEC-driven oil market volatility for a battery supply chain dominated by China.
Mining is time and capital-intensive, which means we must get to work immediately to craft industrial policies that extend from the EV battery assembly line all the way back to the mine. We have the resources – lithium in Nevada, California, Arkansas, North Carolina and Maine, and cobalt and nickel in Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan and Missouri. To access these essential materials, we must remove antiquated mining constraints, reform broken permitting processes, address the artificial barriers created by NIMBYism, and offer meaningful incentives for domestic production.
There is no pathway to meet global climate targets without aggressively ramping up the production of minerals and metals right here in America. Missing the opportunity to connect EV development with U.S. energy production and 21st century mining policies is a mistake we simply can’t afford to make.
Thomas J. Madison Jr. is a transportation / infrastructure consultant who has served as administrator of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, commissioner of the NYS Department of Transportation, and executive director/CEO of the NYS Thruway Authority & Canal Corporation. He additionally served as transportation advisor to two NY governors and led efforts to procure, finance, and construct the $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. And he has held senior executive leadership positions at private consulting engineering firms and served as Executive Director of the Cornell University Program in Infrastructure Policy.