President Biden continues to change his story to Americans—this time to miners. Rather than mining critical metals domestically, Biden intends to import them. He is caving to environmentalists who oppose mining, even while they insist upon “green energy” which relies on minerals. Biden intends to rely on other countries to supply the bulk of the metals needed to build electric vehicles and other green products and focus on processing them domestically, which would placate environmentalists. The plan will initially rely on metals imported from Canada, Australia and Brazil, among others, to supply the raw materials needed to help reach Biden’s carbon-free goals. The U.S. government has invested in Brazilian and Canadian mining companies as well as various mining projects in Africa where environmental mining regulations are less onerous. Biden’s plan will be finalized after a year-long review of supply chains.
During his campaign, Joe Biden privately told U.S. miners he would support boosting domestic production of metals used to make electric vehicles, solar panels and other products crucial to his climate plan, in a boon for the mining industry. Instead, however, Biden has decided to continue with the Obama administration’s environmental regulations that slowed U.S. mining sector growth and to use imports for the needed materials.
Rather than permitting more U.S. mines, Biden’s team will focus on processing minerals domestically into electric vehicle battery parts and other green energy technologies. But, eventually, the Biden people will likely say it is simpler to have China do it all as that country dominates the critical mineral industry either through having the resources or through processing the ores. As a result, the United States will send billions of more dollars to China to buy Chinese green technology systems. We already send billions annually.
The United States Has Critical Mineral Resources
The U.S. Department of the Interior produced a list of 35 mineral commodities considered critical to the economic and national security of the United States. The list was compiled as part of President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order to break America’s dependence on foreign minerals. Under the Executive Order, these 35 commodities qualify as “critical minerals” because each has been identified as a non-fuel mineral or mineral material that is essential to the economic and national security of the United States, that has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption, and that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economy or national security. Two of these are detailed below.
The United States produced 16 percent of global rare earth supply in 2020 at its Mountain Pass mine, but the ore must be shipped to China to be upgraded into compounds and products which are then shipped back to the United States. The United States imports about 80 percent of its rare earth requirements from China. Measured and indicated resources of rare earths in the United States are estimated at 2.7 million tons. While the United States has reserves of rare-earth elements in California and other Western states, those reserves have been “undercut” by low-production costs in China due to far less environmental regulation. The United States was ranked as the world’s largest producer of these minerals until 1995, when China took its place. Rare earth elements are used in the production of high tech devices such as defense equipment (e.g. radar systems and guided missiles) and energy technologies (e.g. electric vehicles and wind turbines).
The United States mines less than 1 percent of the world’s cobalt. Identified cobalt resources of the United States are estimated to be about 1 million tons and most of these resources are located in Minnesota. The Democratic Republic of the Congo mined 68 percent of the world’s supply in 2020 largely with child labor, but China owns eight of the 14 largest cobalt mines in the Congo and they account for about half of the country’s output. The United States relies on cobalt imports for 76 percent of its needs. Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries.
Green Technology Needs Critical Metals
“Green-energy technologies” use far more critical minerals than conventional-energy technologies. 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. Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity increased by 50 percent as the share of renewables has risen. That brought wind and solar to a 10 percent share of the world’s electricity. With the world 84-percent dependent on fossil fuels and countries shuttering nuclear plants, “green-energy technologies” have a long way to go to reach net-zero carbon emissions and if and when that occurs, countries will be dependent on China.
The top three producers for three key green-energy materials control more than 80 percent of global supply with China in the dominant position. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and China were responsible for 70 percent and 60 percent of global production of cobalt and rare-earth elements respectively in 2019. China is even more dominant when it comes to the processing of these energy materials. China’s share of refining is about 35 percent for nickel, 50 to 70 percent for lithium and cobalt, and almost 90 percent for rare-earth elements. Three-quarters of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and half of its electric vehicles are made in China. Chinese companies have also made substantial investments in overseas assets in Australia, Chile, the DRC and Indonesia.
Now, China is tightening its grip on the global supply of processed manganese, used in steelmaking and needed by the world’s largest electric-vehicle makers. China produces over 90 percent of the world’s manganese products, ranging from steel-strengthening additives to battery-grade compounds. Since October, dozens of Chinese manganese processors accounting for most of global capacity have joined a state-backed campaign to establish a “manganese innovation alliance,” setting out in planning documents goals and moves that are akin to a production cartel. They include centralizing control over supply of key products, coordinating prices, stockpiling and networks for mutual financial assistance.
President Biden continues to overturn Donald Trump’s energy dominance agenda. Mining critical minerals is just another example, despite his campaign promise to miners. This Biden decision carries a high price—dependence on China for the critical minerals needed for green technologies and Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The high levels of concentration and complex supply chains for these critical minerals increase the risks of physical disruption and trade restrictions, while also increasing China’s leverage with the United States in negotiations on all matters. Dependency, as we have learned from decades of oil dependency, carries costs of all kinds. The levels of dependency on Chinese “green energy” supply lines dwarf those the United States encountered in its relations with Mideast oil suppliers.