The Rundown

Biden goal for U.S. transition to electric vehicles cast into doubt at U.S. Senate hearing

By: - April 11, 2022 3:30 am

Electric vehicles are displayed before a news conference with White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images).

A White House climate goal to transition the United States to electric vehicles is in trouble if the nation cannot produce more minerals that go into those vehicles’ batteries, U.S. senators of both parties said Thursday.

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee agreed during a hearing that more domestic production of lithium, nickel, cobalt and other minerals would be needed to increase use of electric vehicles. President Joe Biden has set a target of making half of all U.S. vehicles electric by 2030.

“Whether you agree or disagree with the president’s goals, there is no dispute that they will dramatically increase the demand for critical minerals,” ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming said. “It’s clearly time for us to get serious about expanding domestic mineral production.”

With transportation fuels making up the largest single source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Chairman Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, said adding electric vehicles would be important.

But Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, and the lawmaker who effectively killed Biden’s sprawling climate and social spending proposal last year, was doubtful that the domestic critical minerals industry would be able to produce quickly enough to make good on Biden’s target.

With China dominating production of minerals needed to produce batteries, Manchin said he couldn’t support mandates to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road until U.S. producers matured.

“There is no question that we need to be doing all that we can to reduce emissions from the transportation sector,” Manchin said. “EVs certainly have a role to play in addressing those emissions.

“However, with China’s dominance over the critical minerals required of the EVs, I have grave concerns about moving too quickly toward an EV-only future.”

The U.S. produces about 9% of the world’s battery cells, said David Howell, a director with the U.S. Energy Department’s Vehicle Technologies Office. A June 2021 White House report said domestic battery manufacturing is “dependent on foreign sources for battery materials and precursors.”

Duncan Robert Wood, a vice president for strategy and new initiatives at the nonpartisan international affairs think tank Wilson Center, told the panel that absent a “Herculean” effort to get minerals out of the ground, the White House target was likely out of reach.

“The targets are laudable, but I’m not sure if they’re realistic,” Wood said. “When you look at just the amount of materials that are going to be needed … there just aren’t enough being produced globally.”

Efforts to add to electric vehicles’ share of the U.S. fleet would see opposition from Manchin as long as most of the material came from adversaries like China, which he said is responsible for 80% of the world’s battery material processing.

Manchin said he opposed a tax rebate for electric vehicle buyers, a provision in Biden’s climate and social spending proposal.

“Why would we give a $2,500 credit for something that we don’t do and we have to rely on China to do it?” Manchin said Thursday.

Manchin also called for environmental groups to ease off lawsuits against miners. With the president’s target only eight years away, environmental litigation can block a new mine from operating for up to 10 years, he said.

“The environmental community’s got to get on board,” he said.

Ukraine invasion 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine gave added importance to ramping up domestic production of critical minerals, Scott Forney, the president of the energy and defense contractor General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, told the panel.

The war and subsequent Western sanctions, have caused price spikes in gas. Many congressional Democrats have said the disruption shows the need for electric vehicles.

But Russia produces about 20% of the world’s battery-quality nickel, Barrasso said. And the war has also effectively shut down the nickel trade, Forney said.

“Given ongoing geopolitical challenges, disruption can continue to persist,” Forney said. “More domestic capability is not only an appropriate response, but a necessary one.”

Manchin said the war showed the need for the U.S. to be self-sufficient.

“We cannot replace one unreliable foreign supply chain with another and think it’s going to solve our problems,” Manchin said.

Nevada ‘nexus’

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said Nevada was uniquely positioned as the “nexus for our clean energy and critical mineral future” because every aspect of lithium ion battery manufacturing — mining, production, assembly and recycling — was present in the state.

The Silver State Democrat compared Biden’s electric vehicles goal with President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 call to reach the moon by the end of that decade.

“This is our moonshot,” she said. “It is important for the administration to stake a goal for all of us to marshal resources. Whether we achieve that goal can always be in question, but at least we are moving in the same direction. Just like Kennedy did when he made his announcement that he was going to put a man on the moon,  this is our moment to focus on a clean energy economy.”

New production would not have to meet all new demand, experts told the panel.

Recycling could meet roughly 25-30% of the demand for the critical materials, J.B. Straubel, founder and CEO of lithium-ion battery recycling firm Redwood Materials, said.

Joe Britton, the executive director of the advocacy group Zero Emission Transportation Association, told U.S. Sen John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., that 95% of the minerals used in electric vehicle batteries could be recycled.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., floated the idea of a carbon border fee to advantage U.S. supplies of critical minerals over imports from China. More stringent labor and environmental standards in the U.S. put domestic companies at a disadvantage, Cassidy said.

Adding a fee on imports based on the carbon footprint of their production would “frankly, support our mining activity for critical minerals, as opposed to those who pay no attention whatsoever to environmental considerations,” Cassidy said.

Wood answered that he would worry about such a fee’s effects on the supply chain and inflation.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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