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Local View: Mineral supply gaps inevitable without more US mining

April 7, 2022
Opinion by Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MichAuto.

Originally published in the Duluth News Tribune.

On Jan. 25, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to ensure that “the future is made in all of America by all of America’s workers.” Among other imperatives, the order aims to increase the domestically sourced materials the federal government buys to “help American businesses compete in strategic industries and help America’s workers thrive.”

Two days later, the president signed another executive order, this one declaring that combating climate change was a vital national-security interest.

MichAuto, which represents the automotive and mobility industry in Michigan and across the country, strongly agrees that these are important actions that mirror the industry’s commitment to building the electric vehicles of today and tomorrow here in America. Indeed, virtually every major auto manufacturer has recently committed to increasing production of battery electric vehicles.

As we work globally to combat the climate crisis, we in the automobility industry are proud to be part of this commitment to an electric future, which is vital in reducing emissions.

The industry and the Biden administration are also aligned on the goal of 50% of sales in the U.S. market to consist of battery electric vehicles by 2030.

However, we are alarmed by the contradictory nature of several administration actions that could hinder our ability to effectively meet this goal.

Recent supply-chain volatility created significant challenges for the automotive industry. A global pandemic that has lasted more than two years, followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, has wreaked havoc on the worldwide semiconductor supply chain. Raw materials remain threatened by this ongoing instability and may continue to deprive automakers of critical components for battery electric vehicles for some time.

These disruptions come at a time when the industry and its customers are increasingly demanding that the materials used to produce vehicles be sourced in accordance with conscientious labor and environmental standards. Currently, many of the materials, including rare earth metals used in battery electric vehicles and other components, are mined and processed in countries without the strong environmental protections found here in the U.S.

To make the transition to battery electric vehicles under challenging supply-chain realities and in alignment with proper environmental and labor standards, we are going to need to change how we do business. The Biden administration needs to take concrete actions to ensure this transition can happen.

Unfortunately, of late, the administration’s actions have done more to hinder than accelerate America’s ability to meet its own goal for battery electric vehicles. As Wood Mackenzie, a global energy research firm, recently reported, electrification is driving massive increases in demand for the raw materials needed for the batteries for electric vehicles. At the same time, the firm stated that mineral supply gaps will be inevitable if we fail to accelerate our investment in mining and refining capacity within the U.S.

The mobility industry is deeply concerned about its ability to produce more battery electric vehicles in the face of these projected deficits.

We can address this by bolstering mining and refining in the U.S.

However, the Biden administration’s current proposed revocations of mineral mining leases for the Twin Metals Minnesota mine, the 20-year withdrawal of lands in Northeastern Minnesota from mining, and the refusal to grant a permit to the Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona hurt our ability to increase domestic mining and refining capabilities.

We urge the administration to change course. If it does not, those projects and lands — which comprise significant portions of our nation’s critical minerals — will remain locked up, and our nation will likely fail to meet the carbon-reduction targets so hailed by the administration.

Facing the climate crisis in these challenging times means we have to become more independent as a nation. This should include shifting to a more domestically resilient economy in which we produce the raw materials we need to meet our battery-electric vehicles goals under strong standards, expanding our mineral-processing capacity, and hiring American workers to build the battery electric vehicles we need right here in the U.S.

We think it’s possible, but it will not come to fruition unless the Biden administration reverses course on the misguided actions it has taken against domestic mining. Doing so would signal that it knows what “Made in all of America by all of America’s workers” truly means.

Glenn Stevens Jr. of Detroit is executive director of MichAuto, an automotive cluster association that advocates for Michigan’s automotive and mobility industry. He also serves as the Detroit Regional Chamber’s vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives. He wrote this for the News Tribune.