As the recent presidential debates have shown, many in Washington are eager to move forward on a renewable energy future. Policymakers are already considering wider production of electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. But there’s a problem. The United States currently produces only a fraction of the different metals needed to manufacture these 21st Century technologies. And even worse, America’s primary supplier for many key metals is China—a strategic competitor with a long history of toxic production and unsafe labor conditions.
The good news is that the United States doesn’t need to depend on China for its renewable energy supply chains. Instead, America should start matching China’s industrial strategy. And that means tapping our domestic mineral resources.
Why focus on mining? Because electric cars require metals like lithium, nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, and graphite. Wind turbines need rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium. And solar panels use minerals like cadmium, tellurium, germanium, and selenium. The list goes on—with even cell phones using plenty of gold, silver, copper, cobalt, and zinc.
The coming surge in demand for these metals and minerals will be staggering. One estimate suggests that the stock of available minerals required for electric vehicles will need to increase by 87,000 percent. The resources for solar panels will need to rise 1,000 percent; wind turbines, 3,000 percent.
Right now, the United States is heavily dependent on other countries to supply dozens of key metals and minerals—countries that often exploit workers, resources, and the environment. This reliance on imported minerals has nearly doubled over the past two decades. And no country controls more supplies globally than China. Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported that China continues to “dominate” the global supply of rare earths—and supplies 80 percent of the rare earths used in the United States.
As someone who studies U.S.-China trade, this troubles me greatly. China’s dominance over metals and minerals is strategic. Control over mining and processing allows Beijing to exert power over global industries. Washington must stop turning a blind eye to such mercenary behavior, particularly when it includes forced labor camps, a disregard for environmental standards, and efforts to degrade U.S. industry.
In order for the United States to reshore manufacturing—and to lead on advanced technologies—we must reduce our reliance on China. The United States is home to vast, untapped geologic deposits worth an estimated $6.2 trillion. We should develop our own mineral and metal supply chains—and follow smart, safe environmental standards. Mining will remain essential for producing the next generation of advanced industries. Doing it here at home will protect the global environment while supporting good jobs in many domestic industries.
Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA)