As President Joe Biden confronts the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal Bureau of Labor data show that more than 10 million Americans are unemployed. Restoring these jobs will be a high priority for the new administration, particularly in sectors like manufacturing that have been hit hard by the coronavirus.
Helpfully, Biden has already taken a key step to support U.S. manufacturers with his recent executive order to expand federal “Buy-American” policies. Implementing strong “Buy-American” rules for federal contracts can help to get U.S. manufacturing back in gear.
However, the effort could prove incomplete if it doesn’t include the building blocks needed to support America’s industrial base. At issue are the metals and minerals on which U.S. manufacturers depend. Right now, these resources largely come from unreliable overseas supply chains and are often produced under appalling labor and environmental standards. In response, the president should aim to include “Mined in America” in his overall “Buy-American” agenda.
Consider the president’s plan to convert the federal government’s entire vehicle fleet to American-made electric vehicles. According to Car and Driver, the federal government operates more than 645,000 vehicles. Replacing all of them with American-made electric vehicles could undoubtedly support thousands of good-paying jobs nationwide while also incentivizing America’s burgeoning electric-vehicle industry.
There’s a catch, though. Electric vehicles require complex technologies built on a wide array of metals and minerals. Minnesotans are familiar with this since the northeastern part of Minnesota holds some of the nation’s leading reserves of nickel, cobalt, copper, and platinum. These metals provide the building blocks for electric vehicles, particularly the batteries that require roughly 20 different metals. There’s also the gold and silver needed for electronic circuits and rare earth metals like neodymium and dysprosium that drive electric-vehicle motors.
Worryingly, China currently dominates the global supply of these important resources. And so, unless federal policies change in favor of U.S. mining, President Biden’s electric-vehicle agenda could end up subsidizing China’s extremely toxic mining industry.
The United States has already become heavily dependent on China for many of these commodities. China supplies 95% of the world’s rare earth metals and is now the dominant supplier for 23 metals and minerals considered critical to U.S. national security, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Beijing has also monopolized the metal and mineral supply chains needed for electric-vehicle batteries. In fact, China will soon be home to 107 lithium-ion battery megafactories. In contrast, the U.S. has only nine such factories in the pipeline, as written testimony in June to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee indicated.
It matters, too, that U.S. mining operators follow the world’s most stringent environmental standards. That’s a significant contrast with China’s ongoing harmful mining practices. In Baotou, Inner Mongolia, for example, mining companies have poured refining waste into a poisonous artificial lake so large it’s visible on Google Earth. Another dumping site in China, the Bayan-Obo, consists of dangerous sludge estimated in a Yale University report to be three times the size of Central Park.
What’s frustrating is that the United States could actually produce these same metals and minerals domestically, and in a far more responsible manner. The United States is home to an estimated $6.2 trillion in untapped mineral reserves — including significant deposits in Minnesota — that can support the nation’s renewable-energy renaissance.
Unfortunately, an extremely slow federal mine-permitting process has meant that much of America’s mining investment has moved overseas — often to dangerous and polluting mines, including some that use forced labor or child labor.
As the Biden administration pursues a “Made-in-America” strategy, it must implement a top-to-bottom effort that prioritizes the importance of these raw materials. They are the primary components that will be needed to make American-made electric vehicles and other advanced technologies a reality.
As modern as electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, and other renewable-energy systems may seem, they still require a backbone built on mined metals and minerals. President Biden’s “Build Back Better” is an important strategy, but it should not contribute to environmental pollution or humanitarian abuses in other countries. Nor should it send federal tax dollars to China’s heavily subsidized industries.
It’s time for Washington to ensure that critical minerals are mined at home under strict U.S. safety standards. Sourcing these industrial supply chains domestically can create the good jobs and green technologies needed to rebuild the U.S. economy.
Michael Stumo of Sheffield, Massachusetts, is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (prosperousamerica.org), a national organization based in Washington, D.C. Follow him at @michael_stumo. He wrote this commentary exclusively for the News Tribune.