ICYMI: Barrasso Op-Ed: If We Want More Renewables, We're Going to Need a Lot More Mining First

April 4, 2022

By: U.S. Senator John Barrasso

April 4, 2022

Washington Examiner 

From Day One of his presidency, Joe Biden has been waging war on domestic oil, natural gas, and coal. Now he is making it more difficult for U.S. companies to mine key minerals, making his own climate goals become even more unrealistic than they are already. 

Low-emission technologies require huge volumes of special minerals. The supply of these is much lower than the probable demand. Worse still, existing supplies are largely controlled by our enemies. 

The fact is, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicle batteries use certain key minerals in much bigger quantities than the technologies they are meant to replace. A typical onshore wind turbine contains five tons of copper. It also uses large amounts of manganese, chromium, zinc, and rare earths. Solar panels also require a range of minerals. Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants need a lot less of these minerals to generate the same amount of electricity. 

An electric vehicle uses more than twice the amount of copper and manganese than a conventional car. Unlike a conventional car, an electric vehicle also needs lithium, nickel, cobalt, neodymium, and graphite. 

Biden wants to build hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, thousands of square miles of solar panels, and hundreds of millions of electric vehicles to eliminate carbon emissions. That would require an almost unimaginable increase in mining for the requisite minerals. 

An analysis out of the United Kingdom indicates the scale of the electric vehicle challenge alone. To replace all of the U.K.’s nearly 32 million cars with electric vehicles would use roughly twice the cobalt, nearly all the neodymium, 75% of the lithium, and 50% of the copper produced in the entire world in 2018. Converting the entire U.S. fleet of 260 million cars would take about eight times more than that. 

The World Bank estimates that, over the next 25 years, the world would need to mine the same amount of copper mined over the past 5,000 years, largely because of the push for renewable energy and electric vehicles. The International Energy Agency sees demand in 2040 for lithium soaring 4,200%, graphite 2,500%, nickel 1,900%, and rare earths 700%. 

So, where will we get all of these minerals? Right now, we’re dependent on geopolitical rivals. China dominates the lithium supply chain and controls supplies of copper, cobalt, and rare earths around the world. Russia plays an outsize role in the nickel market. It’s also been a significant supplier of uranium to the United States for decades.

Currently, the U.S. is 100% dependent on imports of 17 key minerals. We are over 50% dependent on imports of another 29 minerals. 

The good news is that we actually have lots of needed minerals sitting in the ground right here. The bad news is that it takes about 10 years to get a federal mining permit approved. In Australia and Canada, countries that also have high regulatory standards, it takes just two to three years. Guess where companies are more likely to invest. 

Biden knows his climate policies will explode the demand for these minerals. So, why hasn’t he done anything to encourage greater domestic production? In fact, his administration is making it more difficult to access minerals on federal lands, where most of these minerals are located. 

So far, federal agencies have slowed or blocked five mines that could produce copper, nickel, and lithium right here in the U.S. The Biden administration also endorsed legislation to increase mineral production costs and to withdraw large swaths of federal land from mining permanently. And Biden's recent decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost domestic mineral supplies might seem significant, but it isn't. It fails to address the horrendously long permitting review process. 

We have to stop kidding ourselves that deeply cutting emissions is easy or cheap. It’s neither. President Joe Biden’s opposition to the expanded use of domestic minerals will make it even harder and more expensive. That means more inflation. 

We need to be energy self-sufficient — not just for oil, natural gas, and coal, but for the raw materials needed for nuclear, solar, wind, and batteries. 

America became energy-independent in 2019 for the first time in seven decades. But Biden is making the U.S. energy-dependent again. If we are serious about increasing the use of renewables and electric vehicles, we need a lot more mining here in America. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should teach us we can’t go back to paying our adversaries for resources we can produce here. The president needs to stop sleepwalking and wake up to the fact that our energy future needs to be made in the U.S. 

John Barrasso is Wyoming's senior U.S. senator and the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.