A new report reveals that achieving the pipe dream of reaching “net-zero” carbon emissions will require far more critical minerals than the U.S. currently has. Unless the U.S. simplifies the permitting process for domestic mining, these resources will continue to be produced overseas and become more expensive as demand grows for renewables propped up by subsidies.
The Institute for Energy Research estimates that increased demand for materials-intensive renewable energy technologies—such as solar panels, wind farms, battery storage, and electric vehicles—will require a 42-fold increase in lithium, a 25-fold increase in graphite, and a 21-fold increase in cobalt, as well as other rare earth elements. A shortage of copper is likely to derail net-zero ambitions unless production keeps up with doubling demand between now and 2035.
Most critical minerals, including lithium and cadmium, are currently produced in countries hostile to U.S. national security interests. In 2022, of 50 minerals designated vital to national security by the U.S. Geological Survey, more than half of U.S. mineral consumption was imported and the U.S. was completely reliant on imports for 15 minerals.
China dominates most mineral supply chains from mining through processing: it refines almost 90% of rare earth elements and produces more than 80% of the world’s cobalt through ownership of major cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Beyond concerns about lax environmental standards in foreign countries, there’s evidence that some minerals, like cobalt, are being mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by children as young as six.
Depending on one country for minerals vital to national security would be a problem under any circumstance, but national security risks are worsened when those minerals are dominated by China.
The U.S. knows how to responsibly develop its mineral resources through mining—in far more environmentally-friendly ways than China—but the Biden administration routinely holds up projects through adversarial permitting processes. Pebble Mine, a proposed copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, took nearly a decade to receive a final determination from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this January through a little-used portion of the Clean Water Act. The Twin Metals Mine in Northeast Minnesota was effectively canceled last year, despite leases being held for more than 50 years.
Regardless of one’s opinion on specific projects—honest minds can disagree on the merits of each—it shouldn’t take a decade to figure out if a project is safe for the environment. The U.S. has an opportunity to build a modern mining economy that produces critical minerals safely while meeting rigorous environmental standards and strengthening national security. Only through streamlining mining permits will the U.S. be able to meet the growing demand for critical minerals.