The U.S. government, through proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tailpipe emissions rules, has taken a drastic step toward de facto banning the sales of internal combustion engine vehicles in favor of electric vehicles (EVs). Yet a recent study by the Manhattan Institute shows that the emissions released in the mining and processing of critical minerals may mean that EVs emit “greater lifetime emissions” than a gas-powered car.

EVs will prove a practical and attractive option for many consumers, but assuming that widespread EV adoption will yield profound emissions reductions is flawed. EVs, while emitting no emissions from exhaust, require ten times the amount of minerals needed in gas-powered cars, including copper, nickel, and lithium, among others. Mining and manufacturing these minerals is costly in terms of emissions: On average, producing a quantity of EV batteries able to store the energy found in one gallon of gasoline requires the energy equivalent of 300 barrels of oil. 

Predictions of emissions reductions may be optimistic for several reasons: calculations usually assume EVs with small batteries, rather than the larger SUV batteries that consumers prefer. They also assume too many lifetime miles, since EVs drive about half as many miles per year as gas-powered cars. Simply charging an EV releases radically different emissions based on time, location, and the energy mix of the local grid, which is often glossed over. And the locations and characteristics of mines matter, too: between 50% and 90% of most critical minerals are mined and processed in China, which has lax environmental standards and powers much of its supply chain with higher-emissions coal. 

The EPA projects that its tailpipe emissions rule could force EVs to comprise 67% of small passenger vehicle sales by 2032. Meeting the increased demand for critical minerals may require almost 400 new mines. Mining will become more energy-intensive as the highest-quality ores are depleted. The price of minerals may be manipulated to increase, rather than decrease, as a hostile China expands its operations in Africa and South America. Technological innovations may help reduce upstream emissions eventually—but not early enough to make a difference by 2032.

Holman Jenkins, Business World columnist for The Wall Street Journal, has noted the shortcomings of electric vehicles before. He cites Ohio State professor Chris Atkinson’s slogan that, “the best use of a battery is in a hybrid.” Mr. Jenkins also notes that “the same battery minerals in one Tesla can theoretically supply 37 times more emissions reduction when distributed over a fleet of Priuses.” The Manhattan Institute study agrees that incentivizing hybrids and more fuel-efficient internal combustion engines would be “easier, cheaper, faster — and transparently verifiable.”

If the U.S. government were serious about its net-zero ambitions, it would be incentivizing improved fuel efficiency, manufacturing hybrids, and the domestic mining of critical minerals. Instead, it is proposing to force automakers to electrify their offerings in order to comply with EPA regulations. The Biden administration’s all-out push for EVs is a tailpipe dream.