President Biden has followed through on one of his “Build Back Better” campaign pledges. He’s just issued an executive order to expand “Buy American” policies for the federal government.
Implementing strong Buy American rules is an obvious win for America’s manufacturers and their workers. But Mr. Biden can truly maximize this effort if he focuses on sourcing American-made components throughout the nation’s entire industrial supply chain — including from America’s mining operators. That would literally mean rebuilding U.S. production from the ground up.
Here’s a perfect example. Mr. Biden has unveiled an initiative aimed at converting the entire federal vehicle fleet to American-made electric vehicles (EVs). Since the federal government operates roughly 645,000 vehicles, replacing all of them with American-made EVs could support thousands of good-paying jobs nationwide. And it could help to encourage investment in the future of America’s EV industry.
But what about the inputs needed to assemble these vehicles? Will they be sourced from materials produced in the U.S.? Or, will much of this federal spending actually go to China — since Beijing currently dominates the global production of metals and minerals needed to manufacture EVs?
Electric vehicles are considered to be simpler than combustion engine cars—since they have fewer moving parts. But they also require very complex technologies built on a wide array of metals and minerals. Electric vehicle batteries alone require roughly 20 different metals including copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium. The electronic circuits in EVs need gold and silver. And the large magnets that drive EV motors use rare earth metals like neodymium and dysprosium.
Unfortunately, the United States has become heavily dependent on countries like China to supply these resources. In fact, China supplies 95 percent 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.
EV batteries pose a particular challenge since Beijing has already monopolized much of the world’s metal and mineral supply chains. China will soon be home to 107 lithium-ion battery mega-factories. In contrast, the U.S. has only nine such factories in the planning stages.
What’s particularly disgusting is that China continues to use toxic mining practices when extracting all of these resources. In Baotou, Inner Mongolia, for example, mining operations have poured refining waste into a poisonous artificial lake so large that it’s visible on Google Earth. And another dumping site in China, the Bayan-Obo, consists of dangerous sludge estimated to be three times the size of Central Park.
These environmental concerns help to underscore the problems that have come from America’s continuing reliance on mining imports from China. This is particularly frustrating since 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, and U.S. mining operators adhere to the world’s most stringent environmental standards.
Unfortunately, an extremely slow federal mine-permitting process has pushed much of America’s mining investment to dangerous and polluting overseas mines, including some that use forced or child labor. As a result, U.S. reliance on imported minerals has nearly doubled in the last two decades.
As the Biden administration pursues a “Made in America” procurement policy, it must think as strategically as Beijing does—and implement a top-to-bottom effort recognizing the vast array of raw materials, parts, and components needed to make American-produced EVs a reality.
Whether it’s electric vehicles, advanced energy technologies, infrastructure investment, or manufacturing, mining forms the foundation of the nation’s industrial base. ‘Build Back Better’ should not subsidize pollution or humanitarian abuses in other countries. Nor should it be a strategic win for China’s ascendant economy. Instead, Washington must ensure that critical minerals are mined at home under strict U.S. safety standards. It’s time for the U.S. to source its supply chains domestically in order to create good-paying jobs and truly green technologies.
• Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Follow him at @michael_stumo