As the Biden administration moves toward its goals of carbon neutrality by 2050, they need to remember one key component to going green — critical mining of rare-earth elements. These 17 minerals present in the Earth’s crust are necessary to all key energy technologies of the future including solar, wind, energy storage, and electric vehicles.
As demand for cell phones, microchips, and electric vehicles increases, the worldwide rare earth industry is expected to nearly double from $8.1 billion in 2018 to $14.4 billion in 2025, according to Zion Market Research. These elements drive our modern economy and are a necessary component of any comprehensive energy plan.
According to Deloitte Insights, because the market is trending toward green energy, many U.S. mining companies will need to focus on renewables and decarbonization if the United States is to stay relevant in the energy and critical mining markets. Despite having relatively abundant reserves, most critical minerals are not mined in the United States. Moreover, the United States is currently virtually absent from the global supply chains for the minerals we do have. However, there is a strong need for supply chain stability as demand for critical minerals is growing.
The Trump administration declared the situation a national emergency and signed an executive order to begin a process of ramping up government-backed mineral processing. The National Emergencies Act allowed the U.S. Department of the Interior to fund domestic mineral processing. The increase in funding was intended to spur production in order to stabilize the domestic supply chain and decrease our dependence on foreign nations.
According to the Biden Administration, they are planning on giving $2 trillion to develop a clean energy economy and achieve a domestic carbon-free sector by 2025. At the beginning of March, President Biden ordered a review of critical mineral supplies in the United States. That review will likely show that the United States is at least a decade away from being self-sufficient. As the United States makes the transition, companies will need to more heavily rely on imports from Africa, Canada, and China. This is fine for the time being, however, from a national security and political standpoint, it would be wise for the United States to strive to produce what we can and not have to rely on other nations to shift to the green energy of the future.
The struggle for dominance over China in the production of critical minerals has become more apparent in recent years, as China has become the world’s largest producer or consumer of rare-earth metals, which are used for electric vehicles, smartphones and computers, weapons and defense systems, and other technologies needed for green energy. China controls more than 80% of the world’s production of rare earth minerals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The U.S. will need to establish a stable domestic supply chain in addition to other green initiatives like mine reclamation, lithium recycling, and mine transparency — all of which will play important roles in preserving this portion of the economy. Many of these solutions are bi-partisan and supported (to an extent) by nearly everyone in the industry.
To complement the mining of critical resources, the recycling industry will need to cultivate a stronger domestic market to meet rising demand. The Trump administration made some progress toward expediting permitting in July 2020, when it rewrote the way agencies review projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But Biden is expected to either undo those changes or wait on the outcome of pending litigation. This is particularly problematic for the production of lithium in the United States.
Lithium-ion batteries are expected to be the storage solution as things go electric. According to the Department of the Interior, the United States only has 10% of the world’s estimated 73 million tons of lithium, which means that for the United States to be more energy independent in the future, we need to better mine what we have and focus our efforts on recycling to preserve our resources for the future. This was highlighted by the Advanced Recycling Research and Development Act of 2020, the BATTERY Act of 2020, and the Battery and Critical Mining Recycling Act. This legislation highlighted the fact that only 5% of Lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled in the United States.
In order to decrease the stress on importing, America will need to lean into recycling to become more energy independent. In addition to recycling, mines will likely need to reduce their emissions and use of energy and water in production and commit to mine reclamation once the project is finished.
America’s green energy future relies on clean domestic mining for critical minerals. This is the key way to lower the barrier to entry for green energy, and having a steady supply chain will make this transition more affordable for civilians.
Reagan Linde is a junior George Washington Fellow studying politics and art.