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Promoting Electric Vehicles Can Pose Environmental Challenges

Jeff Hannapel

The Biden Administration has been promoting low and zero-carbon technologies to reduce the impact of carbon emissions on climate change. One area of focus is electric vehicles, where the administration has set several goals, including 50% of automobile sales in the U.S. are electric vehicles by 2030, $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and $7 billion to support critical minerals supply chain for batteries. Automotive manufacturers have also set their own goals for electric vehicles that are similar to, or more aggressive than, the Biden administration goals. The growth of electric vehicles can also provide new opportunities for the metalcasting industry.

The demand for electric vehicles is also likely to get a boost from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that was recently passed by Congress. The IRA stipulates that electric vehicle purchases can qualify for a $7,500 tax credit, provided that their batteries contain minerals extracted from, or processed in, a country with a free-trade agreement with the U.S., and some components are made or assembled in the U.S.  This suggests the need for a stronger domestic supply chain for electric vehicles, but are politicians and regulators prepared to do what it takes to strengthen the electric vehicle battery supply chain in the U.S.?
In electric vehicle batteries there is no substitute for lithium. The leading producers of lithium are Australia, Chile, and China. While the U.S. has the fifth-largest global reserves of lithium, there is only one active lithium mine in the U.S. Battery supply chain constraints will likely be the primary limiting factor to electric vehicle market growth in the U.S. Currently, China dominates the global supply chain for electric vehicle batteries with 79% of lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity compared to only 5.5% for the U.S.  

Several automobile manufacturers and other companies in the automotive supply chain have committed to battery manufacturing plants in the U.S., but they would have to rely on imports of lithium. There is still a need for domestic sources of lithium to support these ventures.  Domestic supplies of lithium need to increase significantly (as much as fivefold) by the end of the decade to meet the projected goals for electric vehicles in the U.S.

One domestic option for lithium is to reopen a defunct lithium mine in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Currently, the area is a park-like setting with a large pond (formed by rainwater filling the quarry) supporting turtles, fish, and other wildlife. To revive the mine, the pond would need to be drained and trees would have to be removed. Bulldozers, trucks, shovels, and conveyors would remove white rock minerals that would be roasted and processed with sulfuric acid to be transformed into lithium. The projections for reopening the Kings Mountain mine are an initial capacity of 50,000 metric tons of lithium in 2027, in conjunction with a facility capable of processing 100,000 tons of mined lithium and recycled chemical products such as battery-grade lithium, nickel, and cobalt.

The biggest hurdle to reopening this old lithium mine would most likely be obtaining the necessary federal, state, and local environmental and land use permits. Even though President Biden has invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to encourage domestic output of critical minerals needed to transition to low and zero-carbon energy, his administration has been unwilling to grant permits for mines, even lithium mines.

In addition to permitting challenges that may hamper the growth of electric vehicles, a nonprofit public benefit corporation recently claimed that California’s rule to phase out new gas-powered vehicles by 2035 may have a disproportionate impact on poor and working families and people of color. The lawsuit filed against California alleges that poor and working families will be disparately impacted by the rule due to the high cost of electric vehicles, high battery replacement costs, and limited daily mileage range in the face of long commutes.

Electric vehicles may be “green,” but lithium mines may not. Despite the large lithium resources in the U.S., there is only one active lithium mine in the U.S.  And, unfortunately, electric vehicles can’t be produced without lithium. Without a domestic supply of lithium for batteries, the U.S. could be left behind and unable to meet its goals for electric vehicles. In addition, the high cost of electric vehicles may also pose environmental justice concerns that must be addressed.  Accordingly, federal, state, and local authorities must find ways to remove regulatory burdens, issue the necessary permits, and address environmental justice concerns to promote and support domestic supply chains that are needed for more carbon-friendly energy sources, manufacturing, and communities in the U.S.   

Automotive OEM EV Targets

•    GM—100% zero emissions by 2035
•    Ford—40% of global sales to be EV—2030
•    VW—electric vehicle (EV) sales to be 50% by 2030, and almost 100% by 2040 
•    Daimler—50% of sales to EV by 2025
•    BMW—EV sales to be 50% by 2030
•    Renault—65% of its lineup to be electrified by 2025, 90% by 2030
•    Honda—40% of Sales EV by 2030, 80% by 2035, 100% by 2040. 
•    Kia/Hyundai—40% EV by 2030, 100% by 2040
•    Nissan—100% EV by early 2030
•    Toyota—carbon neutrality by 2050
•    Chinese—OEMS expected to launch over 100 EV models by mid 2020s