As a contentious presidential campaign fades, the incoming Biden administration will face serious economic challenges. Among them is the large number of Americans left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the president-elect should initiate his ‘Build Back Better’ program immediately after taking office in order to strengthen America’s industrial base.
During the early months of the coronavirus recession, U.S. manufacturing lost 1.4 million jobs, and has only regained roughly half through October. This decline has walloped America’s workforce—since each manufacturing job supports roughly seven other jobs throughout the economy. The pandemic has also awakened the nation to the risks of over-dependence on global import supply chains.
President-elect Biden appears ready to address the concerns of America’s manufacturers and their workers. He’s already pledged to award government contracts only to domestic manufacturers, explaining, “From autos to our stockpiles, we’re going to buy American.”
This would be a good start. However, his ‘Build Back Better’ plan also proposes to create 1 million new auto jobs through large-scale investment in America’s electric vehicle (EV) industry. To reach that goal, his administration will have to tackle a major challenge.
In recent years, the United States has become heavily dependent on countries such as China to supply the metals and minerals needed for EVs and other advanced technologies. In fact, China is now the dominant supplier for 23 metals and minerals critical to U.S. national security. EVs and their batteries require a wide array of these key metals and minerals. Beijing is using control of them to jump ahead in the EV manufacturing race. China will soon be home to 107 lithium-ion battery mega-factories. In contrast, the U.S. has only nine in the pipeline.
The story is bigger than just EVs or batteries, though. Wind turbines need rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium, plus aluminum, zinc, copper, and molybdenum. And solar panels use plenty of cadmium, tellurium, gallium, selenium, and silver.
Ramping up production of electric vehicles and renewable energy systems will require massive new supplies of metals and minerals. Fortunately, the U.S. possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in mineral reserves. However, Washington has long pursued policies that have pushed mining investment overseas. As a result, America’s reliance on imported minerals has nearly doubled in the last two decades.
It’s time for the U.S. to begin ramping up production of its vast mineral reserves. Instead of increased reliance on mineral production in China, a major polluter, Washington should encourage domestic mining under world-leading environmental and labor standards. Turning a blind eye to China’s pollution, labor abuses, and human rights violations should no longer be tolerated.
To succeed in the clean energy revolution, Washington must commit to rebuilding domestic mineral production and processing. U.S. firms can both mine critical minerals and be good environmental stewards. With bipartisan support already coalescing around reshoring, it’s time to bring home the supply chains that affect every aspect of our economic and national security.
Kevin L. Kearns is president of the U.S. Business and Industry Council (USBIC).