Column: Electric vehicles boost demand for minerals

Hal Quinn

The age of the electric vehicle is upon us. No longer are EVs just for the super-rich or the environmental activist. They’re market-competitive vehicles with prices and performance that are equal — or soon to be equal — to their gasoline or diesel rivals. Sales of EVs are soaring. Consider that between 2010 and 2015, just 1 million EVs were sold globally. More than 2 million EVs are expected to be sold in 2020 alone.

As the Wall Street Journal has reported, the average EV on the market costs about $30,000 and holds a charge that will last for roughly 100 miles. By the close of 2017, there will be multiple models available with comparable cost and double the range. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, EVs could capture 50 percent of the global new-car market by 2040.

As demand grows for both EVs and the advanced batteries that make them possible, demand for the minerals and metals that are the building blocks of these cars and batteries is set to soar as well. And there’s the rub. As we begin to throw off our dependence on foreign oil and the energy insecurity that has plagued us for decades, it appears we are headed for potentially crippling dependence on foreign-sourced minerals and metals.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2016 Mineral Commodity Summary, the U.S. is 50-100 percent import-dependent on 43 key mineral commodities. These are the minerals used to build EVs and their batteries, plus critical components in everything from cell phones and computers to jet engines and missiles. The U.S. Department of Defense uses 750,000 tons of minerals every year. America is forced to import nearly $7 billion worth each year to meet demand.

Our dependence on imported minerals is a potential economic Achilles’ heel of our own making. The problem is not that the U.S. lacks good geologic resources. We possess an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals reserves. But while our resource base is enormous, so too is the bureaucracy and regulatory regime tasked with managing them.

Our overly burdensome and duplicative hardrock mine permitting process is a case in point. It can take almost a decade to receive a permit to open a new mine in the United States. Opening a new mine in Canada or Australia, countries with comparable environmental standards, takes just two to three years.

This process makes it far too difficult for the mining industry to invest in the United States, and to develop our vast resources. If we’re serious about meeting the coming uptick in demand for minerals and preparing for a 21st century economy, we must level the playing field for U.S. mining. That means bringing our mine permitting process into the 21st century, too.

Reforming the U.S. mine permitting process to ensure that domestic mineral producers can meet rising demand should be a bipartisan priority. Legislation recently introduced in the Senate and in the House provides the necessary reform policies to improve efficiencies, reduce duplication, and ensure best practices throughout the mine permitting process.

If we fail to revise U.S. minerals policies, beginning with revising our mine permitting process, we will sleepwalk into even greater dependence on overseas producers. With demand for minerals just beginning to soar, Congress must not wait for a supply crisis to shock our economy before we get serious about making America a more attractive destination for mining investment and production.

Hal Quinn is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.