In his recent address to Congress, President Biden appears to have transformed himself into a champion of the “Made in America” cause. As he explained it, his jobs plan — which encompasses everything from rebuilding roads and bridges to accelerating the green energy revolution — will be guided by a single principle: “Buy American.” Or, as Biden bluntly declared, “There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”
This is good news for America’s domestic manufacturers and workers. But if Biden really wants to remove China from the equation, he’ll need to address some serious limitations in America’s manufacturing supply chains. And to do so, he’ll need to start literally from the ground up.
Wind turbines are a perfect example. Biden envisions a major transition in America’s energy sector toward renewable power. While the turbine blades he cites are composed mostly of steel and fiberglass, turbine dynamos also require rare earth elements like neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium. It’s for this reason that mining matters so much when it comes to making things in America.
Notably, Biden’s plan includes far more than wind turbines. His vision for a new power grid also aims for a proliferation of solar power installations as well as electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. When combined with new bridges and roads, and an expanded electric grid requiring “at least 20 gigawatts of high-voltage capacity power lines,” all of this translates into a tremendous need for raw materials.
There’s one problem, though. While America’s workers stand ready to build EVs and wind turbines, the nation’s manufacturers remain heavily reliant on China and other nations to supply the raw materials that can make this possible. And so, if Biden wants to make “Made in America” a reality, he’ll need to prioritize mining in America, too.
Consider electric vehicles. Biden hopes to replace the federal government’s fleet of 645,000 vehicles with American-made EVs. He’s also pledging $174 billion to incentivize EV purchases and to put 500,000 charging stations on the nation’s roads. Biden sees this as a job creation effort, but America’s current EV supply chain—everything from lithium-ion batteries to the resources needed for electric motors — simply isn’t located in the United States.
China is on top of EVs, though, and already has 148 battery mega-factories. Beijing also maintains a vise-like grip on the key metals—such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite — needed to produce EV batteries. In contrast, the U.S. has fewer than a dozen such battery factories in the pipeline and just one operating lithium mine.
The irony is that the United States possesses vast mineral resources with an estimated value of more than $6 trillion. But while nations such as China have made mining a strategic priority, Washington has largely maintained an adversarial approach to mineral production. And so, unless federal policies change in favor of U.S. mining and materials processing, Biden’s electric vehicle agenda could end up subsidizing China’s industrial ambitions. It could also increase America’s mineral import reliance, which has doubled in the past two decades.
It matters, too, that U.S. mining operators follow the world’s most stringent environmental standards. That’s a significant contrast with China’s ongoing, harmful mining practices and its abhorrent labor conditions, including the use of slave labor.
Biden’s “Made in America” strategy must start by prioritizing the materials and supply chains that will form the foundation for a new American industrial base. They are the primary components needed to make American-made electric vehicles and other advanced technologies a reality.
“Buy American” is an important strategy to boost U.S. manufacturing and create good-paying jobs. But it should not contribute to environmental pollution or humanitarian abuses in other countries. Nor should it send federal tax dollars to China’s heavily subsidized industries. The Biden administration must ensure that critical minerals are mined at home under strict U.S. safety standards. Sourcing these industrial supply chains domestically will ensure “Made in America” isn’t just a hollow talking point.
Kevin Kearns is president
of the U.S. Business and Industry Council.