President George W. Bush wanted to reduce carbon emissions into our atmosphere, so with an assist from Congress, motor fuel across the country soon after had a 5-15% mix of ethanol. Ethanol comes primarily from corn, burns cleaner than fossil fuels, and was determined to be a safe “bridge” fuel to future and better technologies. Bush was also a Texas oilman and knew more than a little something about the energy business. The ethanol fuel did deliver less noxious emissions, and overall air quality did improve. That is the plus side. And here are some of the minuses… Over-production of corn, particularly in the Midwest, has caused the erosion of topsoil in multiple states, running off largely into the Mississippi River, carrying with it fertilizer and pesticides. The fertilizer and its strong nitrogen counts flowed downstream into the Gulf of Mexico, causing algae blooms along the shoreline and miles out to sea, which can now be viewed from space, are choking off multiple forms of aquatic life and are requiring significant environmental remediation downstream.
President Joe Biden wants to convert the entire federal government fleet to electric vehicles to expedite the move away from fossil fuels. Several of the stimulus plans his administration proposes also give incentives to city and county governments, school systems (buses), with incentive dollars to make the switch. The President is trying to guide the automotive sector toward no longer selling gas guzzlers to an arbitrary yet still moving target date between 2025 and 2030.
There are some rather conspicuous dirty little problems in making that leap. Electric-powered vehicles currently comprise 4% of the automotive market. Even in California, where heavy state and local government subsidies and tax credits (as well as federal), cause tree huggers there to make the switch, the market is just under 20% electric. Whether we like it or we don’t, oil, coal, and natural gas today supply 84% of global energy consumption. Even if we stick solely to fleets, buses, and personal vehicles, that leaves millions of big diesel fuel consumers rolling, from the big-rig trucking industry carrying container cargo from ports to points unknown, and most every 18-wheeler you ever see on the highways and byways, to our national commercial railroad system, which is also primarily fueled by diesel.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s preeminent source of energy information for governments, this electric conversion will be fueled primarily by electric batteries that require key heavy and rare metals including lithium, graphite, nickel, copper and cobalt, among others. The amount of these minerals required to begin a serious transition would also require mined amounts of those top three to increase by 4,200%, 2,500%, and 1,900% by 2040.
Unfortunately, the Earth does not have the identified mining resources or reserves to meet those demands. That, of course, means more strip mining in more impoverished parts of the globe, particularly on the continent of Africa. Mining and mineral processing also currently require massive levels of water consumption. And with roughly half of the global supply of lithium and copper existing in places and areas of high-level potable water supply stress, the IEA says that poses “contamination risks through acid mine drainage, wastewater discharge and the disposal of tailing.”
So for the lucky countries who get to displace OPEC and the Middle East as the next global energy breadbasket, you get to have your landscape and forests/jungles denuded and spoiled, and then wave goodbye to your limited clean water supply. The IEA data also show that, depending on the location and nature of these future mines, the Energy Use Per Pound Mined (ETMs), could wipe out the bulk of emission savings that come from driving the electric cars.
Radical increases in the demand of these rare earth minerals and commodities will only drive up their price. Take a look at lumber prices for homebuilders today. The average price of a new electrical vehicle today is $36,000, more than 50% greater than the cost of a typical new carbon-powered automobile. Unless the Biden administration has plans before 2024 to simply send a large enough check or hand the set of keys to your own Prius, Leaf or Tesla to qualifying American households, I can’t see millions of Americans having the wallets or wattage to want to make this leap, and you have to have the infrastructure and fuel system in place before you build and sell the electric cars … not after.