By Mark P. Mills –
Elections, as everyone now says, have consequences. But they can’t change the laws of physics.
That matters, even in this hypertrophied political season, because one of the policy choices in play this election is whether or not to embrace a Green New Deal or one of its variants. But the Green New Deal has at its core an impossibility in physics: the idea of “free” and “renewable” energy.
The monetary, environmental and geopolitical costs of energy technologies all derive from nature’s constraints. And the physics of all energy sources, whether wind and sun or oil and gas, share the same core features. All exist in nature, for free. But that’s irrelevant. One has to pay landowners (private or governmental) to access locations where useful resources are located. Then one purchases machines, built from materials extracted from the earth, in order to convert any resource into a form that can be delivered to people. Since all machines wear out, there is nothing truly “renewable” about any of them.
Thus, the invisible elephant in the room with a Green New Deal, whether implemented by federal or state governments, is the staggering quantity of stuff that needs to be mined in order to build all the green machines, and where that mining and processing happens.
Consider the ever-popular electric car. In a recent report for the Manhattan Institute, I took a look at the physical realities of these increasingly popular vehicles and found they weren’t as eco-friendly as they purported to be. The one million electric vehicles (EVs) now on U.S. roads (courtesy of billions of dollars in subsidies) account for just 0.5% of America’s cars but contain, for example, more cobalt than one billion smartphones. In general, fabricating a single EV battery, each of which weighs about 1,000 pounds, requires digging up roughly 500,000 pounds of materials. That’s more than a 10-fold increase in the cumulative quantity of materials (liquids) used by a standard car over its entire operating life.
Some EV materials are the rare-earth elements, such as neodymium, that are now in the news. Many other, more familiar elements are also needed, in particular copper and nickel. EVs use twice as much copper as conventional cars, and global demand for nickel to make batteries is forecast to rise 1,500% in the coming decades. Overall, the global push for EVs will drive a 200% to 8,000% increase in demand for an entire suite of “critical” energy minerals. All of this will be in service of reducing—not eliminating—oil demand. In fact, two decades from now, barely 10% of the world’s petroleum use will be eliminated if the optimistic forecasts (some already enshrined in government mandates) are realized and there are 500 million EVs on the world’s roads.
And the quantities of minerals used in EVs will be dwarfed by the push for grid-scale batteries to make wind and solar usefully reliable. Those solar panels and wind turbines also entail using an average of 10 times more primary materials to produce the same energy output compared to hydrocarbon machines. The world is literally about to embark on the biggest increase in mineral and metal mining in history.
But America has long been a hostile place to try and open new mines. Consequently, the U.S. is 100% dependent on imports for some 17 key minerals and imports over half its needs for another 28. The net effect of a Green New Deal distills to replacing domestic energy production (and exports) of hydrocarbons with an unprecedented level of energy mineral imports. You won’t find environmental organizations and Green New Deal proponents calling for expanding domestic mining. But the mineral realities have economic and geopolitical implications.
China, for example, supplies about 90% of rare-earths for the world. On the cobalt front, China has also quietly gained control over more than 90% of the battery industry’s cobalt refining, without which the raw ore is useless. Russia is a massive nickel producer. The list of dependencies is long, and it rarely includes American sources. In early October, the Chinese government advanced legislation to be enacted in 2021 that will “allow” banning exports of “strategic minerals” to companies and nations that China considers a national security threat.
Then we have the environmental and moral questions inherent with green mineral supply chains. Australia’s Institute for Sustainable Futures cautions that a global gold rush for energy minerals will take miners into “some remote wilderness areas [that] have maintained high biodiversity because they haven’t yet been disturbed.”
Add to this the widely reported cases of abuse related to child labor in mines in the Congo, for example, where 70% of the world’s raw cobalt originates. Last year, Tesla, Apple, Google, Dell, and Microsoft were accused in a lawsuit (filed in a U.S. federal court) of exploiting child labor in the Congo. Similar connections have been made to labor abuses associated with copper, nickel and other “critical” mines around the world.
The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 included requirements to report trade in “conflict minerals” and indeed most companies have pledged “ethical sourcing.” Unfortunately, history shows there isn’t much of a correlation between pledges and the frequency of abuse in many foreign mines. There is nothing new about all this. What’s new is the prospect of an astronomical increase in demand for energy minerals.
Meanwhile, America doesn’t need to source foreign minerals right now since imports account for 90% of U.S. solar panels and 80% of the key power components of wind turbines. Asian companies utterly dominate global battery production.
In timeframes that are meaningful, say over the coming decade, radically increasing the use of Green New Deal machines will have the effect of exporting jobs, exporting environmental challenges (not to mention exacerbating human rights challenges), causing the trade deficit to soar by hundreds of billions of dollars, and of course, eliminating domestic hydrocarbon jobs which contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the GDP.
You don’t have to ban fracking to kill the industry; mandating the use of the alternatives has the same effect. This won’t end well.
If all that weren’t enough, there’s also the roughly 20 to 100-fold increase in land use that comes with using green machines to replace hydrocarbons. And, of course, there’s the mother’s milk of a Green New Deal, the trillions of dollars in subsidies, necessarily funded by increased costs and taxes for all consumers. The latter is no longer in dispute; instead, those costs now seem to be a feature not a bug in Green New Deal proposals.
By the way, if green machines were in fact cheaper than conventional ones, as many media outlets now assert as an adjective attached to the words wind, solar or batteries, markets would rapidly adopt them without subsidies and mandates.
Perceptive readers will note that nothing has been said about climate change thus far. That’s because the physics of energy, of what’s possible, isn’t dictated by either the political climate or the planet’s climate.
But it does bear noting that the radical expansion of green machines won’t spell the end of oil and gas. Consider the latest forecast from the International Energy Agency (IEA), a reliable booster for Green New Deals in all their forms. The IEA predicts solar and wind—which today supply less than three percent of the world’s energy—will dominate the growth in energy supply. That will require, the IEA notes, that every nation follow through on “announced [green] policy intentions and targets.” Many of those “intentions” are already remarkably aggressive, including the outright banning of conventional cars and power plants.
We’ll see if they in fact happen.
Meanwhile, even with all that, the IEA forecasts the world’s use of both natural gas and petroleum will return to the pre-COVID peak within a couple of years and then even creep higher for nearly two decades.
That same IEA report has just one sentence on the subject of energy minerals, noting the need to consider that “reliable supplies of the critical minerals and metals … are vital” for reaching green goals. History may see that as the understatement of the decade.
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the July 2020 report Mines, Minerals, and “Green” Energy: A Reality Check.
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