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Experts weigh in on USA's relationship with China and the EV boom: 'Well within the United States' reach'

"China controls each step of lithium-ion battery production…"

China controls each step of lithium-ion battery production..."

Photo Credit: iStock

Electric vehicles can benefit the world without upsetting its balance of power, argue the authors of a recent essay addressing China's control of battery materials and manufacturing.

Writing in the journal Foreign Policy in October, Brian Deese, former director of the United States National Economic Council, and Jason Bordoff, dean of the Columbia Climate School, make the case that an EV revolution doesn't need to make the U.S. overly dependent on China.

One of the arguments for expanding EV use in the U.S. is for energy independence, or freedom from the influence of oil-rich nations such as Russia. Yet critics of EVs and clean energy counter that the U.S. just risks swapping one dependency (oil) for another: technologies that rely on scarce metals, minerals, and batteries controlled by China.

In May, the New York Times ran a graphics-laden article illustrating how "China controls each step of lithium-ion battery production, from getting the raw materials out of the ground to making the cars." Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are used in most EVs today. 

Among that Times article's stats: China controls 41% of global cobalt mining, 28% of lithium, and 78% of graphite — all important materials for Li-ion cells. China also leads or dominates mineral processing, manufacturing into components, assembly, and manufacturing of vehicles.

Still, Deese and Bordoff maintain that Americans' petroleum habits pose more threat than batteries.

"The risks of import dependence for energy storage needs are not nearly as severe as those for oil," they wrote, as reported by Axios.

Among their reasons for optimism is the potential for battery innovation to diversify the materials needed and reduce today's mineral intensiveness. There are also already more diverse raw materials involved — and sources for these in other nations.

Battery supply chain disruptions are less threatening than for oil, so they may not offer as much political leverage for controlling nations.

What are the implications for Americans? If we can buy vehicles that reduce heat-trapping pollution over their lifetimes and do so without geopolitical impacts, that is ideal. Meanwhile, product innovations and competition could also keep prices down.

Deese and Bordoff don't assume the U.S. will gain ground in batteries, but Axios notes that the steps to take "are well within the United States' reach."

"Great read," Todd Malan, chief external affairs officer at Talon Metals, commented on Bordoff's LinkedIn share. "Very thoughtful rejection of the 'It's Too Hard to Stop Sourcing from China' chorus we hear too frequently."

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