Politicians have long made bold claims about ushering in a clean-energy-dominated future and often harp on how they expect the United States to be the dominant force in such a world. But it should be obvious that the United States isn’t going to produce more clean energy supply than it has the inputs to support.

In fact, new research has shown that if the United States aims for a net-zero emission target without increasing its own mineral production, it would be almost entirely import-reliant on key minerals, requiring imports for nearly 100 percent of lithium, cobalt and nickel for batteries. Mineral demand could be so high that even for resources America is rich in, such as copper, it may require imports for 74 percent of its future supply needs. The figures change dramatically, though, when considering the potential expansion of domestic mineral resources, requiring imports for only 51 percent of lithium and 41 percent of copper.

Put another way, even if the United States could be the central source of clean energy production globally or even for itself, it would still be beholden to foreign suppliers for the essential mineral inputs because of the sheer size of the United States’ energy needs. And the degree of reliance that would be needed is subject largely to the United States’ ability to permit and construct new mines. 

But this presents another problem. Every major proposed mineral project for lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper has encountered at least some difficulty in market entry, and there is no one consistent reason for that difficulty. For example, a proposed lithium mine in Nevada is being held up due to it being in the habitat of an endangered species of buckwheat, a copper mine in Arizona is stalled over its impact on sacred lands and a nickel mine that struck a deal with Tesla to supply minerals for electric vehicles (EVs) has had the land it needs withdrawn from federal mining leasing. Some of these issues are resolvable through better permitting processes and environmental protection, but other projects face litigation issues that can only be unraveled in the courts or political opposition that can cause a project to get approved under one administration and canceled under the next.

Clearly, having mineral resources doesn’t mean they are easily accessible. Every mine is going to have unique challenges, and it is important to have a regulatory and litigation process in place that protects Americans from the risks that mining entails. But politicians need to understand that they can’t promise to be a leader on clean production when there aren’t enough minerals available to make those proposals a reality.

The hard truth is this: as the United States pursues a clean energy transition, if it doesn’t implement any policy reforms to unlock domestic resources, then a lot of the minerals needed will come from China. For global minerals refining, China’s share is 40 percent for copper, 35 percent for nickel, 65 percent for cobalt, 58 percent for lithium and 87 percent for rare earths. 

The concern about transitioning to energy and transportation resources that rely on supply chains dominated by China is not lost on politicians, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have renewed their efforts to spotlight the potential risks. One such concern, for example, is what would happen to EV or renewable energy supplies if China embargoed exports to the United States.

The ultimate point is that there is a wide gap between the way politicians, and even many analysts, enjoy talking about clean energy and what sort of policy would be needed to turn those hopes into reality. For the United States to become a dominant producer of clean energy, it will need to either significantly increase its imports of clean energy-related minerals, or it must find ways to make it easier to produce these minerals domestically. If the United States doesn’t take either of those steps, then it will probably continue to rely on the domestic energy sources in which it is already abundant, which are predominantly fossil fuels.

Almost anyone would agree that cleaner energy is better, and energy innovation that can deliver lower-cost energy to market is a good thing, but there is no getting around the physical constraints presented by materials scarcity. To carve a path for clean energy, policymakers must find ways to get ethically sourced minerals to the market.