Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Mark Mills testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in a hearing entitled “Global Climate Trends from Energy-Related Sectors to Consider Where and How Progress has been Made in Addressing Climate Change.”
Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this Committee. I’m a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute where I focus on science, technology, and energy issues. I am also a Faculty Fellow at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University where the focus is on future manufacturing technologies. And, for the record, I’m a strategic partner in a venture fund focused on software startups in energy.
Since the purpose of this hearing is to establish a baseline on the state of affairs regarding carbon dioxide emissions associated with supplying energy to society, permit me to note three basic realities, each with implications for the subject at hand. These are realities that help explain why, as this Committee’s join staff memorandum notes, in the pre-pandemic trends, “the United Nations Environment Program has found that greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase” despite massive European and U.S. investments in non-hydrocarbon energy production.
First, it is indisputable, and it’s a good thing, that the world will use more wind and solar machines, and more electric cars. The reason for that, aside from policies encouraging all three, is anchored in the fact those technologies are all profoundly better than they were a decade or two ago and, given the magnitude of future global energy needs, more options are always better.
Second, it is equally indisputable that all energy machines are, necessarily, built and operated using materials that must be first extracted from the earth. Replacing hydrocarbons with wind, solar and battery-powered machines constitutes a significant shift in both the nature and quantities of those “energy materials.” It is a switch from using mainly liquids and gases to using solids. And it’s a switch that, on average, results in a ten-fold increase in the quantity of materials mined and processed per unit of energy delivered.
Third, the United States is today, and will be for the foreseeable future, a net importer of, either wind, solar and battery machines, or key components for them, or for most of the critical “energy minerals” needed to build them.
All these realities have implications for the baseline accounting of carbon dioxide emissions trends. These realities also have economic, geopolitical, environmental and even human rights implications. While the U.S. is essentially self-sufficient today in net hydrocarbon use, it is an importer of alternative energy materials and machines. This means that replacing the former, which supply 80 percent of America’s energy, with the latter would replace a large share of the GDP with imports.
And, given the world as it is, not as we’d wish it, increasing domestic use of wind, solar and batteries results in a de facto export of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s because mining and processing of energy minerals, and the fabrication of energy machines, is inherently energy-intensive – and most of that energy use takes place offshore. Calculating the magnitude of that offshoring of emissions is complex. Some analyses have, for example, examined the processing of battery materials, or fabrication of battery components in China, where a major if not dominant share of such industries now resides. With China’s 60 percent coal-fired grid, this leads to supply-chain carbon dioxide emissions that are a significant share, even the entire share, of emissions eliminated by replacing a combustion engine in many parts of America.
In general, it’s worth noting that the aggregate use of oil by heavy machinery in global mining rivals oil use in global aviation, the latter of course before the Great Lockdowns. And it’s as challenging to replace oil in mining as it is in aviation. Meanwhile, the energy path contemplated with the Paris Accord will lead to the greatest acceleration in demand for mining that the world has ever seen.
All this points to the need for realistic supply-chain emissions analyses, something largely lacking in the current global carbon accounting. It also points to an opportunity for the United States to revitalize our domestic mining and mineral processing industries, something that China has been focused on for years.
There is some irony in the fact that the world is coming full circle to revisit the importance of mining. It’s humanity’s oldest industrial activity. In fact, way back in 1934, speaking of baselines, the great American philosopher and technology historian, Lewis Mumford, observed in his seminal book on technology and civilization that the industrialization of mining was a major, indeed in his view, a primary driver in the creation of modern capital markets, the organization of labor, and our understanding of our relationship with the environment.
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of several reports including Mines, Minerals, and "Green" Energy: A Reality Check and The "New Energy Economy": An Exercise in Magical Thinking. For a review of his policy recommendations for the new administration, visit the memo he contributed to the Manhattan Institute's Transition 2021 series.