Here’s Why an All-Electric Vehicle Fleet Can’t Happen in California … Or Elsewhere

Though no legislation has been passed yet, California officials have made it clear they want to outlaw automobiles powered by internal-combustion engines. But it’s a near certainty they won’t be able to secure an all-electric fleet within their timetable no matter how much they want it to happen.

Democratic state Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, state Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols, and former Gov. Jerry Brown have all publicly entertained the idea of requiring Californians to switch. Ting has gone so far as to introduce legislation that would ban fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2040.

Not even former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s silly effort to boost EVs by posing as a car salesman for hidden video cameras can change the harshness of cold facts.

While Sacramento, used to issuing orders, believes it can simply command a fully electric automobile fleet through votes and the stroke of a governor’s pen, the same way it believes it can decree that the entire state must switch to renewable sources for electricity, it can’t escape the reality, which says it can’t be done. There aren’t enough raw materials available.

British researchers say that if the United Kingdom is to meet its electric car targets for 2050 it “would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three-quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.”

Says Richard Herrington, head of earth sciences at Britain’s Natural History Museum:

The urgent need to cut CO2 emissions to secure the future of our planet is clear, but there are huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars but keep them charged.

Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s. Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.

California has fewer cars than the United Kingdom, about 25.6 million compared to 38.2 million, says Junk Science’s Steve Milloy. Using those figures, he says “replacing gasoline-powered cars with EVs in California would then require:”

  • 134% of current global cobalt production
  • 67% of current global neodymium production
  • 50% of current global production of lithium
  • And 34% of current global production of copper

With governments all over the world scrambling for the same scarce resources, it’s just “not possible,” Milloy concludes, for California to go all-electric. Have policymakers even considered this in their haste to outlaw conventional cars and trucks?

Of course, it’s possible the market will eventually produce the amounts of raw materials needed for California, the UK, and others to go all-electric in the next 20 to 30 years. The “experts” have told us on multiple occasions since early in the 20th century that we were running out of oil. But those forecasts have been so erroneous that some can confidently predict we’re never going to run out of it. The innovations and market incentives similar to those that have kept the crude pumping could ensure that the scarce raw materials needed for EVs become plentiful.

There are no guarantees, though. Lawmakers can legislate, expect, wish, hope, and mandate until they collapse from exhaustion onto the capitol’s marbled floors. But they are bound by the pace of technological advancement. They can no more decree an EV fleet to be so than they can change the color of the sky.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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