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Is Joe Manchin a Radical Urbanist?

The Democratic senator claims to be worried about electric vehicles relying on foreign lithium. The best way to fix that would be walkable cities and great public transit.

Senator Joe Manchin speaks while gesticulating.
Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin participates in a Bloomberg Television interview on day three of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 19.

Joe Manchin last week introduced a bill—the American Vehicle Security Act—to delay the rollout of the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits for electric vehicles. He cited the need to “grow domestic manufacturing and reduce our reliance on foreign supply chains for the critical minerals needed to produce EV batteries.”

Manchin’s bill is, at least in part, a reaction to a Treasury decision to delay its rulemaking process around the credits, which he argues will make it easier to skirt the bill’s local sourcing and manufacturing provisions. “The IRA and the EV tax credits must be implemented according to the congressional intent to ensure the United States, as the superpower of the world, is not beholden to countries that don’t share our values,” Manchin argued in a statement about the bill. Should it pass, it’s possible that no cars would qualify for the credit. He suggested, as well, that consumers who have taken advantage of the credit since it went into effect on January 1 might be forced to give back the money.

If the last two years have offered any lesson about Joe Manchin, it’s not to try too hard to understand his motives. Is he concerned about building a manufacturing base in the United States? About foreign countries exerting malign influence on the U.S. through electric vehicles? Or did an enterprising American Petroleum Institute staffer hand him pre-packaged bill text? No one knows. Manchin, accordingly, may or may not actually have a genuine interest in reducing our reliance on foreign supply chains.

But Manchin wouldn’t be alone in being a little hazy on the exact reason he’s interested in electric vehicles. Insofar as most politicians in Washington have discussed the material inputs to decarbonizing transportation—including the lithium needed for E.V. batteries—it’s been from a national security perspective, attempting to jump-start domestic mining efforts. These plans have largely taken transit-as-is as a given, envisioning a one-to-one swap of internal combustion engine–powered cars for E.V.s. From a climate perspective—as well as a society-wide perspective—it’s not actually clear that’s the best way to proceed.

The White House has made a point of showcasing the kinds of hulking E.V.s that it hopes will populate an electrified transit system. Biden took a 9,000 pound, $100,000-plus electric Hummer for a test drive in 2021 as he made the case for a $1 trillion spending package. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm praised these cars just a few months earlier when she visited the Detroit-area factory where they’re made. “And that vehicle, that Hummer,” she said, “is so guilt-free. You can drive a big ole’ car guilt-free without having to worry about emissions.” One was briefly parked outside the Department of Energy’s offices.

But is there really such a thing as a guilt-free Hummer? A new report from the Climate and Communities Project casts some doubt. Projecting E.V. demand out to 2050, the report finds that just the U.S. demand for lithium would require triple the amount of “white gold” currently produced for the entire global market. Investing in mass transit, walkability, biking infrastructure, and other means of reducing personal car ownership—along with reductions in battery size—could reduce the amount of lithium needed in more resource-intensive scenarios by 90 percent in 2050. Electric Hummers, on the other hand—whose batteries weigh as much as an entire Honda Civic—require half as much lithium to produce as an electric bus, while transporting far fewer people. Even just limiting the size of E.V. batteries could reduce demand for lithium by 42 percent.

You don’t need to see car culture as a “triumph of bourgeois ideology” to recognize the problem with simply recreating current American car culture with electric batteries: Even car enthusiasts would probably prefer decarbonization not to depend on an unprecedented explosion in global mining. If Joe Manchin doesn’t want to be beholden to the foreign countries that produce most of the world’s lithium, therefore, he should embrace the kind of smart, walkable, mixed-use urbanism that is illegal to build in most American cities. But so far, there’s little sign that policymakers are thinking about how to shift away from large personal vehicles.

It’s not that U.S. residents are preternaturally disposed to car ownership by virtue of mostly living between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; car-centric development and suburban sprawl—and minimal investments in public transit—have made alternatives impossible. That doesn’t quite explain why cars are so big. The best-selling vehicle in the U.S., the F150 Ford pickup truck, has ballooned in size since it debuted in the 1970s. While the trucks are pitched as workhorses, some two-thirds of their current owners never use them to tow anything. Even the comparatively diminutive Mini Cooper has gotten 64 percent heavier since it debuted in the 1950s, and 61 percent larger. While bulkier cars are pitched as a safer option, the opposite is true for those unlucky enough to be outside them: Cars weighing more than 4,000 pounds are 50 percent more likely to kill pedestrians and cyclists they strike.

Though efforts to make roads less full of big, heavy cars could reduce both resource dependency and deaths, climate policy has yet to reflect that shift. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act puts $66 billion toward tackling the Amtrak repair backlog. There is $39 billion to “modernize transit, and improve accessibility for the elderly and people with disabilities, in addition to continuing the existing transit programs for five years as part of surface transportation reauthorization.” Just $2.5 billion is allocated for zero-emission buses, on top of $2.5 billion for low-emission buses and $2.5 billion for ferries. Compare that to the $110 billion the bills squares away for roads and bridges. Where the Inflation Reduction Act provides a $7,500 rebate for new E.V. purchases, there is no rebate for e-bike purchases, nor direct benefit to public transit riders. There is no additional funding to support public transit operations or capital spending to electrify fleets. Companies that want to upgrade their facilities to make zero-emissions vehicles can take advantage of $32 billion worth of loans and other incentives. Measures to change the ways people get around—not just what powers them—are meager. The IRA allocates only $3 billion to promote walkability and bikeability.

Appealing to car owners is an understandable strategy for Democrats looking to speed along decarbonization, pursuing a path of least resistance to assure car buyers they can keep their Hummers and F150s, which are also going electric. But there may have been easier ways to build popular support for an energy transition than making giant, resource-intensive cars its star: Roughly 55 percent of the Inflation Reduction Act’s $394 billion in tax credits for climate and energy are directed toward corporations—money that in another universe might have gone toward public investments visible to the millions not buying the green products boosted by the IRA. And as for Manchin: Even if you take his rationale for the American Vehicle Security Act at face value, there are better ways to reduce our future reliance on foreign lithium. Right now, the senator doesn’t seem to be pushing the kinds of transformations in planning or car size and ownership that would make his stated goal a reality.