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Power Outrage: Will Heavily Subsidized Battery Factories Generate Substandard Jobs?

By Jacob Whiton and Greg LeRoy - Good Jobs First, July 2023

Under a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act, some factories making batteries for electric vehicles will each receive more than a billion dollars per year from the U.S. government, with no requirement to pay good wages to production workers. Thanks to the Advanced Manufacturing Production Credit, also called 45X for its section in the Internal Revenue Code, battery companies will receive tax credits that they can use, sell, or cash out.

The 45X program alone will cost taxpayers over $200 billion in the next decade, far more than the $31 billion estimated by Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation. On top of 45X and other federal incentives, factories manufacturing electric vehicles and batteries have also been promised well over $13 billion in state and local economic development incentives in just the past 18 months.

What do local communities get from companies in exchange for public money? The Biden administration says the IRA will create “good-paying union jobs,” but the federal tax credit has no job quality requirements for permanent jobs and doesn’t mandate companies pay market-based wages or benefits.

Good Jobs First did the math for five recently announced battery factories. Here’s what we learned:

  • Total subsidies will range from $2 million to $7 million per job.
  • Average annual wages, as announced, will be below the current national average for production workers in the automotive sector.
  • The 45X credit alone is large enough to cover each facility’s initial capital investment cost and wage bill for the first several years of production.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Battery Jobs Must Be Good-Paying Union Jobs, Says New UAW President

By Dan DiMaggio - Labor Notes, May 18, 2023

Contracts covering 150,000 auto workers at the Big 3 will expire on September 14, and the new leadership of the United Auto Workers is taking a more aggressive stance than in years past.

“We’re going to launch our biggest contract campaign ever in our history,” UAW President Shawn Fain told members in a Facebook live video.

Fain took office in March after winning the union’s first one member, one vote election. Running on the slogan, “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers,” he and the Members United slate swept all the positions they ran for, giving reformers a majority on the international executive board.

While the union has vowed to take on tiered wages and benefits, job security, and plant closures, the transition to electric vehicles (EV) looms especially large.

Since President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act last August, companies have announced $120 billion in investments in domestic EV and battery manufacturing. The Act includes big tax credits and incentives for clean energy and EVs.

Ford alone is investing $11 billion in a new EV assembly plant and battery factories in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Biden administration wants EVs to make up half of all new vehicles sold by 2030.

Building a Democratic Energy Future: Lithium Extractivism and North-South Inequalities

The “Electrify Everything” Movement’s Consumption Problem

By Amy Westervelt - The Intercept, May 8, 2023

In 2019, Thea Riofrancos was splitting her time between researching the social and environmental impacts of lithium mining in Chile and organizing for a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels in the United States. A political science professor at Providence College and member of the Climate and Community Project, Riofrancos was struck by the contrast: Lithium is essential to the batteries that make electric vehicles and renewable energy work, but mining inflicts its own environmental damage. “Here I am in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, seeing these mining-related harms, and then there I go in the U.S. advocating for a rapid transition. How do I align these two goals?” Riofrancos said. “And is there a way to have a less extractive energy transition?”

When she went looking for research that would help answer that question, she found none, at least not for the transportation sector, which was her area of focus. “I saw forecast after forecast that assumed basically a binary of the future,” she said. “Either we stay with the fossil fuel status quo and the existential crisis that that is causing for the planet and all of its people. Or we transition to an electrified, renewably powered future, but that doesn’t really change anything about how these sectors or economic activities are organized.”

Riofrancos wanted to look at multiple ways to design an electrified future and understand what the costs and impacts of different scenarios might be. So she linked up with other Climate and Community Project researchers and put together a report mapping out four potential pathways to electrification for the transportation sector. Titled “Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility and Less Mining,” the report concluded that even relatively small, easy-to-achieve shifts like reducing the size of cars and their batteries could deliver big returns: a 42 percent reduction in the amount of lithium needed in the U.S., even if the number of cars on the road and the frequency with which people drive stayed the same.

It’s the sort of thing politicians and electrification advocates need to think through now, when decisions can be made to guide the energy transition in one direction or another. It’s also critical to an underdiscussed component of climate action: demand for products and services and the role energy plays in fulfilling those demands. Which connects right up to another topic that American politicians don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole: consumption.

The Lithium Problem: An Interview with Thea Riofrancos

By Alyssa Battistoni and Thea Riofrancos - Dissent, Spring 2023

Can we rapidly reduce carbon emissions while minimizing the damage caused by resource extraction?

After years of outright climate denial and political intransigence, the development of renewable energy is finally underway. When it comes to transportation—the number one source of U.S. carbon emissions—the strategy for decarbonization has focused heavily on replacing gas-powered cars with rechargeable electric vehicles. The Inflation Reduction Act offers billions of dollars of subsidies for both producers and consumers of EVs, including a $7,500 tax credit for buying new EVs made in the United States. The infrastructure bill passed in late 2021 included $5 billion to help states build a network of EV recharging stations. New York and California have announced bans on the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines beginning in 2035. Half of this year’s Superbowl car ads touted electric vehicles. By 2030, it is estimated that electric vehicles will make up half of U.S. car sales.

For our reliance on privatized transportation to remain the same, everything else will have to change. We’re already seeing concerns about shortages of “critical minerals” necessary for batteries and other renewable technologies. Based on current consumption patterns, for example, U.S. demand for the lithium used in batteries would require three times the existing global supply—which comes primarily from Australia, Latin America, and China—by 2050. In anticipation of booming demand, a flurry of new mining operations has begun around the world—and so have protests by those worried that mines will disturb ecosystems, contaminate water supplies, generate toxic waste, and disrupt local livelihoods.

What does the current trajectory of the “green energy transition” mean for global environmental justice? What other options are there? Is it possible to rapidly reduce carbon emissions while also minimizing extraction and maintaining—or even increasing—people’s ability to move freely and safely?

A new report from the think tank Climate and Community Project presents the data behind different visions of the green future. A scenario in which the United States reduces car dependency by improving public transit options, density, and walkability could see a 66 percent decrease in lithium demand compared to a business-as-usual model. Even just reducing the size of U.S. vehicles and batteries could potentially reduce lithium use by as much as 42 percent in 2050. In other words, the choices Americans make about domestic transportation, housing, and development matter worldwide. In this interview, the report’s lead author, political scientist Thea Riofrancos, explains the implications of its findings for climate and environmental politics in the United States and around the planet.

US Railroads Lag Behind the World in Railroad Electrification, and the Reason is Private Ownership

By Maddock Thomas - Brown Political Review, March 7, 2023

Railroads in the United States have avoided electrification, lagging behind much of the rest of the world. Consequently, American railroads are some of the largest consumers of diesel. In 2018, they used 4.2 billion gallons of diesel, second only to the US military. This diesel becomes quite expensive when prices spike during fuel crises. While railroads often claim to be improving fuel efficiency, they have failed to invest in the obvious solution: electrification. Railroad electrification would massively reduce pollution, improve operating efficiency, lower costs, and clear the way for faster rail service. With all these benefits, why have American railroads failed to electrify? The answer has to do with monopolization, a short-sighted focus on profit, and lack of national planning. However, it is not too late to correct our failures now. The US can still create a world-class, electrified rail network by nationalizing railroad infrastructure and recognizing it as a public good.

The US rail network is privately owned, largely by two sets of regional duopolies: CSX and Norfolk Southern in the east, and BNSF and Union Pacific in the west. These companies are fastidiously opposed to deploying capital that would improve infrastructure. As a result, they are unwilling to fund electrification and focus on cutting costs and services in order to reap higher profits. 

This refusal to invest in better rail infrastructure in pursuit of short-term profits is short-sighted at best and downright counterproductive at worst. The operating cost of electrified railways is markedly lower than that of those that run on diesel. A study from the 1980s found that electrification had an “economic advantage” over diesel, with a 19 percent pre-tax rate of return on electrifying 29,000 miles of US mainlines. Additionally, it is more than 50 percent cheaper to power a train on electricity than on diesel, especially considering current price hikes. Plus, with regenerative braking and catenaries, when trains are going downhill or slowing, they can sell power back to the grid.

Biden's clean energy factory jobs may elude U.S. union workers

By Nichola Groom - Reuters, March 6, 2023

March 6 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden has pledged that fighting climate change will deliver millions of middle-class jobs with good wages to Americans with union membership cards.

But in the six months since passage of Biden's signature climate change law, a large majority of the $50 billion of announced investments in domestic manufacturing to support the clean energy transition has been in states with laws that make it harder for workers to unionize, according to a Reuters analysis of corporate and state announcements.

Biden's Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes tax credits for businesses that produce clean energy components in the United States, and provides higher credits for developers of renewable energy projects if they use products made domestically.

Of the more than 50 EV battery, solar panel and other factories announced since passage of the Act in August, 83% are located in so-called right to work states, which bar companies from requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment, according to a Reuters review of company announcements.

Those facilities represent $43.5 billion in investment, or 88% of the total amount companies have said they will invest.

Reuters came up with the list of projects by crosschecking data compiled by researcher Jack Conness with official company announcements and information on right to work states.

An EV in Every Driveway Is an Environmental Disaster

By Alissa Walker - Curbed, January 25, 2023

“There is always a huge climate benefit — and, I would argue, a safety benefit — to ensuring people have access to excellent public transit,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said earlier this month at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting. “Even if we weren’t aggressively working to decarbonize existing modes of transportation, that alone is one of the biggest and the best things we can do from a climate perspective.” This is the closest thing to a mic drop that exists at such an event, so the assembled transportation academics, urban planners, and civil engineers erupted into applause. Buttigieg had to pause, letting the hoots fade out before he could finish his remarks. He was onstage with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to announce the first blueprint to decarbonize U.S. transportation by 2050, an unprecedented collaboration between the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency to move the country away from using fossil fuels when, well, moving around.

Despite its many strengths, the blueprint is largely built around two things that have very little to do with what got Buttigieg the most applause from transit professionals: It’s heavily reliant on developing technologies that don’t exist yet and the Biden administration’s goal to have half of the new vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric (a figure closely negotiated with automakers). The latter point is perhaps why the slow but steadily growing number of electric vehicles, or EVs, sold in this country each year has become its own kind of shorthand for the decarbonization revolution. (“Electric Vehicles Keep Defying Almost Everyone’s Predictions,” “Electric Vehicle Sales Hit a Tipping Point in 2022,” “Electric Vehicles = 10% Of New Vehicle Sales Globally!”) A green future, the story goes, looks a lot like today — it’s just that the cars on the road make pit stops at charging stations instead of gas stations. But a one-for-one swap like that — an EV to take the place of your gas guzzler — is a disaster of its own making: a resource-intensive, slow crawl toward a future of sustained high traffic deaths, fractured neighborhoods, and infrastructural choices that prioritize roads over virtually everything else. And considering what it would take to produce that many cars, the vision being sold by the Biden administration about an EV in every driveway is more than just a fantasy — it’s an environmental nightmare.

A zero emissions future without the mining boom: A new report finds that the U.S. can reduce lithium demand by up to 90 percent

By Blanca Begert and Lylla Younes - Grist, January 24, 2023

The effort to shift the U.S. economy off fossil fuels and avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change hinges on the third element of the periodic table. Lithium, the soft, silvery-white metal used in electric car batteries, was endowed by nature with miraculous properties. At around half a gram per cubic centimeter, it’s the lightest metal on Earth and is extremely energy-dense, making it ideal for manufacturing batteries with a long life. 

The problem is, lithium comes with its own set of troubles: Mining the metal is often devastating for the environment and the people who live nearby, since it’s water intensive and risks permanently damaging the land. The industry also has an outsized impact on Native Americans, with three-quarters of all known U.S. deposits located near tribal land. 

Demand for lithium is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades (up to 4,000 percent according to one estimate), which will require many new mines to meet it (more than 70 by 2025). These estimates assume the number of cars on the road will remain constant, so lithium demand will rise as gas guzzlers get replaced by electric vehicles. But what if the United States could design a policy that eliminates carbon emissions from the transportation sector without as much mining? 

A new report from the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank, offers a fix. In a paper out on Tuesday, the researchers estimated that the U.S. could decrease lithium demand up to 90 percent by 2050 by expanding public transportation infrastructure, shrinking the size of electric vehicle batteries and maximizing lithium recycling. They claim that this report is the first to consider multiple pathways for getting the country’s cars and buses running on electricity and suppressing U.S. lithium demand at the same time. 

Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining

By Thea Riofrancos, Alissa Kendall, Kristi K. Dayemo, Matthew Haugen, Kira McDonald, Batul Hassan, and Margaret Slattery in partnership with the University of California, Davis - Climate and Community Project, January 2023

Transportation is the number one source of carbon emissions in the United States– making the sector crucial to decarbonize quickly to limit the climate crisis. States like New York and California banned the sale of gas cars by 2035 and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act made major federal investments in electrifying transportation. As a result, US consumers are embracing electric vehicles (EVs), with over half of the nation’s car sales predicted to be electric by 2030. This is a critical juncture. Decisions made now will affect the speed of decarbonization and the mobility of millions. Zero emissions transportation will also see the transformation of global supply chains, with implications for climate, environmental, and Indigenous justice beyond US borders.

A crucial aspect of electrified transportation is new demand for metals, and specifically the most non-replaceable metal for EV batteries– lithium. If today's demand for EVs is projected to 2050, the lithium requirements of the US EV market alone in 2050 would require triple the amount of lithium currently produced for the entire global market. This boom in demand would be met by the expansion of mining. 

Large-scale mining entails social and environmental harm, in many cases irreversibly damaging landscapes without the consent of affected communities. As societies undertake the urgent and transformative task of building new, zero-emissions energy systems, some level of mining is necessary. But the volume of extraction is not a given. Neither is where mining takes place, who bears the social and environmental burdens, or how mining is governed. 

This report finds that the United States can achieve zero emissions transportation while limiting the amount of lithium mining necessary by reducing the car dependence of the transportation system, decreasing the size of electric vehicle batteries, and maximizing lithium recycling. Reordering the US transportation system through policy and spending shifts to prioritize public and active transit while reducing car dependency can also ensure transit equity, protect ecosystems, respect Indigenous rights, and meet the demands of global justice. 

Read the rest of the summary here.

Read the report (Link).

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