Joe Manchin doesn’t know how electric cars work

UNITED STATES - MARCH 1: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is seen in Dirksen Building on Tuesday, March 1,...
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The senator from West Virginia says he’s worried about people “standing in line” waiting for car batteries.

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Joe Manchin isn’t so sure about this whole electric vehicle thing. You see, the senator from West Virginia, who has received more than $1 million in campaign donations from the gas and oil lobby since getting elected in 2010, is worried about battery lines — a thing that doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant to how electric vehicles work.

At an energy conference hosted in Houston over the weekend, Manchin said that he’s “very reluctant” to push for electric vehicles because what will happen when the batteries run out? “I’m old enough to remember standing in line in 1974 trying to buy gas. I remember those days,” Manchin said, according to S&P Global. “I don’t want to have to be standing in line waiting for a battery for my vehicle, because we’re now dependent on a foreign supply chain — mostly China."

Manchin’s main hang-up appears to be government involvement in the development of these cars, which are desperately needed if we’re going to reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation sector. “I’ve read history, and I remember Henry Ford inventing the Model-T, but I sure as hell don’t remember the U.S. government building filling stations — the market did that," he told the conference.

There are so many incredibly nonsensical things going on here, but let’s first acknowledge the bit of truth in Manchin’s hypothetical. Most electric car batteries, like most batteries in general, are lithium-ion based, and China does currently control the vast majority — over 80% — of the world’s supply of the raw material needed to make these sources of energy. The U.S. has lagged way behind, despite sitting on the fourth-largest lithium reserve in the world. It’s largely untapped, though an executive order signed by President Biden last month will push the U.S. to divest from China and start mining our own lithium.

So yes. Manchin is right that China has a massive lead in the lithium business. And dealing with China is less than ideal for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the country’s abhorrent labor practices and use of mines that rely on child labor and slavery.

Given China’s current grip on materials that we need, one would think that Manchin would be in favor of ramping up production at home, seeing as we’ve got all the material we need right under our feet (though mining for it presents its own challenges and should be handled as sustainably as possible). Manchin has no problem mining for coal or drilling for oil, so surely he wouldn’t object to unearthing some rare metals, right?

Well, it turns out that Joe has been an obstacle at basically every turn when it comes to actually ditching our reliance on foreign companies. He nixed a bill that would have expanded mining because it also would have allowed the federal government to collect royalties from mining done on federal lands. It would have raised $2 billion over 10 years that could have been spent on mining clean-up, but no, Manchin wasn’t having it. He also opposed Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which would have kickstarted mining projects at home.

Manchin claims to support these things in practice. Then he actually has to vote for them, and his self-interest kicks in: He made a fortune off royalty-free mining. He’s not about to give that up, and he’s not about to turn his back on the Big Oil interest groups that fund his campaign.

Instead, he makes asinine claims about electric vehicles to justify his position. Manchin says he’s worried about “battery lines” because he remembers the gas lines of the 1970s. It’s a whataboutism masterclass: Manchin claims he’s worried that something will happen with batteries that already happened with oil. The price of gas is on the rise right now because of the complicated global supply chain. That’s fine in Manchin’s mind — but hypothetically, imagine if it happened with batteries? That would be terrible.

As for Manchin’s claim that “the market” built the gas infrastructure in the U.S., it’s absurd. Gas and oil received five times the amount of subsidies during its first 15 years of development that renewables received. The government paid to pave roads for cars to drive on and has spent nearly $500 billion over the last century subsidizing the costs for the gas and oil industry. Oil has always gotten the benefit of government support. Manchin is keeping renewables from getting the same benefit because he and his friends can’t cash in on it.