Detroit, Biden bet big on electric vehicles; critic says that’s ‘a very American answer to climate change’

As new vehicle announcements go, it’s hard to top Ford’s recent reveal of its brand-spanking new electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck.

President Joe Biden, a self-professed “car guy,” flew in on Air Force One to mark the event. And he wasn’t there to simply cut a ribbon or stick a ceremonial shovel in the ground, say a few perfunctory words, and fly out.

He was engaged working the friendly crowd that included Ford’s top executives, union members and a gaggle of Michigan’s Democratic politicians including his political allies, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Biden took the Lightning for a test drive and gave it an implied endorsement saying “this sucker’s quick,” in case any potential buyers had fears that a battery powered pickup wouldn’t deliver on the road.

More importantly, Biden endorsed the project and the technology that will produce the Lightning at Ford’s Rouge Electric Vehicle Center. It’s a key component of his climate plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Look,” Biden said in characteristic fashion when making a point. “The future of the auto industry is electric. There’s no turning back.”

He went on to say that the U.S. can either lead or follow on battery-powered vehicles and leading means good-paying union jobs. The jobs go beyond vehicle production and include battery and charging station production.

In a press release following Biden’s visit, the company said the F-150 Lightning would be a pillar of its electric vehicle plan.

“For both Ford and the American auto industry, F-150 Lightning represents a defining moment as we progress toward a zero-emissions, digitally connected future,” executive chair Bill Ford said. 

In addition to the F-150 Lightning launch, Ford recently announced expansion of its battery-powered Lincoln luxury line with a majority of sales electric by 2026, according to Detroit News reporting

General Motors has plans for a battery-powered version of its Silverado pickup truck that will be available at a future date. It will be manufactured at GM’s Factory Zero plant that straddles Detroit and Hamtramck.

Skeptics and environmental and human rights concerns

There is no shortage of skeptics who aren’t buying the White House sales pitch that battery-powered vehicles can save the planet.

First among them may be West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative-leaning Democrat who is chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee.

In a recent senate hearing Manchin told Biden’s energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, that he has “grave concerns” about the administration’s rush to battery-powered vehicles. He cited the risk of relying on foreign supply chains. Granholm, Michigan’s governor from 2003-2011 told Manchin that Biden’s climate initiative provides for development of domestic supply chains.

Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell chimed in on Twitter in support of Granholm  imploring Manchin to work with the administration.

“Let’s work together to bring the EV jobs home and create even more union jobs in our communities,” Dingell wrote. To continue as the global leader in the auto industry innovation is necessary, according to Dingell.

Manchin is a critical vote needed by Biden to advance his climate and infrastructure initiatives in a deadlocked senate where so far, Republicans have withheld support for Biden’s plans.   

In Detroit, environmental attorney Nick Leonard had an immediate reaction on Twitter to the F-150 Lightning’s high-profile launch.

“It’s pretty ludicrous that a focal point of our climate change policy is electrifying increasingly huge pickup trucks that 90% of the country doesn’t need,” tweeted Leonard, who is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

Leonard noted the popularity of trucks but said that’s “only since the 90’s when we decided to pause fuel economy increases for over a decade.” Ford’s F series pickup trucks are the company’s best-selling vehicle.

Responding to a Planet Detroit request to elaborate on his Twitter statement, Leonard said “having a transportation system that relies on private automobiles is always going to be more resource-intensive than a system that is geared towards public transportation and non-motorized transit.”

Detroit environmental justice advocate Michelle Martinez did not comment directly on the F-150 Lightning instead she focused on equity in transportation.

“Transportation electrification can and should advance social justice by dramatically expanding mobility and accessibility for all Michigan households,” Martinez told Planet Detroit, emphasizing people who lack the resources to afford personal vehicles. Martinez is acting executive director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

Ford has not announced a price for the Lightning but a base-model is expected to cost approaching $40,000 according to Autoweek, making it unaffordable to low income households.

Well before the F-150 Lightning launch, critics were questioning Biden’s reliance on electric vehicles as an integral part of his climate plan.

“Fixing the problems caused by cars with new and improved cars and expensive new infrastructure just for cars illustrates why we’re in this mess in the first place,” New York Times columnist Farhood Manjoo wrote in February.

Manjoo called it “an entrenched culture of careless car dependency” and said it represents a “very American answer to climate change.”

While battery-powered vehicles in general are better for the planet, their carbon reducing effectiveness is dependent on the energy source used for recharging with coal being the least desirable source.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed an online carbon counting assessment tool to help potential electric vehicle buyers measure the climate impact of their purchase.

And there are environmental and human rights concerns linked to mining the necessary rare earth materials like cobalt and lithium.

The United Nations reports that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo “children work in extremely dangerous conditions in the (cobalt) mines for meager income.” In Chile the report says, lithium mining uses 65% of the water in “one of the driest areas of the world.”

To support a transition to electric vehicles, the Biden administration has proposed spending  $15 billion to make available 500,000 charging stations. It’s part of the American Jobs Plan that Congress is currently considering and whose future is uncertain. 


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