As governments, including California’s, join the electric vehicle (EV) crusade, new public policies are advancing that ultimately would ban the sale and registration of light-duty vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.  Automobile manufacturers already are phasing in more EV models and moving toward a phase-out of internal combustion engines in the decades ahead. With that in mind, a bill to ban internal combustion engines in CA after 2040 is in the works, AB1745 (Ting).

As internal combustion engines begin disappearing, the need for manufactured fuels diminishes and the need for refineries to produce transportation fuels from crude oil declines in response to reduced demand.

A lot of economic impact conveniently is left unsaid in this misguided, yet increasingly believable, scenario.  For instance, the worldwide consumption of aviation fuels exceeds 225 million gallons every day and is growing. Cruise ships’ fuel consumption averages about 30 to 50 gallons per mile. Complimentary to the aviation and cruise liner industry are the billions of gallons of transportation fuels, also manufactured from crude oil, needed to get passengers back and forth from airports, ports, and hotels. There’s the military, with its ever-growing demand for fuels that help keep our forces on station around the clock.

More important than the transportation fuels for the military and commercial aviation needs, as well as business, personal and leisure travel, are the myriad of chemicals and byproducts developed from petroleum that revolutionized our infrastructure and directly enhance and improve our quality of life. Keep in mind, while many people assume fossil fuels merely power transportation vehicles, the fact is that batteries, rubber tires, asphalt, and iPhones are all manufactured from the chemicals and materials derived from the fossil fuels, not from solar panels or wind farms.

Policy makers pursuing an all-EV future also downplay the fact that an essential ingredient crucial in lithium-ion batteries is cobalt, which is already in limited supply globally. Without this element’s energy density, batteries tend to perform markedly worse.

Many technologies currently are being explored for the next generation of batteries, so it will be interesting to learn which, if any, meet the essential requirements of abundant supply and cost effectiveness to be considered commercially viable.

Currently about a quarter of global cobalt production winds up in smartphones. In the expected event that cobalt supply does not meet the EV battery needs in the decades ahead, the impact on the international economy could be devastating. Environmentally, it’s harder to recycle lithium-ion batteries with cobalt than lead-acid batteries used in gasoline powered vehicles.

The unintended consequences of banning internal combustion engine cars is that manufactured aviation, gasoline and diesel fuels from crude oil are the economic reasons refineries even exist. We not only rely on the efficiency of oil for transportation fuels, but the many other vital derivations of fuel. In fact, transportation fuels represent about half of the products manufactured from crude oil.  It fulfills the economic need for the refineries to continue operating to produce the other essential chemicals and byproducts used in our daily lives.

Once we sever our ability to manufacture internal combustion vehicles and the fuels to operate them, we practically bet the farm that the supply chain for the materials for that next generation battery will be abundant enough to power future generations.  If the world’s bet on cobalt, or if the supply chain for some unrealized next generation battery proves inadequate, the world will be hurting for transportation.  Once eliminated, it will be next to impossible to recreate the factories for those internal combustion vehicles or to rebuild the refineries that manufacture our aviation, gasoline, and diesel transportation fuels.

The impact on the international economy could be devastating. Batteries are a great tool, but can any of the technologies realistically be commercialized in huge new quantities and with enormous new capabilities to power global societies in the decades ahead, without impacting the rest of the economy?