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Democrats Can’t Have Both PFAS Ban and EV Transition: Choose One

As part of the climate agenda, Democrats have advocated the phasing out of motor vehicles. The goal is to ensure that electric vehicles make up half of all new vehicles sold by 2030. To accomplish this task, tax credits of up to $12,500 could be offered.

Democrats have put electric vehicles at the heart of their climate ambitions. While that all sounds great on paper, the reality is more complex. The extensively demonised PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances)–known as forever chemicals–which Democrats want to ban are key to the production of EVs. Either Democrats call off the prospect of a full PFAS ban, or their EV agenda will never be realised.

PFAS are the latest target of regulators in the United States. They are a group of over 4000 chemicals that carry individual risks; benefits and availability of substitutes vary as well. Turning a blind eye to the complexity of these substances, Democrats introduced the PFAS Action Act in April 2021. The Act is now with the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.

PFAS are used to produce life-saving medical equipment and are vital for contamination-resistant gowns, implantable medical devices, heart patches, etc. These chemicals are also widely used in green technology production. In particular, solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium-ion batteries.

Fluoropolymers (one specific class of PFAS) are an essential part of green technology. Fluoropolymers are used to produce lithium batteries, the power source behind electric vehicles. They are durable, heat and chemical resistant, and have superior dielectric properties, all of these qualities make it hard for other chemicals to compete. If PFAS are banned as a class, the green ambitions of switching to electric vehicles would be extremely difficult to turn into policy. The PFAS Action Act would cause further disruptions in the EV supply chain, increasing costs for consumers and ultimately making them less attractive as an alternative to gasoline vehicles.

Fluoropolymers are also used in coating and sealing solar panels and wind turbines that protect against harsh weather conditions. Fluoropolymers provide safety by preventing leaks and environmental releases in a range of renewable energy applications. The unique characteristics of PFAS such as water, acid, and oil resistance make these substances hard to replace. 

Unless damaged, solar panels continue to produce energy beyond their lifeline. Fluoropolymers are what make solar panels durable. Going solar requires significant investments and without fluoropolymers, the risk of producing and installing them will increase. It is already expensive to build solar panels in the U.S., and the blanket PFAS will exacerbate it. In fact, this is exactly what is happening in Europe with microchips, which rely on PFAS in the production process, where the closing of a plant in Belgium is on the verge of causing serious production delays.

That is not to say that PFAS are risk-free. A 2021 study by ​​Australian National University confirms that the PFAS exposure comes entirely from water. If Democrats really want to make a difference, their legislation should focus on processes that are harmful instead of single handedly banning all PFAS. 

The proposed ban is also problematic because fundamentally it won’t drive down demand for PFAS. Banning will shift production to countries like China, where environmental considerations are nearly non-existent. As a result, American regulators will be giving China the upper hand for both EV battery production, solar panels, and semiconductors. Not to mention, that banning a substance that is key to so many production processes will magnify the damage caused by inflation. For American EV and solar panels producers, the PFAS ban will be a huge hurdle that is extremely difficult to overcome.

If Democrats are really as determined to pursue a transition to EVs as they suggest, the PFAS blanket ban should be called off. Instead, PFAS should be assessed individually and where poor production processes result in water contamination, the government should intervene.

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