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U.S. Senate meets on plan to develop electric vehicle supply chain
May 16, 2019

The U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the American Mineral Security Act which could help the United States get closer to developing a national electric vehicle (EV) supply chain policy.

The American Mineral Security Act would require a tally of metal reserves in the United States and seeks to streamline permitting for the EV sector. It was sponsored by U.S. senators Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin and has received bi partisan support. The legislation is designed to help the United States compete with China which currently leads the way in metals production and battery manufacturing.

“We are not doing ourselves any favors when we don’t know what we have in our inventory,” Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said at the hearing. “I suspect we have more than we even think we do.”

Reuters reported that even some existing U.S. mines are in China’s orbit, with domestic production of rare earth minerals reliant on Chinese processing and now caught up in the U.S.-China trade conflict.

“China has a huge head start,” said Gavin Montgomery, a battery and mining analyst at the Wood Mackenzie consultancy. “They’ve just been at this a lot longer than the rest of the world.”

Trump Administration officials from the Interior and Energy departments voiced support for the pending legislation.

“We are committed to producing domestically sourced minerals,” Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Interior Department, said at the hearing.

Just how much cobalt and other minerals used to make EVs are actually in the United States is anyone’s guess, as the nation has conducted little by way of a national survey.

Current estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey rely on corporate annual reports, historical data from the U.S. Bureau of Mines and other sources, according to USGS spokesman Alex Demas.

Finding out the mineral composition of a particular region requires sending staff into the field to take rock samples, a timely and expensive endeavor. Murkowski’s legislation would require a nationwide reserve analysis for all minerals used to make EVs.

USGS data show, for example, that the United States has 35 kt (38,000 st) of lithium in reserve, a figure that the agency and industry executives see as conservative.

Albemarle Corp operates the only U.S. lithium mine, a facility with the capacity to produce about 6 kt/a (6,600 stpy). According to current USGS data, that means that one mine could deplete U.S. reserves within six years.

Several lithium projects are under development across the nation, including those from pioneer Ltd, Lithium Americas Corp and Piedmont Lithium Ltd. Each aims to produce at least 20 kt/a (22,000 stpy) of lithium, according to corporate presentations.

Beyond physical reserves, concerns about the lack of U.S. processing facilities are also cause for worry.

China controls about 85 percent of the globe’s cobalt sulfate processing, according to WoodMac data. Cobalt sulfate is the version of the metal used in lithium ion batteries.

 

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