MARIETTA, Ohio – As Ohio grows into a manufacturing hub for electric cars and the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles, automakers will need a secure supply of raw materials to keep assembly lines moving. For that to happen, however, minerals and metals will need to be mined and processed for batteries to be built at the proposed Honda plant and other factories mostly in the United States rather than imported from China and Russia.
At the moment, there are many questions about the supply chains for battery metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. China, the world’s leading maker of electric cars, has a tight grip on the global supply of battery metals, something that drew tremors earlier this year during the standoff with Taiwan and a few years earlier during tense trade talks with China. US automakers have every reason to fear that China could use battery metals as a geopolitical tool to gain the upper hand in world markets.
As OPEC once again tightens the screws on US energy consumers, cutting production to raise oil prices, there is a sense that the geopolitics of the metals trade needed for the energy transition could be as unpredictable as our dependence on the global oil cartel.
Now is the time to ask: What are the most useful things the US government can do to strengthen our minerals and metals supply chains? Do we continue to depend on belligerent countries like China and Russia for materials needed for clean energy technologies, weapons systems and consumer products? Or do we make more use of our own abundant resources in the United States?
The obvious answer is that we must start producing more, not only to strengthen our supply chain security but also to help our economy create thousands of well-paying mining and manufacturing jobs, bring millions of dollars to federal and state treasures, carbon reduction. emissions and enable America to become less dependent on China and Russia.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says in a report that production of battery metals and minerals “needs to expand tenfold to meet projected critical mineral needs by 2030,” according to a recent article on Mining.com. This will require the development of hundreds of new mines.
Currently, there is only one lithium mine operating in the United States. One nickel mine, one rare earth mine, one cobalt mine. And many copper mines are depleted and running out of resources, according to the US Geological Survey.
The sticker shock for lithium has already arrived. Driven by the explosive growth of electric vehicles, particularly in China, the global price of lithium has jumped 678% in the past two years – and is likely to accelerate as the transition to electric transport continues. The IEA expects demand for lithium to grow as much as 40 times over 2020 levels, necessitating the addition of 50 new lithium mines worldwide. But new mines aren’t opening fast enough, and auto industry experts warn that a lithium shortage could halt electric vehicle (EV) production just as it’s getting off the ground.
This realization convinced the White House that government action was needed. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to provide loan guarantees, tax breaks and other federal support for the creation of new domestic mines for battery metals. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a $7,500 tax break to electric vehicle buyers if portions of the car’s “vital battery materials [are] taken or processed in the United States,” utilitydive.com reports.
But building a secure supply chain doesn’t happen overnight. The United States has “untapped mineral resources worth an estimated $6.2 trillion,” according to Value Walk Premium, but it has been easier to import raw materials — even vitally important battery metals — than to create new mines in this country. . Getting a government license to open a mine in the US takes as much as ten years or more – and there are so many hurdles that companies often fail to get approval and wind up developing new mines in other countries instead of that.
Congress needs to streamline our government’s mine permitting process. A bipartisan effort to eliminate red tape in allowing for infrastructure improvements — not just mines but also for liquefied natural gas facilities and oil and gas pipelines — is seeping through in the Senate. Passing the bill would make supply chains much safer.
Many are involved in the production of electric cars, SUVs, pickups and trucks. Millions of vehicles will be sold in the next few years, and many will be built with batteries produced in Ohio. It is high time we started making better use of the mineral wealth in our own nation’s backyard.
Robert W. Chase served as chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geology Engineering at Marietta College for 37 years and retired from that position in 2015. He is a registered professional engineer in the state of Ohio.
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