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A Nickel for Your Thoughts: New Potential for U.S. Nickel Supply

As Memorial Day heralds the unofficial beginning of the summer travel season, ARPN has a suggestion to make to pass the time whether you’re gridlocked on the interstate or airport security:  Check out a podcast called “Battery Metals – A Nickel for Your Thoughts.”

Too wonky?  Who cares?  That’s what earbuds are for – no one has to know that you’re not binging True Crime or learning a new language.

Better to bone up on a metal that’s emerging as a mainstay of the net zero transition.

As ARPN previously outlined, a “relatively benign supply profile” kept nickel off the U.S. Government’s first List of Critical Minerals in 2018. However, the metal’s increased usage in EV batteries, and the USGS’s expanded criticality criteria to include materials with only a single domestic producer along their raw materials supply chains – identified as having a single point of failure – led to nickel’s incorporation into the 2021 update to the U.S. Government Critical Minerals List.

As followers of ARPN may recall, Indonesia, the world’s biggest nickel producer, has hinted at the possibility of Jakarta pursuing the creation of an OPEC-like cartel for nickel (and other key battery minerals).  Reportedly, the Indonesian government has reached out to the Biden Administration to explore a deal similar to those the U.S. has made with Japan and the European Union; however, Indonesia’s “lagging environmental and labor standards”, raise some hard questions on how broad the net of “friends and allies” can and should be cast.

In the case of nickel, once again ARPN’s touchstone is our all-of-the-above approach to mineral resource policy, rooted in the realization that as much as we want to rely on our friends and allies, to succeed and remain competitive in the 21st Century we will also have to harness our arguably vast domestic resource potential across the entire value chain, from mine to manufacturing.  And domestic nickel production looks to be given a boost by projects currently underway in Minnesota (see our post here), as well as  what appears to be vast untapped mineral potential in neighboring Michigan.

Currently, Michigan is the home of the only U.S. primary nickel mine in operation, the Eagle Mine.  Yet as the Detroit News reports this week, even with the Eagle nearing the end of its life cycle, according to the USGS, the Lake Superior region “could be home to as much nickel as Russia or Canada, some of the largest nickel producers in the world.” 

The Detroit News points to Talon Metals Corp.’s plan to explore 400,000 acres of the Upper Peninsula and seek exclusive exploration rights to an additional 23,288 acres from the state, as well as the Michigan Geological Survey’s search of portions of the region in the context of the United States Geological Survey’s current nationwide mapping project.

John Yellich, director of the Michigan Geological Survey based at Western Michigan University, believes that the area’s potential may go beyond nickel, and that new technology will help scientists gather “as much scientifically accurate information as possible” in an area where the federal government hasn’t done significant mapping for 70 years.

If the estimates hold up, Michigan (along with Minnesota) could be an important piece of the all-of-the-above puzzle for nickel for which a current oversupply is expected to dissipate and tip into a deficit by 2026, with EV battery technology as a key driver.

However, as is the case with neighboring Minnesota, and as U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Stauber (R-MN) recently outlined,

“[I]f we’re going to unlock the full potential of our resources and secure our domestic mineral supply chains, we need the political will to implement permitting reform.”   

As Michigan and Minnesota make clear, the U.S. has vast resource potential for precisely the metals and minerals needed to power our 21st Century economy.  What the U.S. needs now is policy reform that unlocks the investment and innovation to realize that potential.