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Bolstering the Domestic Supply Chain for “Battery Criticals” – A Look at Cobalt

 In this post, we continue our review of the “battery criticals” (lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese) against the backdrop of the just-released 2023 iteration of the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries.  Next up:  cobalt.

With the material accounting for up to 20% of the weight of the cathode in a typical lithium-ion EV battery, cobalt was considered the highest material supply chain risk for electric vehicles by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2021.

While geopolitical challenges and rising demand in the context of the green energy transition are a factor for the supply scenario for all battery criticals, the cobalt conundrum differs in that more than 70% of the world’s material is supplied by the Democratic Republic of Congo, and labor practices in the country have long been scrutinized by the global community, including the United States.

In 2009, the Department of Labor first placed cobalt, specifically referred to as “cobalt ore” on its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, and a year later, Congress included language in the Dodd-Frank financial law targeting the sale of conflict minerals from the DRC to address profits from commodities mined in Congo, but stopped short of including cobalt, and only focused on gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten.

In 2016, Amnesty International released a report on child labor at the DRC’s so-called “artisanal” informal mine sites, increasing international scrutiny, but fast forward to 2022, and child labor persists in the DRC, prompting the U.S. Department of Labor to include lithium-ion batteries into its “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” – a list of 158 goods from 77 countries assumed to be produced in violation of internationals standards regarding child or forced labor.

The added scrutiny of labor practices for cobalt also increased urgency for U.S. policy and other stakeholders to build out a North American supply chain for “battery criticals” lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese — which already has received fresh impetus with the passage of the sourcing requirements contained in the statutory language on EV credits in the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act.

(ARPN has already outlined current U.S. efforts to this effect for graphite and manganese in our recent posts.)

After years of inaction on the domestic development front, U.S.-based cobalt projects have begun to move forward.

According to USGS, “in 2022, the nickel-copper Eagle Mine in Michigan produced cobalt-bearing nickel concentrate. In Missouri, a company produced nickel-copper-cobalt concentrate from historic mine tailings and was building a hydrometallurgical processing plant near the mine site. In October, commissioning began at a cobalt- copper-gold mine and mill in Idaho, where cobalt concentrate will be produced.”

While it “will be a while before we can actually say that this is going to be a growth industry,” as Brad Martin, director of the RAND National Security Supply Chain Institute says, the opening of the Idaho mine operated by Jervois Global is a “geopolitically significant” development for the United States and a small first step away from relying on materials sourced from a country using child labor practices.

However, as Gregory D. Wischer and Jack D. Little with Westwin Elements outlined in a recent op-ed for the Idaho State Journal, while Jervois’s mine will produce roughly 2,000 metric tons of cobalt, Idaho’s other untapped cobalt reserves “will sit uselessly dormant unless U.S. government policy changes — and, even if tapped, this cobalt ore will be shipped overseas for refining.”

They added, in a storyline familiar to followers of ARPN:

“U.S. government policy has long influenced America’s cobalt industry. For instance, during the Cold War in the 1950s, Calera Mining Co. expanded mining and refining in Idaho’s Blackbird district in exchange for U.S. government purchases of its refined cobalt. However, as U.S. government support dissipated, permitting timelines lengthened, and cobalt prices cascaded, U.S. cobalt mining evaporated. 

Consequently, China today controls approximately 35 percent of global cobalt mining production — given Chinese ownership of 50 percent of cobalt mining production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — and more than 70 percent of global cobalt refining production.”

On the processing side, Canadian Electra Battery Materials is set to launch cobalt refining operations this year, but North American efforts — and in particular U.S. efforts — are still few and far in between because domestic cobalt mining and refining continue to face significant regulatory and financial hurdles, including lengthy permitting times that in the U.S. can range between seven and ten years.

Add Wischer and Little:

“Some people may argue that the United States can rely on mined and refined cobalt from ostensibly ‘friendly’ countries. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic displayed, even allies like Australia will protect their own supply chains and block critical exports to the United States during crises. Future events, such as wars, trade disputes and natural disasters, could similarly disrupt global cobalt supply chains. For instance, a possible U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan would likely delay U.S. cobalt imports, with consequences magnified by the defense industrial base’s increased cobalt demand for the war effort. In short, cobalt supply chains dependent on any foreign countries are insecure and risky.”

As such, cutting red tape for domestic cobalt projects like Jervois’s operations in Idaho, as well as supporting and incentivizing refining projects should range high on U.S. stakeholders’ priority list in the 2023 and beyond.