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European Union to Step Up its Critical Minerals Game against the Backdrop of Surging Demand Forecasts

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent additional supply chain challenges have prompted the European Union — already grappling with strained supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — to step up its critical minerals game.

During her State of the Union address on September 14, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen announced plans to introduce legislation to identify potential strategic critical raw material projects along the supply chain and build up reserves in areas where supply is at risk.

Highlighting that almost 90% of rare earths and 60% of lithium are currently being processed in China, Von der Leyen said “[a] single country currently dominates almost the entire market. We must avoid becoming dependent again, as with oil and gas.”

She added:

“We know this approach can work. Five years ago, Europe launched the Battery Alliance. And soon, two third of the batteries we need will be produced in Europe.

Last year I announced the European Chips Act. And the first chips gigafactory will break ground in the coming months.”

The announcement is more than timely.  The European Union expects its own demand for rare earths alone to increase fivefold by 2030.  And the latest analysis by ARPN’s friends at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence finds that more than 300 new mines for graphite, lithium, nickel and cobalt would “need to be built over the next decade to meet [global] demand for electric vehicle and energy storage batteries,” and that is already taking into account the recycling of raw materials — without factoring in closed loop solutions, the number shoots up to almost 400.

In the U.S., the energy provisions in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, following on the heels of the invocation the Defense Production Act for the “battery criticals” lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese, are expected to send a strong signal to investors that the United States, too, is serious about “building the secure, responsible industrial base our economy and national security needs.”

However, many issues remain.

One of them is the “costly and inefficient permitting process” making it “difficult for American businesses to invest in the extraction and processing of critical minerals in the United States,” as Ford Motor Company’s chief government affairs officer Christopher Smith lamented in a recent letter to the U.S. Department of Interior.

The other challenge is an “inter-departmental tug-o-war” that hinders actual progress.  As Shane Lasley  wroterecently for North of 60 Mining News:

“While the departments of Commerce, Defense, and Energy are forging ahead with programs and investments aimed at ensuring America has the minerals and metals needed to support the clean energy objectives outlined by the White House, and enabled by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, DOI is pumping the breaks on a domestic project that would produce the requisite raw materials.”

It remains to be seen if stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic are able to advance their critical mineral ambitions, but one thing, in the words of Forbes contributor Wal van Lierop, is clear: “[W]ithout massive investments in base metals and key minerals, Europe and North America will fail to meet their carbon emission targets and face a new form of energy insecurity.”