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“Mining Sector Workhorse” Can “Pull America’s EV Ambition Cart”

At the 2021 Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow, Scotland this November, several automakers joined scores of territories and countries, signing a commitment calling on automakers to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040.

In light of this development, recent Biden Administration pledges to similar effects, and the acceleration of overall electrification trends we have witnessed over the course of the past few years, Metal Tech News’s Shane Lasley asks a cogent question in a recent piece for his publication:

Does the United States’ electric vehicle ambitions put the cart before the horse? Or, more precisely, place the EVs ahead of the raw material supply chains needed to build them?”

Arguing that the EV revolution “is not as simple as tasking engineers to draw up designs for awe-inspiring new vehicles and then retooling auto factories to drop in electric motors instead of internal combustion engines and battery packs in the stead of gas tanks,” Lasley says that while from an engineering perspective a retooling to the “electric cars, trucks, and SUVs of the future is revolutionary but doable.” He adds, however, that “[c]oming up with enough minerals and metals to build the envisioned electric mobility future, however, is a much higher hurdle that will test the mettle of the governments, automakers, and people behind the EV revolution.”  

Followers of ARPN will know that the sought-after global green energy transition will be highly mineral-intensive. This was underscored by landmark reports by the World Bank and International Energy Association (IEA), both of which estimated that massive material inputs would be required – in particular for the “battery criticals” – Cobalt, Graphite, Lithium, Manganese, Nickel, as well as Rare Earth Elements (REEs) often used in EV drivetrains — but also for other mainstay materials like Copper.

As Lasley points out, “[t]his need for vast new sources of battery materials and rare earths is not completely lost on the automotive sector that has largely gotten behind the e-mobility transition.” Lasley points to a September statement by Ford Motor Company CEO Jim Farley, who told the Detroit news that “[w]have to bring battery production here, but the supply chain has to go all the way to the mines.” 

And the challenge runs the length of the entire supply chain.  As Caspar Rawles, chief data officer for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told Lasley via email, “[a]t the moment the investments are falling short to ensure stable supply of battery raw materials, and investments are lacking for regional mid-stream processing capacity such as chemical refining, pre-cursor and cathode or anode.”

While the good news is that stakeholders are increasingly realizing the urgency of the situation, as the mineral resource-focused passages the freshly codified infrastructure bill underscore, many have yet to fully embrace a comprehensive “all-of-the-above” strategy to secure our supply chains. Consequently, current efforts “might pale in comparison to the scale and pace of mineral demand growth,” as Reed Blakemore of the Atlantic Council lamented in a recently released study on the role of minerals in realizing US transportation electrification goals.

The challenge is too large to address piecemeal. While recycling, substitution, and partnering with allies should be part of any overall comprehensive strategy, strengthening domestic mineral resource development across the entire value chain must be a key component if we want to ensure reliable access to the critical minerals we need.

In Lasley’s words, we have to “make sure the mining sector workhorse is pulling America’s EV ambitions cart.”