With a single electric vehicle battery requiring between 10 and 30 pounds of cobalt content, the lustrous, silvery blue, hard ferromagnetic, brittle nickel and copper co-product has long attained “critical mineral” status.
However, with most global supplies of the material coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining conditions often involve unethical labor standards and child labor, as well as poor environmental standards, battery makers and researchers were in some cases beginning to turn to nickel as a substitute for cobalt — as in nickel-iron-aluminum cathodes, for example.
And here’s where environmental and human rights concerns intersect with geopolitics.
Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine is increasingly straining nickel supply chains (see our latest post here). As a result, analysts are keeping a close eye on cobalt, which could see prices go up as potentially persistent “elevated nickel prices could push demand from battery production back in cobalt’s direction.”
At the same time, concern over cobalt supply chains is mounting against the backdrop of a major court ruling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which, according to the Wall Street Journal’s What’s News podcast from March 14, has sent “shockwaves through the industry with potentially wide reaching implications for China, the US and the world.”
In the recent ruling, a DRC court appointed a temporary administrator from the state miner to effectively take control of China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fungurume mine amid a dispute between the shareholders over reserves of copper and cobalt. According to Reuters, the dispute began last fall, when the DRC’s government set up a commission to “reassess the reserves and resources at the mine (…) in order to ‘fairly lay claim to (its) rights,’” after alleging that the Chinese miner deprived the country of millions of dollars in annual payments for undeclared discoveries of copper and cobalt.
As WSJ correspondent for Uganda and Africa’s Great Lakes Region Nicholas Bariyo argues, the move appears to be part of a larger push by the DRC to take control of the lucrative cobalt industry. Says Bariyo:
“The DRC, despite having all these huge mineral resources remains one of the poorest countries in the world with a significant percentage of the population living under less than $2 a day and most of them unemployed and this widespread poverty. So in this case, the Congolese feel like they’re not benefiting so much from this mineral earth. And at the same time, when you look across the wider continent, commodity prices are skyrocketing and most of these resource rich nations tend to push for bigger share of proceeds from this industry as prices go up here. So this is something that is likely to really spiral beyond the Congolese border.”
Developments in the DRC tie into an overall shift towards resource nationalism around the globe, as evidenced most recently in Central and South America, where the political tide “has turned decisively toward leaders who openly shun laissez-faire economics” and “a new generation of presidents and legislative leaders is advocating for greater government control of national economies, and with this trend, the specter of resource nationalism has once again gained a foothold in the region,” as Peter Schechter and Juan Cortiñas recently outlined in a piece for Marsh McLennan’s Brink News.
All of which is to say that the newfound resolve of the Biden Administration to make “major investments in domestic production of key critical minerals and materials, ensuring these resources benefit the community, and creating good-paying, union jobs in sustainable production,” and new reports that “US regulators are warming to approving new domestic sources of electric vehicle battery metals, as Washington bids to avoid a reliance on strategic minerals imports similar to that on crude oil,” are a more than welcome development.
As Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Joe Manchin (D-WV), James Risch (R-ID), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) argued in a recent letter to President Biden urging the Administration to “invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to accelerate domestic production of lithium-ion battery materials, in particular graphite, manganese, cobalt, nickel, and lithium:”
“Allowing our foreign mineral dependence to persist is a growing threat to U.S. national security, and we need to take every step to address it. The 100-day report acknowledges the ‘powerful tool’ the DPA has been to expand production of supplies needed to combat COVID-19, as well as the potential the DPA could have to ‘support investment in other critical sectors and enable industry and government to collaborate more effectively.’ The time is now to grow, support, and encourage investment in the domestic production of graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other critical minerals to ensure we support our national security, and to fulfill our need for lithium-ion batteries – both for consumers and for the Department of Defense.”
As the world begins to realign in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and rising resource nationalism, it is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. will have to harness our arguably vast domestic resource potential across the entire value chain — from mine to manufacturing – if we want to remain safe, secure and competitive in the 21st Century.