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Tackling the “Single Point of Failure” – Inside the Push to Bolster the U.S. Domestic Nickel Supply Chain

Against the backdrop of the accelerating global push to net zero carbon emissions, a volatile overall geopolitical climate and a new EPA proposal to tighten tailpipe emission standards U.S. stakeholders are looking for ways to secure critical mineral supply chains.

The expectation is that with the proposed EPA rules requiring automakers to reduce carbon emissions by 56% in their 2032 models compared to 2026 models in place, 67% of new light-duty car purchase will need to be electric by 3032.

The so-called battery criticals – nickel, lithium, graphite, cobalt and manganese – hold the key to this development, but the push to secure their supply chains is, as followers of ARPN well know, fraught with challenges.

A case in point is nickel.

While a “relatively benign supply profile” kept nickel off the U.S. Government’s first List of Critical Minerals in 2018, 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.

With the underground Eagle Mine in Michigan – currently the only U.S. primary nickel mine in operation – near the end of its lifecycle, stakeholders look to Michigan’s near-neighbor Minnesota, home to the Tamarack Nickel Project in Central Minnesota which is expected to start the environmental review process this year, the proposed Twin Metals underground mine which has been embroiled in an ongoing legal and regulatory battle over the years, and the PolyMet Mine in Northeastern Minnesota.

See ARPN’s recent post entitled “Critical in Spite of ‘Relatively Benign Supply Profile?’ A Look at Nickel” for more.

Earlier this week, as the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held an oversight field hearing “Examining the Mineral wealth of Northern Minnesota,” AXIOS Pro (subscription only) zeroed in on the congressional politics on the push to bolster the U.S. supply chain for the battery critical, pointing to the fact that “both Republicans and Democrats are pressing the Pentagon to use the Defense Production Act (…) to boost domestic nickel output” according to letters obtained by Axios.

As Axios’s Jael Holzman writes, the letters build off Biden’s 2022 DPA invocation to “liberate wartime authorities and funding U.S. minerals projects in a bid to unshackle the nation from foreign metals,” and the Defense Department replied to one of the letters stating that “the Department is actively engaging with companies across the United States and our allies to secure our critical mineral supply chains using DPA funds, including for nickel.”  

While recent headlines talk of a nickel glut considering Indonesia’s booming nickel output, these narratives must be taken with a grain of salt with the specter of resource nationalism and potential cartelization on the rise.  News from Moscow and Kiev indicate that and end to the war between Russia (a key global nickel player) and Ukraine is nowhere to be seen, and U.S. relations with China are deteriorating.  Faced with ever-growing geopolitical volatility, working with our allies, as per the DOD response to the congressional letters, to strengthen supply chain is an important piece of the “all-of-the-above” puzzle, but it is no panacea.

As ARPN has consistently argued, for the U.S. to achieve the lofty – and now even loftier – goals of net carbon neutrality we must embrace “a push to secure critical mineral supply chains from ‘soup to nuts’ to borrow a term used by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. That means ‘all of the above,’ including domestic production and processing of metals and minerals like nickel.”

Clearly, the State of Minnesota has potential.  However, as Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Stauber (R-MN) said after the subcommittee field hearing:

“[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.”

With consensus on the need to secure critical mineral supply chains mounting on both sides of the political aisle, here’s hoping the political will to make tough choices and overcome the perennial “not-in-my-backyard” sentiment will follow suit.