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  • As Critical Mineral Dependencies Persist, Promising “Battery Criticals” Projects Provide Opportunity to Ensure that “the Supply Chain for America Begins in America” – A Look at Graphite

     For all the talk about reducing our over-reliance on foreign critical mineral resources against the backdrop of soaring demand, strained supply chains and increasing geopolitical tensions, last week’s release of the annual USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries report still paints a sobering picture.

    While the number of metals and minerals for which the U.S. remains 100% import dependent may have dropped by two from 17 to 15, the number of materials for which we are more than 50% or more import dependent has actually gone up over last year.

    When cross-referencing the U.S. Net Import Reliance chart with the 2022 Final list of Critical Minerals, the United States was 100% net import reliant for 12, and an additional 31 critical mineral commodities (including 14 lanthanides, which are listed under rare earths) had a net import reliance greater than 50% of apparent consumption.

    Recent policy developments, such as the Biden Administration’s invoking of the Defense Production Act (DPA) for the five “battery criticals” — graphite, lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese –  as well as the rare earths, declared DPA priority materials during the Trump Adminstration, plus the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the energy provisions of which contained EV tax credits observers said would send important signals to investors and industry that the U.S. was serious about domestic supply chains, provide hope for a positive change.

    But, after decades of dwindling domestic resource production and rising import reliance, no one ever said turning an aircraft carrier this size would be easy.  As Morgan D. Bazilian of the Colorado School of Mines and Gregory Brew from the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University argue in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, while this general trend represents “welcome and overdue progress, (…) implementing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could be stymied in part by a material obstacle: the procurement of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper that are essential to clean energy systems,” which in their words have so far been “myopic.”

    At the same time, as scholars at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Center have pointed out“the Biden administration’s efforts to free up federal funds for domestic mining activities has highlighted the inherent conflict between accessing the minerals needed for climate action and the administration’s commitment to environmental and social justice.” 

    Developments like the recent Biden administration halt on progress on the Ambler Road project in Alaska, which proponents say would unlock access to critical minerals and create new jobs, or the cancellation of the two mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota LLC which seeks to mine copper, nickel and other commodities near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, point to conflicting viewpoints between the President’s stated objectives and his Administration’s policy.

    This week’s State of the Union Address to both chambers of Congress could have provided important impetus to strengthen critical mineral supply chains. However, while professing that his administration understood the importance of making sure that “the supply chain for America begins in America,” the President’s speech never once referenced the terms “critical minerals,” “mining,” or “processing.”  

    That is in spite of the fact that there are promising developments underway – especially for the “battery criticals.”  Over the next few weeks ARPN will be looking at each of these materials, now deemed under President Biden’s DPA determination to be “essential to the national defense,” and the U.S.-based projects working to urgently needed new supply into production.

    Let’s start with graphite, one of the materials for which USGS noted an ongoing 100% import dependence this year.

    As the key raw material in the battery anode, graphite is the largest component of lithium-ion batteries by weight. In light of phenomenal demand growth from the EV battery sector and delays to new capacity as well as rising power costs, the graphite supply chain represents a significant and growing challenge for automakers looking to reduce the carbon footprint of the materials they use for their EVs.

    However, that’s not for lack of known graphite resources.  As USGS noted in February 2022 in its updated U.S. Mineral Deposit Database, the Graphite Creek deposit near Nome, Alaska – being developed by Graphite One, Inc. — is America’s largest graphite deposit.

    Graphite One recently announced it is cooperating with two U.S. national laboratories under the Department of Energy umbrella in an effort to establish a mine-to-manufacturing all-American graphite supply chain.

    In January, the company announced that it had entered into an agreement to have active anode material and other materials sourced from Graphite Creek tested to verify conformity to EV battery specifications by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

    Aside from these public private partnerships according to Metal Tech News’s Shane Lasley, at least three automakers to date have also taken notice and are currently testing Graphite One material for use in their EV batteries.

    In keeping with the new generation of miners looking to harness the materials science revolution to responsibly green our energy future [see ARPN’s post series on mining companies’ sustainability initiatives here], the company is also collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to explore the lab’s award-winning green extraction methods to recover materials other than graphite from Graphite Creek – providing, in Lasley’s words, an opportunity to “provide an ancillary income stream for Graphite One while maximizing the Alaska deposit’s potential to supply minerals critical to the U.S” or – to use the President’s State of the Union verbiage — an opportunity to make sure that “the supply chain for America begins in America.”

    As ARPN recently pointed out,

    If U.S. Government efforts to develop an American-based EV and lithium-ion battery supply chain have any hope of succeeding, looking for ways to help projects like Graphite Creek down the path to production will be, in a word…. Critical.”

  • New Year, New Congress, New Impetus for Critical Mineral Policy Reform?

    Two weeks into the new year, it appears that 2023 will continue the fast-paced tempo we got used to in 2022 when it comes to developments on the critical minerals front.

    With Congressional leadership elections – finally – behind us, policy makers in Washington are gearing up to delve into the issues, and, if the newly announced House Committee assignments are any indication, critical mineral resource and supply chain security will rate high on the priority list.

    Looking at the overall trend lines in the critical minerals space, earlier this month we outlined the themes we see emerging for this year, as follows:

    • A focus on the Super Criticals (see our Year in Review post for more info);
    • the growing importance of geopolitics, with China taking center stage and alliances and partnerships continuing to be forged to reduce reliance on Beijing;
    • the acceleration of the green energy transition which will require vast amounts of critical minerals;
    • …as well as industry’s efforts to sustainably green our future by harnessing the materials science revolution.

    It appears the urgency to act is not lost on policy makers, and earlier this week, Rep. Peter Stauber (R-Minnesota) the incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, offered an early glimpse into plans to overhaul the permitting process for energy projects with the new House majority.

    Rep. Stauber has introduced the Permitting for Mining Needs Act,” a bill that seeks to spur domestic critical mineral production to meet national defense, technology and clean energy needs.

    Incoming House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas) has vowed to make permitting reform a priority in the 118th Congress, stressing in an interview earlier this week that “[t]he country’s got to come to grips with where we want to go with this electric economy”  and if we do, being “totally dependent on China and other countries like that to supply the materials we need” is not the answer, but rather striving to “produce these elements and minerals on our own.”  

    Prioritizing the decoupling from Beijing is also the emerging theme from a vote to establish a Select U.S. House Committee on China, which will consist of nine Republicans and seven Democrats, and will be headed up by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin), who has framed U.S.-Chinese competition as a 21st Century Cold War and wrote in an op-ed for Fox News that the “first step is to restore our supply chains and end critical economic dependencies on China,” which he noted produced approximately 90% of the world’s rare earth metals, alloys, and permanent magnets in 2019.

    Of course, if recent years on Capitol Hill serve as a guide, we can’t expect a high level of bipartisanship of the 118th Congress overall, but the critical minerals space may continue to be a rare exception.

    As a new piece for National Law Review outlines, “there is growing consensus that the U.S. must avoid trading dependencies on foreign sources of fossil fuels, for one, on Chinese critical minerals,” and while reform efforts may face an uphill battle with fundamental disagreements persisting over constraints on environmental reviews and timelines, “[p]ermitting reform will continue to be an issue receiving bipartisan attention,” though “[f]undamental disagreements among Democrats persist on how to put new constraints on environmental reviews and timelines.”

    An area “ripe for bipartisanship” according to National Law Review could be “[t]echnologies to trap carbon emissions from power plants and suck carbon directly out of the atmosphere,” with some lawmakers “convinced there will be an appetite to boost carbon removal startups in the next few years.”

    Meanwhile, external pressures continue to grow, with geopolitical tensions rising and the green energy transition accelerating.

    Here’s hoping Santa put some sneakers under the tree this Christmas, because if this week’s policy announcements in Washington, D.C. are any indication, this first month of 2023, we’ve hit the ground running.

  • 2023 – Trend Lines and Breaking Points – It’s Time to Buckle Up (Especially in the EV Space)

    Happy New Year! For most of us, the first week of January means it’s time to go back to the grind after an extended period of family time, food coma, rest and – hypothetically, at least — reflection.  It also means trying shake the brain fog and mental rust that has settled in order to dive [...]
  • Canada Releases Critical Minerals Strategy Embedded in Geopolitical “Friend-Shoring” Context

    As geopolitical and economic stakes mount, the urgency to build out secure critical mineral supply chains is increasingly resonating with policymakers around the world.  Acknowledging that “[c]ritical minerals are not just the building blocks of clean technology like solar panels and electric vehicle batteries – they are a key ingredient for creating middle class jobs and growing [...]
  • Policy Makers Step Up Efforts to Secure Domestic Critical Mineral Supply Chains — U.S. Senators Introduce the “Critical Mineral Independence Act of 2022”

    As geopolitical tensions continue to mount, and China tightens its reins on its critical mineral supply chains, U.S. policy makers are stepping up their efforts to secure domestic supply chains. The latest case in point: Sen. Dan Sullivan’s (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) just-introduced “Critical Mineral Independence Act of 2022,” legislation aimed at reducing the United States’ over-reliance on [...]
  • Canada’s New Critical Mineral Investment Rules for State-Owned Entities Harden Already-Drawn “Geopolitical Battle-Lines in the Metals Sector”

    Within days of Canada outlining new investment stipulations for state-owned entities aimed at protecting the country’s critical minerals sector, the Canadian government last week told three Chinese resource companies to divest their interests in Canadian critical mineral firms. Basing the decision on “facts and evidence and on the advice of critical minerals subject matter experts, Canada’s [...]
  • As Global Environmental and Geopolitical Pressures Intensify, So Do Cooperative Efforts — A Look at the Canadian-South Korean Critical Minerals Partnership and the MSP

    While the coronavirus pandemic may no longer occupy the top of the hour slot in news broadcasts, the supply chain challenges it unearthed for many of the materials we rely upon are here to stay.  And as the global push towards net zero carbon emissions gets kicked into high gear, nations are increasingly realizing their own [...]
  • 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 [...]
  • Europe’s Metal Sector CEOs Call for Fast and Comprehensive Action to Address “Existential Threat” to Industry Powering Energy Sector and Net Zero Carbon Transition

    As Europe’s already high energy prices continue to soar due to fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and EU energy ministers are gearing up to meet this Friday for an emergency summit, the corporate leaders of Europe’s non-ferrous metals sector have sounded the alarm in an open letter warning that the industry that underpins the energy sector [...]
  • Alaska Critical Minerals Conference: Stakeholders Welcome Progress Thus Far, Call for Federal Permitting Reform and More Predictability in the Mining Space

    Just as a new federal law – the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 – may send a much-needed investment signal to the underdeveloped critical mineral supply chains for EVs and other 21st  century technologies, many of which are rife with underinvestment, political risk and poor governance – lawmakers and policy experts gathered for a two-day two-day conference hosted by the [...]