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The U.S. Hunt for Cobalt – a Rising Star Among Critical Minerals – Is On

“Gold once lured prospectors to the American west – but now it’s cobalt that is sparking a rush,” writes the BBC in a recent feature story about Cobalt, which, as ARPN followers will know, is a “key component in the lithium-ion batteries that power electronic devices and electric cars.” 

Once a somewhat obscure metal, Cobalt has recently been afforded “Critical Mineral” status on the U.S. Department of Interior’s list of 35 minerals deemed “critical” to U.S. national security.

Meanwhile, U.S. import reliance for Cobalt is pegged at 72 percent, with recycling providing most of the balance.  As rising demand and supply complications have combined in recent years, battery makers have begun exploring technologies that require less of the material, but, as Alaska journalist Shane Lasley recently pointed out:

“Researchers and analysts do not see a scenario where the reduction of cobalt per battery can come close to offsetting the growing number of batteries that will be needed in the coming three decades.”

The dynamics are quickly changing. Writes the BBC:

“In the past, cobalt supply depended on the markets for copper and nickel, more valuable metals that are typically extracted alongside cobalt.

But with cobalt prices on the up and consumption projected to rise by between 8% to 10% a year, its status as a by-product has started to change, says George Heppel, senior analyst at research firm CRU Group in London.”

Thus, not surprisingly, while most of the world’s Cobalt is found is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a challenge in its own right – there are now about 300 companies worldwide on the hunt for cobalt deposits, writes the BBC.

In the U.S., companies are staking claims in various states, including Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

The BBC cites Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Caspar Rawls, who thinks that while U.S. companies only represent a small fraction of the Cobalt market, “they may find they are able to command a premium price for their materials,” and says:

“Every company in the supply chain is looking to reduce their geopolitical risk, so I think any project outside of the DRC is in a strong position in that sense.” 

Whether U.S. policymakers understand the gravity of the situation, however, is an open question.

As we reported last week, Congress has just missed a great opportunity for meaningful policy reform that could have helped the U.S. do just that — “reduce their geopolitical risk” — when conferees for the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) failed to retain key critical minerals provisions in the final conference report.  And in the one clause in the defense bill that does touch on metals and minerals – a section entitled “Prohibition on acquisition of sensitive materials from non-allied foreign nations” – while cobalt appears as a “sensitive material” (in the form of samarium-cobalt permanent magnets), the list of non-allied foreign nations from which the U.S. is not allowed to acquire the materials does not include DRC Congo.

It’s hard not to conclude that this patchwork approach is no substitute for a coherent, comprehensive policy.

Meanwhile, the headline from a Wall Street Journal report from earlier this year says it all:  “There’s a Global Race to Control Batteries – and China is Winning.  Chinese companies dominate the cobalt supply chain that begins at mines in Congo.