How can America produce enough batteries for electric cars? Open new mines: Robert W. Chase

MARIETTA, Ohio — As Ohio grows into a manufacturing hub for electric cars and the lithium-ion batteries that power vehicles, automakers will need a secure supply of raw materials to keep assembly lines running. For that to happen, however, the minerals and metals for the batteries that will be produced at Honda’s planned plant and other plants will have to be sourced and processed primarily in the United States, rather than imported from China and Russia.

There are currently many questions about supply chains for battery metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. China, the world’s leading maker of electric cars, has a strong grip on the global supply of metal for batteries, which sparked a frenzy earlier this year during a standoff over Taiwan and a few years earlier during tense trade negotiations with China. American automakers have every reason to fear that China could use battery metals as a geopolitical weapon to dominate global markets.

As OPEC once again tightens the screws on American energy consumers and cuts production to prop up oil prices, there is a sense that the geopolitics of the metals trade necessary for the energy transition may be as unpredictable as our dependence on the global oil cartel.

Now is the time to ask: What are the most useful things the US government can do to strengthen our mineral and metals supply chains? Do we continue to rely on warring nations like China and Russia for materials needed for clean energy technologies, weapons systems, and consumer products? Or are we making more use of our own abundant resources in the United States?

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The obvious answer is that we need to start producing more, not only to strengthen our supply chain security, but also to help our economy create thousands of good-paying mining and manufacturing jobs, bring millions of dollars into federal and state Treasury, reduce carbon emissions and allow America to become less dependent on China and Russia.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) report states that production of battery metals and minerals “needs to increase tenfold to meet projected critical mineral needs by 2030,” according to a recent article on mining.com. This will require the development of hundreds of new mines.

There is currently only one operating lithium mine in the United States. One nickel mine, one rare earth mine, one cobalt mine. Many copper mines have been depleted and are running out of resources, according to the US Geological Survey.

The lithium sticker shock has already arrived. The explosive growth of electric vehicles, particularly in China, has seen the global price of lithium jump 678% over the past two years – and is likely to accelerate as the transition to electrified transport progresses. The IEA expects lithium demand to increase by as much as 40 times its 2020 level, requiring an additional 50 new lithium mines worldwide. But new mines aren’t opening fast enough, and auto industry experts warn that a lithium shortage could derail electric vehicle (EV) production just as it’s taking off.

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This realization convinced the White House that government action was necessary. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to provide loan guarantees, tax credits and other federal aid to create new domestic battery metal mines. The Inflation Reduction Act offers electric vehicle buyers a $7,500 tax break if they share the car’s “critical battery materials” [are] obtained or processed in the United States,” utilitydive.com reports.

But building a secure supply chain doesn’t happen overnight. According to Value Walk Premium, the U.S. has “roughly $6.2 trillion in untapped mineral resources,” but it has been easier to import raw materials — even critical metals for batteries — than to create new mines in the country. Just getting government approval to open a mine in the United States takes a decade or more — and there are so many hurdles that companies often fail to get approval and instead stop developing new mines in other countries.

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Robert W. Chase

Robert W. Chase chaired the petroleum engineering and geology department at Marietta College until 2015.

Congress needs to streamline the government’s mine permitting process. A bipartisan effort to eliminate red tape in permitting infrastructure improvements — not just mines, but also liquefied natural gas facilities and oil and gas pipelines — is moving through the Senate. Adopting the measure would make supply chains much more secure.

Much depends on the production of electric cars, SUVs, pickups and trucks. Millions of vehicles will be sold over the next few years, many of which will be built with Ohio-made batteries. It’s high time we start making better use of the mineral wealth in our own backyard.

Robert W. Chase served as chair of the Petroleum Engineering and Geology Department at Marietta College for 37 years, retiring from that position in 2015. He is a registered professional engineer in the state of Ohio.

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