© nyul dreamstime.com General | May 15, 2019
U.S. Senate ponders EV supply chain development
The United States is closer to forming an EV supply chain policy, with lawmakers showing bipartisan support for legislation aimed at reducing China’s dominance in metals production and battery manufacturing.
On Tuesday, the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the American Mineral Security Act, which is designed to help streamline regulation and permitting requirements for the development of mines for lithium, graphite and other minerals widely used in EV production, Reuters is reporting. The pending bi-partisan legislation, sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), would require a tally of metal reserves in the United States and streamline EV-sector permitting. It would also try to codify a 2017 executive order on U.S. mineral development. Trump Administration officials from the Interior and Energy departments voiced support for the pending legislation this week, the Reuters report said. “We are not doing ourselves any favors when we don’t know what we have in our inventory,” Murkowski said at the hearing, which was web cast. “I suspect we have more than we even think we do.” Current estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) rely on corporate annual reports, historical data from the U.S. Bureau of Mines and other sources, according to USGS Spokesman Alex Demas. Determining the mineral composition of a particular region requires sending staff into the field to take rock samples, which is time-consuming and expensive. Murkowski’s legislation would require a nationwide reserve analysis for all minerals used to make EVs. Even some existing U.S. mines are in China’s orbit, with domestic production of so-called rare earth minerals reliant on Chinese processing and now caught up in the U.S.-China trade conflict. “China has a huge head start,” said Gavin Montgomery, a battery and mining analyst at the Wood Mackenzie consultancy. “They’ve just been at this a lot longer than the rest of the world.” One example is USGS data that shows the United States as having 35,000 tons of lithium in reserve, a figure that the agency and industry executives see as conservative. Albemarle Corp. operates the only U.S. lithium mine, a facility that can produce about 6,000 tons annually. According to current USGS data, that means that one mine could deplete U.S. reserves within six years. Jon Evans, president of Lithium Americas, one of several entities with lithium projects under development across the U.S., told the hearing that the federal government should offer loan guarantees for U.S. mining and processing projects. He has stated public support for federal loan guarantees that would serves as confirmation of the government’s commitment to developing a “critical materials supply chain.” Physical reserves of minerals are not the only concern for the U.S. Processing capabilities are also lacking in the U.S. For example, China currently controls about 85% of the globe’s cobalt sulfate processing, according to WoodMac data. Cobalt sulfate is the version of the metal used in lithium ion batteries. eCobalt Solutions Inc. aims to produce 1,500 tons per year of cobalt once its Idaho project opens, though that is enough of the metal to make only about 300,000 EVs. “The fact that China maintains a near monopoly on the critical minerals needed for our defense system makes no sense at all,” said Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. According to Reuters, the United States does have some processing capability. Albemarle and rival Livent Corp process some lithium domestically. Syrah Resources Ltd mines graphite in Mozambique and ships it to Louisiana for processing for use in making battery parts. The United States is also reliant on China for rare earth processing, a group of 17 elements used to make electric vehicles and consumer electronics. In one example cited by Reuters, California’s Mountain Pass mine, owned by MP Materials, must cough up a 25% tariff to ship its extracted rare earths from its California mine to China for processing, the collateral damage in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. “All we seek is a level playing field to compete as a low-cost producer so we can help establish an EV supply chain in the United States,” said James Litinsky, co-chairman of MP Materials. The Committee has not yet set a date to vote on the legislation.