May 03, 2019

Murkowski, Manchin Target Lithium Battery 'Achilles' Heel | E&E News

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R) and ranking member Joe Manchin (D) yesterday moved to boost domestic production of key minerals used in lithium-ion batteries considered critical for the electric vehicle industry.

The bipartisan duo unveiled the "American Mineral Security Act, which could mark a significant step toward countering Chinese control over a critical link in the U.S. supply chain for EVs. The bill was introduced after a closed-door summit involving automakers, miners and federal officials.

It tasks federal officials with drawing up a list of foreign-sourced "critical minerals" that find widespread use in products or whose supply chains are vulnerable to geopolitical conflict.

The legislation further calls for streamlining permitting for domestic mining of those minerals, establishing new federal assessments and forecasts of supplies, and creating Energy and Labor department programs for energy technologies and workforce development.

It would also promote recycling from scrap and extraction from wastewater or other sources, and seeks to develop alternatives to the use of minerals that aren't abundant in the United States.

Domestic production should serve the country's needs "to the maximum extent practicable," it declares. And the existing federal permitting process for those minerals "has been identified as an impediment to mineral production and the mineral security of the United States."

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Manchin said he is "very much concerned" about the lithium battery supply issue but added that he is focused on "nuclear stuff right now."

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) also spoke favorably of legislative action.

"Certainly as a state we have one of the highest, most promising reserves of lithium in the country, and anything we can do to responsibly permit — accelerate the process — I would certainly support," Tillis said.

Murkowski could not be reached for comment, but she told Reuters last month that "our challenge is still a failure to understand the vulnerability we are in as a nation when it comes to reliance on others for our minerals."

The bill never mentions China. But its aim of reducing U.S. industries' dependence on foreign-sourced minerals — which Murkowski has called the country's "Achilles' heel" — might find cause in Chinese ambitions regarding a backbone of the clean energy transition.

Testifying before the Senate committee in February, battery analyst Simon Moores noted that his group, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, was now tracking the construction of 70 megafactories globally, more than four times the number from the previous year.

Forty-six of the factories would be based in China and just five in the United States, said Moores, who added that the United States so far had been a "bystander" in a "global battery arms race."

Few American companies had a role in the production of minerals like lithium, cobalt or graphite, he noted, and only Tesla Inc. had a hand in battery manufacturing.

"Those who control these critical raw materials" and can swiftly develop them into batteries, he predicted, "will hold the balance of industrial power in the 21st-century auto and energy storage industries."

U.S. officials may also be wary of the nation's vulnerability in trade disputes like one in 2010 that saw China briefly halt exports of rare earths to Japan. And some minerals researchers say that in coming years, booming demand for lithium-ion batteries could create supply shortages for minerals like cobalt. Some research has suggested EV growth could add to geopolitical strife in Congo, which supplies cobalt (Greenwire, Oct. 12, 2017).

The Trump administration has taken some baby steps toward streamlining U.S. production, as well. The Interior Department published its own list last spring of 35 minerals deemed critical to economic and national security, as per the terms of an earlier executive order. But the Commerce Department has not released its own recommendations, included under that order, on permitting and production.

The Murkowski-Manchin legislation drew kudos from some conservatives and mining interests after its introduction yesterday afternoon.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, called it a "vital step forward" to fix a "broken" mine-permitting process.

Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, said the co-sponsors are "right to be concerned" about Chinese control of critical mineral supplies.

"I highly doubt the greens will be willing to trade domestic oil drilling for domestic minerals mining" as part of a Green New Deal compromise, he said, "but that's exactly what it would take."


By:  Dave Iaconangelo