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More US critical minerals action needed

Senators urge Biden to use all tools to boost domestic supply Metal Tech News - April 4, 2022

While hailing President Joe Biden's use of the Defense Production Act to bolster domestic supplies of battery minerals and materials as a win for rebuilding United States supply chains, the bipartisan group of senators that urged this action say more needs to be done to curb America's heavy dependence on oft adversarial countries for the minerals and metals critical to the nation's security and economic wellbeing.

"While I am heartened that President Biden is heeding our concerns and invoking the Defense Production Act for certain critical minerals, this needs to be the beginning, not the end, of immediate and aggressive efforts to shore up our mineral supply chains," said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), one of four senators that urged the use of DPA to support domestic battery materials supply chains in a March 11 letter to President Biden. "The United States' overreliance on countries like Russia and China for these vital materials is a matter of national security."

Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) joined Risch in urging the president to invoke DPA to help bolster domestic production of strategic battery materials.

A Cold War-era tool created at the onset of the Korean War that authorizes American presidents to prioritize the production of materials considered to be vital to the national interest was used by President Donald Trump to support domestic rare earth production and had previously been invoked by Biden to prioritize vaccines and other supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the Biden White House issued an order to the Pentagon to utilize DPA to support domestic "production and processing of minerals and materials used for large capacity batteries – such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese."

Further details of the Defense Production Act order for critical battery metals can be read at Biden issues battery materials order published in the current edition of Metal Tech News.

The U.S. is heavily dependent on China and Russia for a broad array of minerals and metals needed for the batteries powering electric vehicles and storing wind and solar energy.

Manchin, who has long been sounding the alarm on America's dependence on China and others for minerals deemed critical to the U.S., believes Russia's invasion of Ukraine raises the national security implications of this import-reliance.

"Building out our domestic supply chain and reducing our reliance on Russia, China and other adversarial nations is more important than ever before," he penned in a statement. "I urge the Administration to continue using all the tools at their disposal and working with Congress to unlock the full potential of our nation's vast natural resources to deny any nation the ability to use supply chain dependencies against us and our allies."

His colleagues agree that much more must be done.

"We cannot go from a dependency on foreign oil to a dependency on Chinese minerals," said Sen. Cassidy. "It is encouraging that the administration listened to our letter and is announcing action. However, enacting the DPA without addressing the bureaucratic logjam of permitting would be little more than symbolism. We have to also streamline the permitting process that could delay any effort by years."

Bureaucratic logjam

Considering it takes an average of seven to 10 years, and sometimes longer, to permit a mine in the U.S., Sen. Cassidy's "bureaucratic logjam" concerns are well-founded.

Under America's current process, a battery metals mine entering the federal permitting process today would likely not begin offering a domestic supply of these critical minerals until around the mid-2030s.

Perpetua Resources Corp., which plans to develop the Stibnite Mine in Idaho, would provide a significant domestic supply of the antimony to be used in low-cost and reliable grid-scale batteries for storing wind and solar electricity, entered into the permitting process in 2016 and is currently on track to get a final decision from federal agencies by the end of next year.

This eight-year permitting process is for a mine that will provide a domestic supply of a battery mineral considered critical to the U.S., while also addressing environmental concerns from mining carried out 70 to 120 years ago.

"Our vision at Perpetua Resources has always been to restore an abandoned mine site while producing the critical resources our country needs for a more secure and sustainable future," said Perpetua Resources CEO Laurel Sayer. "Now, more than ever, turning this vision into reality is vital for our nation's success."

With construction expected to take about three years, Perpetua is currently looking at achieving commercial production in 2027.

Further details on Perpetua's proposed Stibnite Mine and the liquid-metal battery technology that intends to use antimony produced at the operation can be read at Perpetua to supply antimony for batteries in the August 11, 2021 edition of Metal Tech News.

Perpetua's roughly 11-year timeline from permit application to commercial production does not fit well with the Biden administration's ambitious goals of millions of EVs plugged into a fully decarbonized American electrical grid by 2035.

"Many states, including my home state of Idaho, contain rich deposits of critical minerals we cannot afford to ignore any longer," said Sen. Risch. "We must take action to prioritize domestic critical mineral development before this serious threat turns into an active crisis."

A solvable problem

Risch and many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill are calling for a streamlining of the U.S. permitting process that does not sacrifice environmental protections.

"What we are talking about today is a solvable problem – we need these minerals and to cut our dependence on hostile countries; we need to protect our natural environment, resources, and communities – this is an engineering problem," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). "I want the strongest most far-reaching environmental mines in the country and the most timely and predictable permitting process – it should not be used to stop projects. We need one-stop permitting and government coordination."

Sen. Murkowski, who has been leading the charge to streamline mine permitting in the U.S. for more than a decade, has often pointed to Canada and Australia as examples of countries with strong environmental standards that permit mines in two to three years.

While hailing Biden's invocation of the DPA to strengthen domestic critical minerals supply chains as important, the Alaska senator urges the White House to address permitting and other challenges hampering America's mining sector.

"My hope is that this decision marks the start of a much more serious emphasis on our nation's mineral security, and that real projects, especially mines, in states like Alaska, result from it," she said. "It is also critical that the five minerals addressed under this decision are just the start, not the end, of federal efforts to rebuild our domestic supply chains."

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.


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