The kryptonite of America's economy
Critical Minerals Alliances 2022 - September 12, 2022
Last updated 9/20/2022 at 2:46pm
Lack of domestic critical mineral supplies weakens US clean energy ambitions
The White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are becoming increasingly aware that a lack of secure supplies of critical minerals and metals may be the kryptonite that weakens America's economy, national security, and clean energy ambitions.
"The more we dive into this topic of critical minerals, the more I'm certain Superman isn't the only one who can be brought to his knees by rare minerals," quipped Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, during an April hearing on critical minerals demand and recycling.
As chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, Manchin has heard testimony from seemingly endless panels of experts warning about the United States' dependence on countries like China and Russia for the rare earths, lithium, nickel, and a long list of other minerals and metals critical to the U.S.
"We wouldn't be talking about critical minerals – in fact, they wouldn't be considered critical at all – if it weren't for the 'stuff' that they go into. And the 'stuff' happens to be critically important for the U.S. economy and national security," Abigail Wulf, vice president of critical minerals strategy at Washington D.C.-based Securing America's Future Energy, said during an April hearing before Manchin's committee. "This 'stuff' includes batteries, semiconductors, electric vehicles, renewable energy, and advanced weapons systems – all of which are made of and powered by minerals and mined materials. We are only going to need more of these things as the world increasingly transitions to an electric, connected, and autonomous future."
The understanding that America needs to develop reliable supplies of critical minerals goes beyond conservative think tanks and lawmakers from mineral-rich states. The White House has become increasingly active in pursuing reliable supplies of the minerals required to build its envisioned low-carbon energy and transportation future.
While the Biden administration's recognition that the U.S. is over-reliant on oft adversarial countries for the critical raw materials required to "build back better," breaking this dependence in time to manufacture the EVs, wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and other stuff required to meet the White House's clean energy ambitions will require a bipartisan effort in Washington, D.C.
ConservAmerica, a Washington D.C.-based conservation group, called America's dependence on critical mineral imports "one of the nation's most persistent and pervasive national security and economic challenges."
"We appreciate the administration's recognition that federal policy is key to solving America's deepening dependence on foreign countries, particularly China, for minerals essential to our economy," said ConservAmerica President Jeff Kupfer. "China will not, and has not been playing the slow game. We cannot afford to either."
Common ground in DC
The White House and both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill have found some common ground when it comes to hastening domestic critical minerals production.
In March, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators – Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska); Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) – sent a letter urging President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act, or DPA, to accelerate domestic production of lithium-ion battery materials, in particular graphite, manganese, cobalt, nickel, and lithium.
Established at the onset of the Korean War, DPA allows American presidents, largely through executive order, to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government.
To bolster domestic production of materials critical to national security, the President may also offer loans or loan guarantees to companies, subject to an appropriation by Congress.
"The authorities provided to you as President under the Defense Production Act will help to ensure that America's critical mineral supply chains are strong, responsibly produced, and ethically sourced. Given the stakes, America cannot afford to wait any longer for that day to arrive," the senators wrote.
This sense of urgency is being driven by America's dependence on often rival nations for a wide array of critical minerals and metals.
According to a January report by the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. was dependent on imports for more than half its supply of 47 nonfuel mineral commodities and 100% import-reliant for 17 of those during 2021.
"The concentration of where that supply comes from makes our foreign dependence even more concerning," the senators penned in their letter. "China dominates the international critical mineral supply chain, presenting a dire national security threat for the United States, and harsh economic realities for American manufacturers."
DPA battery material funding
Less than a month after receiving the senators' letter, Biden authorized the use of DPA funding to "secure American production of critical materials to bolster our clean energy economy by reducing our reliance on China and other countries for the minerals and materials that will power our clean energy future."
"Specifically, the DPA will be authorized to support the production and processing of minerals and materials used for large capacity batteries – such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese – and the Department of Defense will implement this authority using strong environmental, labor, community, and tribal consultation standards," the White House penned in a March 31 briefing.
In a memorandum ordering the Pentagon to authorize the use of DPA funding and authorities to support the domestic production of critical battery materials, President Biden echoed concerns of the lawmakers that urged him to do so.
"The United States depends on unreliable foreign sources for many of the strategic and critical materials necessary for the clean energy transition – such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese for large-capacity batteries. Demand for such materials is projected to increase exponentially as the world transitions to a clean energy economy," he penned in the memorandum.
The memo orders the Pentagon to utilize Defense Production Act Title III funding to establish and expand upon sustainable and responsible domestic strategic and critical minerals production.
Unions and mining companies came out in support of the President's use of DPA Title III funding and authorizations for critical battery metals.
United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway said union members across North America already produce many of the materials addressed by the DPA order and stand ready to further "mine, produce and recycle lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, graphite and other critical minerals as we build out and secure our own domestic supply chains."
Russia war increases urgency
While the use of DPA to bolster domestic production of battery materials was hailed as a win for onshoring lithium-ion battery supply chains, many say that there is much more 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.
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."
Russia is a major supplier of many of the minerals critical to low-carbon energy generation and storage –antimony, nickel, uranium, and vanadium are high on this list.
In a June National Defense Authorization Act report, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee said it "is concerned about recent geopolitical dynamics with Russia and China and how that could accelerate supply chain disruptions, particularly with antimony."
The Senate Armed Services Committee is also concerned about the geopolitical consequences of being dependent on China and Russia for antimony and other critical minerals.
"America's defense in the modern era increasingly demands the use of critical minerals, making it more essential by the day for our nation to have a sufficient stockpile of and reliable access to these materials," said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a combat veteran that serves on the Senate Armed Service Committee. "At this very moment, our enemies like China dominate the supply chain of these increasingly vital materials, and are even expanding into regions such as Africa and Afghanistan, threatening our readiness in an emergency situation and jeopardizing our national security."
Senators Ernst and Manchin introduced the Homeland Acceleration of Recovering Deposits and Renewing Onshore Critical Keystones (HARD ROCK) act in June.
This legislation is designed to bolster the National Defense Stockpile of strategic and critical materials needed for national security.
"America is blessed with an abundance of natural resources that can help us address our reliance on foreign supply chains for critical minerals," said Manchin. "By addressing the weaknesses in our current National Defense Stockpile, our bill will bolster American critical mineral independence and help ensure we have the resources we need for essential defense products and services."
In addition to the HARD ROCK Act, the Senate National Defense Authorization Act includes $1 billion in funding to support the Defense Logistics Agency's acquisition of critical materials for the National Defense Stockpile.
Solving the permitting logjam
There is a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that much more must be done to establish domestic supplies of the minerals critical to America, especially when it comes to the nearly decade-long process to permit a mine in the U.S.
"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."
Considering it takes an average of seven to 10 years, and often longer, to permit a mine in the U.S., 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.
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 battery mineral 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."
A growing chorus of voices from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill has joined the call to streamline America's long mine permitting process in a way that does not sacrifice environmental protections.
Representing the middle of this group, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) contends that American ingenuity is the answer.
"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," said King. "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."