Local View: Think globally, source locally for electric vehicles
From the column: "The Michigan (nickel mine) is expected to be exhausted in 2026. By then a new source of high-grade nickel is projected to come online in Minnesota’s Aitkin County. Unlike nickel operations overseas, the Tamarack Nickel Project will use clean advanced mining technology operating under strict environmental regulation."
Communities across the country, including in Minnesota, are on the frontlines of a brewing battle over critical minerals that will be essential to achieving our nation’s goal of electrified transportation. Electric vehicles, in particular, are seen as key in securing net-zero emissions by mid-century.
If electric vehicles are going to succeed, we will need a new commitment and sense of urgency to responsibly sourcing the mined materials necessary to power this new generation of vehicles.
Electric vehicles are largely run on lithium-ion batteries, which rely on metals like nickel, cobalt, lithium, and manganese. In the lithium-ion battery world, nickel is one of the most crucial components, forming the basis of most cathode chemistries. In fact, the International Energy Agency estimates that the global supply of battery-grade nickel will need to increase nearly 20-fold by 2040 to achieve the UN’s stated climate goals.
A large and growing share of nickel comes from Indonesia, which generates about 30% of global production — a share projected to nearly double over the next decade. This is troubling for two reasons: the environmental toll of Indonesian nickel-mining practices and the growing control of the People’s Republic of China over Indonesia’s nickel supply; China has invested significantly in the raw-materials supply chain for battery chemistry. According to Indonesia’s Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, the number of nickel smelters is expected to more than double between 2020 and 2024. The majority will be owned by Chinese companies, which are typically not known for stringent compliance with environmental standards .
Indonesia’s mining operations have already destroyed stretches of these forests and dumped harmful waste into the ocean, resulting in a significant carbon footprint from the forests to the sea . These poor practices have created toxic environmental conditions affecting the livelihoods of workers and local residents. There is little sign that Indonesia’s mining practices will improve as nickel production ramps up in the future.
Fortunately, there are opportunities to diversify the nickel supply chain — including sourcing in Minnesota and elsewhere within the United States — to reduce risks to national security and damage to the planet’s climate and most sensitive ecosystems.
The U.S. currently has one active nickel mine in Michigan, which produced approximately 16,000 tons last year (out of more than 2 million tons produced globally in 2020). The U.S. has no comparable domestic capability to process the raw material into battery-grade nickel. The Michigan site is expected to be exhausted in 2026. By then a new source of high-grade nickel is projected to come online in Minnesota’s Aitkin County. Unlike nickel operations overseas, the Tamarack Nickel Project will use clean advanced mining technology operating under strict environmental regulation, including processes that capture carbon from the air and sequester it back into the earth . This cleaner, higher-tech approach to extraction can serve as a blueprint for developing responsible domestic sources of nickel — among other key minerals — as demand for electric-vehicle batteries surges in the years ahead.
Another option could include the collection of high-grade polymetallic nodules, one of the largest sources of nickel in the world, that rest unattached to the seafloor thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean, far below where sunlight penetrates and away from more biodiverse regions.
The administration of President Joe Biden recognizes the need to break longstanding foreign dependencies for battery minerals, including nickel. Its seminal 100-day supply chain report cited the importance of nickel supplies, as did the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries .
The congressional infrastructure bill also provided $3 billion to support battery-materials processing within the U.S. More recently, the Department of the Interior proposed adding nickel to its list of “critical minerals” deemed central to industries such as energy, electronics, and national defense.
These are all important steps in the right direction. But much more can be done. Any purchases of new electric vehicles for government fleets should require that the battery metals come from mines that adhere to high environmental and labor standards, which would minimize Chinese participation in this critical supply chain.
If the U.S. is to effectively compete in the de-carbonized world, we must ensure the needed metals come from sources and methods that are as clean and sustainable as possible. That means we cannot exclude supplies of nickel sourced responsibly from within our borders, including right here in Minnesota.
Abigail Wulf is director of the Center for Critical Minerals Strategy for SAFE Commanding Heights, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan initiative dedicated to advancing critical supply chains for America’s transportation and energy needs. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.