The shift to clean energy from fossil fuels by Canadian and American governments will succeed or fail depending on whether they can obtain a sufficient supply of critical minerals to make electric-vehicle batteries, the U.S. ambassador to Canada says.
Both countries need to build up their mining, refining and battery-making capacity quickly, David Cohen told a business audience Tuesday.
“We need to help each other to make this possible – to drive demand for electric vehicles, to help fund critical-mineral mines, and to move manufacturing, refining and mining back to North America, in a responsible way,” he said in a speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa. “The United States and Canada are investing billions to make all that happen.”
China has an unusually large presence in the critical-minerals sector, Mr. Cohen said, adding that “we’re too reliant on too few, geopolitically unreliable countries.” He reminded the audience of the difficulty of supply chain breakdowns earlier in the pandemic.
Countries including Canada are scrambling to become leaders in all elements of the electric-vehicle market. Ottawa has big ambitions in clean technology and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants Canada to become “a world leader” in critical minerals and batteries that underpin this sector.
In 2021, Ottawa released a critical-minerals strategy and has been doling out $1.5-billion to various companies in the critical-minerals supply chain. Most provinces have followed suit with their own plans – all aimed at attracting investment and creating jobs.
Mr. Cohen framed the enormity of the challenge about critical minerals: “Simply put, we don’t have enough of these minerals today to meet the world’s – and our own – growing demand,” he said. “Our current supply chain for these minerals – from extraction to production to recycling – is simply not diverse enough for the future that’s coming.”
Demand for critical minerals to make electric-vehicle batteries is expected to skyrocket in the years ahead. The International Energy Agency has forecast that demand for most minerals essential to the clean-energy transition will increase four to six times over the next decade and a half, Mr. Cohen noted. “For some minerals, the increase will be exponential. By 2040, graphite demand, for example, will increase by 25 times, and the demand for lithium by 42 times.”
“As it stands today, China plays an outsized role in the critical-minerals industry at every step along the supply chain. This is particularly true when it comes to mining and refining,” the U.S. envoy said.
According to a 2022 Brookings Institution report, China refines 68 per cent of all nickel globally, 40 per cent of copper, 59 per cent of lithium and 73 per cent of cobalt. China also accounts for most global production of mineral-rich components for battery cells.
“Most significantly, China holds 78 per cent of the world’s cell-manufacturing capacity for electric-vehicle batteries, which is essential for a transition to electric batteries as we try and wean ourselves off of fossil fuels,” Mr. Cohen said.
“Given the current state of play, the status quo will not provide the energy security that Canada, the United States, or our democratic friends and allies need for our cleaner energy future,” he warned.
Canada, the U.S. and allies have responded to the challenge with legislation such as the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, he said. The U.S. measure offers billions of dollars in incentives to battery makers and credits for electric vehicles that the legislation says “are extracted or processed in any country with which the United States has a free-trade agreement.”
Mr. Cohen said Canadian companies are also benefiting from funding and investment opportunities through the Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. He cited the example of Graphite One, which was awarded US$37.5-million from the U.S. Department of Defence under the Defence Production Act to support the development of its graphite mine in Alaska.
As well, he said, at least three Canadian companies stand to benefit from an Oct. 13 announcement by U.S. President Joe Biden to award seven regional clean-hydrogen hubs US$7-billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to accelerate the move to low-cost, clean hydrogen. Mr. Cohen noted that Enbridge Inc. is participating in the Mid-Atlantic Hub, TC Energy Corp. in the Heartland Hub, and AltaGas Ltd. in the Pacific Northwest Hub.
Mr. Cohen celebrated the Canada-U.S. relationship, saying both countries were at the forefront of efforts to support Ukraine, under invasion by Russia, as well as Israel, which is now at war with Hamas.
He said the two countries are not only bound together by important treaties, such as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but also by economic relations.
“We’re tied together by trade: A truly incredible $3.25-billion-plus in goods and services cross our shared border each day, generating or supporting millions of jobs in both of our countries,” he said.
“This makes Canada the No. 1 trading partner for the United States – and it makes the United States the No. 1 trading partner for Canada.”
The U.S. government has been assembling a coalition of companies to spur private-sector investment in key critical-minerals projects around the world with the goal of ensuring reliable access to these deposits for the shift to clean energy.
The Americans have created a Minerals Security Partnership that includes more than a dozen countries plus the 27-member European Union. It has identified 17 projects that the partnership believes will feed into secure critical-mineral supply chains, in mining and mineral extraction, minerals processing, and recycling and recovery. The partnership is encouraging private-sector investment into these projects.