DOE creates minerals office that could boost renewables, EVs

Source: By James Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Energy Department on Friday established a new office to focus on strengthening domestic supply chains for minerals that are crucial in the development of new energy technologies.

The department’s Minerals Sustainability Division comes as the need for lithium, cobalt and other so-called critical minerals is expected to skyrocket to feed the increased demand for electric vehicles and clean energy.

The announcement also follows DOE’s decision last month to open $42 billion in loans for processing and recycling of critical minerals, a group of 35 elements for which the Trump administration says the United States is too reliant on imports.

“Not only are these minerals vital to U.S. national security, they are also essential components in technologies entering the marketplace — including next-generation nuclear, renewables, innovative fossil technologies, storage technologies, and electric vehicles,” Steven Winberg, DOE’s assistant secretary for fossil energy, said in a statement.

The Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management will house the minerals division, which will focus on technology development throughout the supply chain.

That effort includes extracting rare earth elements from coal, a measure Congress included in the year-end spending deal reached last month (E&E Daily, Dec. 16, 2020).

“The team we’re heading up will provide the oversight, management and discretion necessary for DOE’s R&D and applied engineering work with the technologies that will extract, process, use and dispose of critical minerals and rare earths from raw mining materials,” said Lou Hrkman, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management.

President-elect Joe Biden’s team has backed a surge in EVs, but analysts say it will require a reliable supply of raw materials. In 2019, the United States controlled exactly 0% of global supply for cobalt, manganese, and graphite anodes and cathodes, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a price reporting firm.

The United States is also losing the lithium-ion battery manufacturing race. China, a major supplier of raw materials, announced plans for 38 new large battery factories last year. The United States announced three.

Ben Steinberg, a spokesperson for the Battery Materials & Technology Coalition, said DOE’s new minerals division is a small step in the right direction for building out a domestic supply chain.

“The issue is, we need public investment for factory-level work,” Steinberg said. “We want to work from the mine to the factory floor to transform minerals into battery materials, and we need it at scale to be able to compete globally.”

Momentum has grown among some in the federal government to close the gap, but others worry about the environmental costs of a vast expansion of mineral production.

Last week, the Interior Department approved a lithium mine proposal in northern Nevada. But the Bureau of Land Management sped through the environmental review in about a year, and activists have raised concerns about the destruction of habitat at Thacker Pass that is important for the greater sage grouse, as well as how much groundwater will need to be used by the open-pit mine (Energywire, July 9, 2020).