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Could cobalt help solve the “buy America” impasse?

Could cobalt help solve the “buy America” impasse?

The Sunday New York Times has published an in-depth article that explores the environmental and geo-political impacts of the growing switch to electric vehicles. The batteries that power EV’s use large amounts of cobalt. According to data from the US Geological Survey (USGS), around 140,000 metric tonnes of cobalt were produced worldwide during 2019 – more than 70% of which came from a single country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa, which is neither democratic nor a republic. Meanwhile China is getting control of the cobalt output from the Congo. An American mining giant unloaded two major cobalt reserves in Congo to a Chinese conglomerate in 2016, marking the end of any major U.S. mining presence in cobalt in the country. Chinese battery makers have forged agreements with the mining companies to secure steady supplies of the metal. Additionally there is the issue of ethical procurement. It is estimated that 20% of the mines in the DRC are small-scale and use mostly child workers. These children, aged between 3 and 17, have to work in appalling and dangerous conditions, usually barefoot.

Prime Minister Trudeau came back from the Three Amigos Summit in Washington apparently unsuccessful in getting President Biden to exempt Canada from his “buy America” plan for electric vehicles. The Biden plan would provide a $12,000 subsidy to the purchaser of an Electric Vehicle assembled in the US. Such a subsidy would place Canadian manufacturers at a significant disadvantage at a time when the Canadian and Ontario governments have given many millions of dollars to Ford and GM Canada to develop electric vehicle capacity.

A possible bargaining chip for Canada, however could be that there are significant cobalt reserves in Canada, much of it in Ontario around, where else…Cobalt. Cobalt was the site of Ontario’s silver boom at the turn of the last century, cobalt being a by-product of silver mining. The mining company First Cobalt has taken over 50 former silver mines with a plan to determine the amount of cobalt available. They also own the only fully permitted cobalt refinery in North America capable of producing battery-grade cobalt. The company website says when fully operational the plant could produce enough cobalt and other metals used in battery production to build 1.5 Million automobiles a year.

Unlike the “ring of fire” chromium deposit in the far north of Ontario which will require the construction of an expensive road or rail link, Cobalt is already well served by both road and rail, (infrastructure that was built a century ago)  and is an under six hour drive to Toronto. Cobalt Ontario, currently with a population of about 1,000 from its peak of 10,000 in the early 1900’s could see a second boom as the material that was seen as a nuisance in silver production, now becoming a valuable sought-after commodity,

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