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The tough economics of getting hard-to-find minerals for electric vehicle batteries

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

2023 is the hottest year on record. It's also a year when many countries have invested billions in electric vehicles. The batteries to power them contain some hard to find materials and locking down sources for those materials is not easy, as Stacey Vanek Smith reports.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Last October, some major VIPs gathered at a landmark event to celebrate a great stride in the reduction of fossil fuel use.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good afternoon everyone.

VANEK SMITH: It was a good old-fashioned ribbon cutting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We even have scissors.

VANEK SMITH: The governor, people from the Commerce Department, even some diplomats were there.

ARTHUR SINODINOS: I'm Arthur Sinodinos, the Australian ambassador to the U.S.

VANEK SMITH: To get to this ribbon cutting, Sinodinos flew across the country and braved 30 miles of unpaved, switchback roads to get to a remote mine 8,000 feet up in Idaho's Salmon River Mountains.

SINODINOS: I'm really stoked to be here. I'm out in the middle of nowhere with some of my best friends for the opening of their cobalt mine.

VANEK SMITH: That would be the only cobalt mine in the U.S. Cobalt is an essential ingredient in the batteries that power our phones and electric cars, but it can be hard to find. The mountains here have one of the only known deposits in the U.S. Bryce Crocker heads Jervois Global, the Australian company that owns the mine.

BRYCE CROCKER: Cobalt is critical. So it was a huge opportunity. And obviously, this is why we've invested.

VANEK SMITH: Right now, most of the cobalt the U.S. and its allies use come from mines that are owned or controlled by China or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that is a potential problem. Car batteries are meant to replace oil as a main source of energy. And if that energy supply is put in jeopardy, it threatens the economy's ability to function.

CROCKER: This is why America having its own cobalt supply is so important.

VANEK SMITH: Considering all of that, a cobalt mine seems like a pretty fail-safe investment. But...

CROCKER: Unfortunately, shortly after the opening ceremony, the cobalt price steadily collapsed.

VANEK SMITH: From about $40 a pound to $15, where it still is today. At that price, Crocker's mine can't break even.

CROCKER: We had to close the mine before we started and let go almost 300 people.

VANEK SMITH: But how did this happen, especially when demand for cobalt is expected to double in the next few years?

CASPAR RAWLES: Cobalt prices are at multiyear lows, and a lot of people are kind of surprised by that.

VANEK SMITH: Caspar Rawles with Benchmark Mineral Intelligence says there was a massive ramp-up in cobalt production during the pandemic, and the markets are still flooded. At the same time, global demand for electric vehicles has declined. But also, he says, mining is just a tough business.

RAWLES: We call this the great raw material disconnect.

VANEK SMITH: Namely that, yes, cobalt is a critical part of most countries and company's future plans, but future plans don't pay bills, and the bills for mines are very real. Just opening a mine can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

RAWLES: It's that - on average is that one in a thousand makes it to production.

VANEK SMITH: And even if a mine does start producing, there is a constant worry about the price of what they're mining, and metal prices are notoriously volatile. Rawles says it could be years before cobalt prices rebound, or it could happen next week. That is what Bryce Crocker is hoping for.

CROCKER: I'm up at the mine today. I just came out from underground.

VANEK SMITH: Crocker is still actively tending his mine, talking to companies and potential investors trying to get an infusion of cash. And the U.S. government has kicked in some money.

CROCKER: We're very confident in the longer term. Now it's a question of maintaining forward momentum.

VANEK SMITH: Crocker believes the markets will catch up with the political realities, and the second they do, he plans to recut that ribbon and start digging.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.