U.S. Making Up for Lost Time in Building a Circular Economy

As renewable energy technologies become more and more accessible, demand for so-called transition minerals that are integral to these technologies is growing. Countries and other bodies are using a variety of tactics to ensure they will have the minerals needed for future technology; for example, the European Commission released its proposed battery regulations near the end of 2020, setting the stage for vastly improved recycling and mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence in battery metals supply chains. The United States has trailed the EU and other countries in creating the foundation for a circular economy in battery and other “transition minerals,” but under the Biden-Harris administration, that is changing. 

President Biden has already issued three Executive Orders relating to the circular economy: one on tribal consultation, one on environmental justice and one on supply chains. More recently, the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries, a collaborative body made up of the  Energy, Defense, Commerce and State departments, released the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries: 2021-2030 (America’s Battery Directive). It offers a detailed look at the administration’s priorities and predictions for rechargeable batteries and the materials needed to create them. 

America’s Battery Directive seeks to “secure access to raw and refined minerals and discover alternatives for critical minerals for commercial and defense applications,” and “enable US end-of-life reuse and critical mineral recycling at a scale and a full competitive value chain in the US.” 

The government specifically wants to reduce the US’s dependence on cobalt and nickel, and says that any new or expanded production “must be held to modern standards” pertaining to environmental and labor conditions, and “rigorous community consultation [although no mention of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent], including with tribal nations through government-to-government collaboration.” Additionally, the directive stresses the importance of decreasing the costs of collecting, sorting, transporting and processing recycled Lithium-ion batteries (LiBs), and expanding the scope of a second-use market. 

Unfortunately, the report also plays on nationalistic rhetoric, a counterproductive and common trend in mineral policy supply chain debates, which we discuss at length in our recently-published report Just Minerals. This narrative encourages mining more places, including some of the most sacred or otherwise treasured, with less government oversight, in order to reduce the country’s reliance—what some people call a vulnerability—on China for transition minerals. This approach will neither help us solve the climate crisis nor help us source from secure and responsible supply chains, and it only serves the mining industry and those that benefit from international conflicts. As Save the Children UK Chief Executive Kevin Watkins recently wrote in The Guardian, “Constructive engagement with China is critical to transition mineral governance. The Biden administration’s drift towards a geopolitical natural resource nationalism setting western countries against Beijing is as short-sighted as it is futile.”

International collaboration, rather than myopic geopolitical posturing is what the world needs to ensure a just, equitable and successful transition. Equally important is a fundamental restructuring of resource distribution and access, especially that of renewable energy. In that spirit, we look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration towards a more circular transition minerals economy, while ensuring that they uphold the best social and environmental standards for any new mining.