LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Elon Musk is giving his rivals the heavy metal blues. By securing 6,000 tonnes a year of cobalt directly from mining giant Glencore’s Democratic Republic of Congo operations, the Tesla boss is guaranteeing plentiful supplies of the battery ingredient while minimising headaches over its provenance. With China hoovering up more and more of the blue metal, he’s also putting the squeeze on electric vehicle competitors like General Motors and Volkswagen.
DRC should wield more power over the cobalt market than Saudi Arabia does over the oil one. Its south-eastern Katanga region is home to two-thirds of the metal’s available reserves. But DRC’s reputation for conflict and strife makes it risky and expensive to get at. Hence why Musk has always expressed a preference for engineering cobalt out of Tesla car batteries.
Securing a quarter of Glencore’s Katanga Copper Company’s cobalt, around 4% of world output, suggests that preference is still some way from reality. It’s nearly four times what Tesla used in 2019, according to consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. By focusing on the only non-Chinese cobalt miner in DRC, Musk is also minimising the risk of labour abuse exposés, especially when Covid-19 is hampering normal on-the-ground supply-chain auditing. Glencore’s more mechanised operations make it unlikely that cobalt from rocks dug out by DRC’s legions of pick-wielding informal miners, some of them children, finds its way into Tesla batteries. That’s less verifiable with smaller-scale Chinese producers.
Musk’s Western rivals will find it harder to find similar peace of mind, especially as Volkswagen, BMW and General Motors’ vehicle batteries all use more cobalt. This year, Glencore’s DRC mines will produce 26,000 tonnes of cobalt ore, about 18% of global supply. Chinese operators like China Molybdenum, will produce another 37%. Yet off-take agreements with miners like Glencore, which sends half its DRC cobalt ore to Chinese processors like Gem Jiangsu Cobalt Industries, mean that Chinese refineries control almost 70% of the world’s refined cobalt, according to BMI.
With Tesla and China tying up almost three-quarters of the world’s available supplies, there will be less for everybody else. The metal is currently fetching just $30,000 a tonne, a third of its 2018 peak, due largely to a glut of supply from DRC’s informal miners. As and when prices recover, Musk will be insulated.
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