Nickel is a vital material for electric car batteries, which makes it an obvious item for a list of priority minerals.
And yet nickel is still awaiting the official stamp of approval as being critical enough to be added to the list.
The United States last year added nickel, along with zinc, to its official list of 50 mineral commodities deemed critical to its economy and national security.
Andrew Penkethman, CEO of nickel explorer Ardea Resources, says he's surprised it's taking so long for Australia to follow suit, after key allies the US, Japan and Canada all classified nickel as a critical mineral.
"I think Geoscience Australia will likely make this recommendation later this year," the mining executive and geologist told AAP.
Battery minerals such as nickel are essential for mobile phones, computers and sophisticated defence technology as well as electrification of the transport systems and heavy industry.
Ardea is sitting on a globally significant resource at the Kalgoorlie Nickel Project, located north of the mining city of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the heart of Western Australia's goldfields.
Officials and analysts will tour the project in August when the city will be inundated with the annual throng of mining bosses, analysts and equipment firms touting the latest gadgets at the Diggers and Dealers mining conference.
Mr Penkethman said the critical minerals strategy released by federal Resources Minister Madeleine King is a "step in the right direction", although some of his mining peers have dismissed it as a dud.
He's urged the federal government to play a greater role, particularly in projects held by junior companies, through mechanisms such as tax incentives and access to long-term cheap debt.
The industry also wants practical measures, including faster approvals and less duplication amongst federal and state bureaucracies, to attract international investors to Australia instead of potential mines in Africa or the Americas.
According to Ardea, the nickel project offers a secure and ethical supply of top quality battery-grade nickel and cobalt to feed the electric vehicle and battery storage revolution for decades to come.
"It's time for Australia and key allies to deliver on critical minerals strategy to guarantee projects such as Ardea's Kalgoorlie Nickel Project Goongarrie Hub are developed," he said.
This would guarantee supply chain diversity and sufficient mineral supply to meet the needs of modern societies making the energy transition.
"This is where I hope the Australian federal government's National Reconstruction Fund can play a leading role, working with groups such as EFA (Export Finance Australia) and the CEFC (Clean Energy Finance Corporation), to guarantee the essential capital for project development," he said.
Shared infrastructure such as energy transmission and rail lines will also be crucial, along with financial modelling that suits mines running for half a century.
Mr Penkethman said projects that operate for more than 40 years can generate immense earnings beyond "project pay back", but this factor isn't captured in conventional financial models, which means the underlying strategic value is often lost.
The payback period refers to the amount of time it would take to recover the cost of developing a project, or reach break-even.
"This is where, I believe, some other nations have been ahead of Australia as they have been making long-term strategic investment decisions on critical minerals," he said.
Industry bodies have called for Australia's list to be regularly updated, to reflect a rapidly changing economy and make sure investors have the certainty they need to invest.
A leading security think tank has called for the federal government to refine its 2022 critical minerals list to better reflect strategic issues rather than primarily commercial factors.
"Australia's critical minerals mandate remains heavily skewed by export partners' needs," the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says.
Modern weapons systems, as well as wind turbines and batteries, are dependent on critical minerals and rare earth minerals.
Based on US Geological Survey data, Australia far exceeds all other countries in battery mineral reserves, although China has the stranglehold on factory-ready supplies.
The US (13th) and Canada (14th) are the next best-positioned partners within the inner circle of Western security partners.
The ASPI report argues Australia's AUKUS partnership should be used to crush China's dominance in purified critical minerals.
Northern Australia has a key role to play, along with WA's globally superior reserves and mining expertise, according to co-authors former defence minister Kim Beazley and analyst Ben Halton.
"Australia's critical minerals mandate remains heavily skewed by export partners' needs," their report found.
WA is home to Iluka Resources' enormous Eneabba rare-earth stockpiles and the state's other critical minerals could meet the entire needs of some nations.
But because Australia largely exports raw rock it gains relatively little compared to the "almost incalculable economic and strategic benefit" reaped by customers, ASPI says.
Australia has been an exporter rather than a consumer of critical minerals for years but does depend on some that aren't on the list.
For example, Geoscience Australia has identified phosphates and potash as crucial for agricultural production. But they're not on the official list either.
Ms King released the government's long-awaited critical minerals strategy last week, citing the need to get more value out of the production and processing of the country's resources.
But it contained no new funding for building a sovereign capability to support future Australian-made batteries to power the world's electric cars.
An updated list of critical minerals is still pending, although the strategy promises a "process" to do so.
"The process for updating the critical minerals list will begin immediately and will include a range of analysis and targeted stakeholder consultation," a spokeswoman for the Resources Minister told AAP.
The intention is to update the list "in a timely manner," she added.
Australian Associated Press
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