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Tesla’s Lithium Lead at Risk as Rivals Make Supply Deals

Ford and GM are financing miners of key metals, something Elon Musk has declined to do.

Mining lithium in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Mining lithium in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Photographer: Getty Images Agency/Anadolu

For years, only one customer mattered in the market for lithium and other metals used in electric vehicle batteries: Tesla Inc. The prospect that a new mine might end up feeding Elon Musk’s automaker was enough to convince cautious lenders to finance a project or persuade investors that untested operations had a shot at meeting aggressive sales projections. And as the biggest buyer in a sector filled with startup miners, Tesla wielded unusual power to dictate terms, typically locking in long-term supply deals at fixed prices.

An aggressive push into electric vehicles by legacy car manufacturers, and worries over tight markets for lithium and other key materials such as nickel and graphite, is upending those dynamics. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have roiled the industry by striking generous pacts with prospective suppliers that include commitments to pay upfront for future deliveries or offer cheap loans to build new mines.