The Human Bottleneck in Critical Mineral Supply Chains, Energy News, ET EnergyWorld
LONDON: The path to decarbonization will be paved with copper. As well as lithium, nickel, cobalt and a host of other minerals, all essential for electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels and wind farms.
Securing enough of these metals has become a major concern for many Western countries now looking to invest in green technology industries as the engine of a wider pandemic recovery.
The European Union currently imports all the refined lithium, platinum and silicon it needs to produce EVs, clean hydrogen and solar panels, respectively. It also obtains 98% of its rare earths from a single supplier – China.
“This is not sustainable,” Joaquim Nunes de Almeida, European Commission CEO for Internal Market and Industry, told the Cobalt Institute’s annual conference.
Access to raw materials has been identified as a major bottleneck for Europe’s green industrial strategy and the Commission “considers raw materials projects, including refining, to be strategic”, he said. declared.
There is a big problem, however.
The paradox of the Green Revolution is that public opinion is resolutely in favor of decarbonization but not of the mines and smelters necessary to achieve it.
Building a new mine in the United States is a difficult prospect. Ask Rio Tinto, which has been trying for more than a quarter of a century to get its Resolution copper mine in Arizona approved in the face of stiff opposition from Native Americans and environmentalists.
Arizona, it should be noted, has been a mining state since the late 19th century and has historically been the nation’s largest copper producer.
Even in these friendly jurisdictions, it becomes increasingly difficult to dig new mines, as the need for green metals meets green environmental resistance.
Opposition to mining is not just a problem of the developed world. The phenomenon is global, although no other country has yet followed El Salvador and banned it completely.
The industry has a habit of making headlines for all the wrong reasons, whether it’s children’s mining in Congo, tailings dam disasters in Brazil, or the destruction of ancient caves. in Australia.
His legacy is often, literally, toxic.
The United States lost its previous ascendancy in rare earths when the Mountain Pass mine in California closed in 2002. Low prices and Chinese competition have not been helped by federal and state fines for multiple oil spills. sewage, much of which was unreported at the time.
A history of poor environmental performance also explains why the United States does not have a dedicated copper refining facility for end-of-life waste.
The last, Chemetco in Illinois, closed in 2001 after being convicted of illegally discharging sewage through a hidden pipe in a tributary of the Mississippi.
As political momentum on both sides of the Atlantic moves towards a circular economy with recycling at its core, it is unclear how the growth in recyclable materials will be handled.
So-called urban mining faces as many headwinds as virgin mining when it comes to gaining public acceptance for new capabilities.
It is not difficult to understand why the political desire to restore the production of essential minerals meets popular resistance.
The European Commission plans to speed up the granting of mining permits but understands that community consent is the main obstacle. He intends to develop a code of responsible resourcing in order to win hearts and minds. But it will take time.
The Biden administration in the United States, torn between its divergent green credentials, appears to be moving away from domestic mines to allied countries with existing resource bases, like Canada and Australia.
The backlash from domestic policy is already accumulating, but, as the authors of a report by the American think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) point out, not automatically a danger or a vulnerability â. (âA US Strategy for Clean Energy Supply Chains,â May 2021).
The history of the energy market is full of examples of political diversification of supply, such as Europe’s close relationship with Norway as a hedge against exposure to Russian gas.
The goal is to establish links with suppliers who âcarry little or no geopolitical baggage,â according to CSIS. “Relying on Australia for lithium is not the same as relying on the Democratic Republic of the Congo for cobalt.”
COMPETITION WITH CHINA
China, which dominates the world’s supply of rare earths as well as the solar panel and lithium-ion battery sectors, is of course at the forefront of the green minerals debate.
Full decoupling from China, according to the SCRS, “is impossible today (and) in the future, it is improbable and probably costly.”
It took the United States nearly 50 years to achieve something close to the energy self-sufficiency that President Nixon first aimed for in 1973, despite his advantageous starting point of having immense natural resources.
Instead, Western countries should focus on where they can compete in certain parts of the green technology supply chain and accept a level of interdependence with China, the CSIS argues.
This is exactly what the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office is doing with projects ranging from mining lithium brine and recycling e-waste to designing new magnets without rare earth elements, according to Dr Mike McKittrick, also speaking at the Cobalt Institute meeting last week.
Digging more holes in the ground is only a small part of a much bigger picture of critical minerals and clean metals.
If Western countries cannot shake off their dependence on critical Chinese minerals, they should seek to manage this dependence in the same way the United States has handled its oil relationship with Saudi Arabia or Germany’s gas relationship. with Russia, suggests CSIS.
In the case of trade between the United States and China, there is mutual vulnerability to critical minerals and hydrocarbons, respectively.
This would allow for an explicit quid pro quo or even an agreement to isolate certain products from trade disputes, ensuring that critical minerals, rare earth metals and key technologies are insulated from broader trade tensions, according to the report. of CSIS.
Those who argue that the United States and Europe must completely relocate their mineral production is unlikely to please.
But it may be nothing more than a statement of fact until we collectively accept the need for more mines and metal factories somewhere near our backyards.