Fosters: OPINION: Another View: Keep competition for minerals from erupting into a conflict

Amid a growing need for materials deemed critically important in the production of a multitude of commercial products ranging from cell phones and laptops to flat televisions and batteries for electric vehicles, one of the enigmas is how the United States can ignore its growing dependence on imported minerals and metals.

Our country is 100 percent import-reliant on 18 minerals and metals considered “critical” by the defense or interior departments. And more than 50 percent reliant on many more minerals and metals. These materials are the key to the entire clean energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. With the production of more wind turbines and solar panels, competition between countries for scarce minerals and metals will become intense.

Despite the enormous stakes, nothing has been done to make America’s own minerals on public lands more accessible to mining companies. A badly flawed permitting process is the problem, requiring companies to wait seven to ten years or more to get government approval to mine on public lands. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, has introduced a bill with bipartisan support to expedite the licensing process. Should it succeed, American minerals mining would get a big boost.

On the other hand, if Congress decides to impose a royalty on minerals production, it would deal a devastating blow to the U.S. mining industry, and that can’t be allowed to happen. Companies would find it so expensive and onerous to operate in the U.S. that they would shift their mining operations to other countries. In that event, states would lose revenue and thousands of mining jobs.

The U.S. has an estimated $6.2 trillion in untapped mineral resources. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, we possess reserves of rare earth minerals of 1.4 million metric tons – more than enough to satisfy domestic consumption for the foreseeable future. China currently has a lock on the global supply of rare earths, which are needed for advanced military and commercial technologies.

Although mineral and metal resources are largely centered in the American West, our entire country stands to benefit from increased domestic production and less reliance on imported minerals.

Take copper, a key to the entire clean energy transition because it’s used in so many different technologies, but particularly EV batteries and wind turbines. Today the U.S. relies on other countries like Chile and Canada to meet one-third of its need for copper. But copper prices are rising because world demand for the metal keeps growing.

In a new analysis, the World Bank estimates that in the last 5,000 years, about 550 million tons of copper have been mined. It projects that the world will still need about that same amount of copper in the next 25 years to meet global demand for the commodity metal in the clean-energy transition.

As daunting as that challenge is, if the world follows through with its goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the clean energy transition will significantly increase demand for minerals across the board. According to the World Bank, by 2050 demand for lithium (EV batteries) will grow 965 percent, graphite by 383 percent, and nickel by 108 percent.

Two-tier pricing for some imported minerals is a problem. Because it’s the world’s dominant producer of rare earths and several other strategically important minerals needed for defense production, China has imposed export restrictions to limit foreign access to them. In some cases, its policy has led to two-tier pricing, in which manufacturers in China have been able to obtain minerals at lower prices than those charged for exports.

The best way to keep the competition for minerals from erupting into a conflict is for the United States to do what has served it so well for over a century: to offer a viable alternative based on increased domestic mining.

— V. K. Mathur, Ph.D., P.E.(Ret.), AIChE Fellow, is a professor emeritus, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of New Hampshire, Durham.

By:  V.K. Mathur
Source: Fosters