The Mining of Critical Minerals Makes Electrification and Renewable Energy Possible.
The US grid is transitioning from coal to renewables: 10 states have passed legislation to move to 100% clean electricity and many cities are migrating to 100% electric public transit. 24 states plus the District of Colombia have set economy-wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) targets and twelve of those are implementing Carbon Pricing programs designed to reduce emissions. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aims to reduce GHG emissions and facilitate the expansion of renewable energy with the largest set of investments in U.S. history.
The grid transition requires extensive transmission capacity improvements and will increase demand for battery energy storage systems. The battery storage systems are manufactured from metals and minerals including lithium, nickel, graphite, lead, and cobalt. The electrical transmission infrastructure relies mostly on copper. Converting the grid to renewable energy requires mining these critical minerals.
National Security and Economic Advantages to Mining in The U.S.
Critical minerals are used across many sectors, including the development of nuclear energy and defense technologies. The U.S. relies on foreign suppliers of these metals and domestic output is largely sold abroad. For example, America’s only working rare earth mine, Mountain Pass, has been selling its full production to China.
Foreign producers can curtail production (or limit exports) to increase prices, raw materials can be stockpiled at peak demand, or trading can cease completely. Each of these scenarios have occurred in the last 10 years, including presently, as evidenced by China’s rare earth element export controls and Russia’s restriction of noble gasses used to produce semiconductors.
China’s Export Control Law allows China to reciprocate against countries that are perceived as a threat to Chinese national security. With China supplying 80% of US rare earth imports from 2014-2017, the withholding of rare earths could be a hardship to the U.S.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in tariffs and sanctions, such as the EU’s current sanctions on coal, oil, wood, rubber and cement. These tariffs and sanctions may extend into metals if the conflict continues to grow. Before the war, Ukraine supplied 70% of global semiconductor grade neon (90% of the US supply). As that supply is increasingly unavailable, China has the largest and newest production capacity to fill the supply gap
China also refines 40% of the world’s copper, followed by Chile and the DRC. The largest copper producers (Chile and Peru at a combined 37% of the global market) are expected to fall short of forecasts this year due to protests, strikes and ongoing labor disputes. Chile and Peru are followed by Russia in total copper reserves. Russia plans to double its annual output through expansions and new projects to 2mn tons by 2030. This would allow Russia to surpass China, the DRC and the United States as the third largest producer of copper globally. The growth of metal processing and refining in Russia and China may not benefit Western markets if geopolitical disputes continue on the current trajectory.
The U.S. has the domestic mineral resources to be a global supplier in many commodity classes and to reduce reliance on foreign producers. National defense and economic independence are strengthened by establishing domestic critical mineral supply chains.
Safety and Environmental Responsibility are Actively Regulated in the U.S.
Mines are often developed in the least expensive jurisdictions globally. These countries can usually support a quick development; however, the cost may be a compromised ability to uphold human rights and environmental policies. Conversely, U.S. produced critical minerals have some of the highest standards of regulation, inspection, and enforcement in the world due to the demonstrated oversight framework that avoids many of the human rights and environmental issues that occurred in industrialized nations and are still present in parts of the developing world.
The regulations and inspection systems in the U.S. support worker health and enhance environmental stewardship. For example, mines in industrialized nations have 90 times less workplace fatalities compared to small-scale mines in developing countries. There were 5 fatalities at U.S. coal mines in the year 2000 compared to 5,300 reported coal mine fatalities in China for the same year, where thousands more were likely concealed from authorities. Up to 40,000 children as young as 7 years old work in mines in the African country of Mali where mine pits often collapse and the use of (poisonous) mercury is unregulated. Additionally, 70% of the world’s cobalt supplies, the metal critical to the electric vehicle battery storage system, comes from the African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 30% of the DRC mines are unregulated and many employ children to hand-dig.
Encouraging responsible domestic production and provenance tracking of critical minerals reassures customers, shareholders, investors, and citizens that the transition to a clean energy economy can be achieved with conflict-free raw materials.