G. Ivan Maldonado
As the world’s Western powers struggle with the huge scale of minerals and metals needed to ramp up production of clean-energy technologies, they have turned increasingly to resource-rich countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Recently, for example, the Biden administration floated the idea of providing financial assistance to developing countries that want to open new mines and mineral processing facilities. Under Secretary of State Jose W. Fernandez says the administration is considering financing “around a dozen” mining projects around the world. The money would be provided by the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Development Finance Corporation, and distributed by the Mineral Security Partnership, a Biden program leveraging international relations to address U.S. supply concerns.
Our reliance on imported minerals and metals is at record levels. One of the primary reasons is the growing need for raw materials required to build batteries for electric cars and the nation’s electricity transmission system. A typical electric car requires six times as much minerals and metals as an internal combustion car. An offshore wind turbine requires the input of 1,300 pounds of rare earth minerals plus thousands of pounds of metals. But the United States has just one rare earth mine. Most of our needs for critically important minerals and metals are met by imports.
Despite abundant domestic resources, we’re import-dependent on 47 minerals and 100% reliant on imports for 17 of them.
Hear more Tennessee voices:Get the weekly opinion newsletter for insightful and thought-provoking columns.
With climate action driving the transition to clean energy technologies, the global consumption of minerals and metals is skyrocketing. The International Energy Agency expects demand for minerals and metals to rise six-fold by 2040.
What’s worrisome is that some of our key foreign suppliers could establish a mineral cartel and cut off shipments for geopolitical reasons. The reality is that two-thirds of the minerals and metals we import come from adversaries like China and Russia, and there are indications the global trade war is shifting from fossil fuels to metals.
China dominates processing, and to a lesser extent, mining of many critical raw materials. It processes 58% of global lithium, 65% of cobalt and over one-third of nickel and copper. Russia is also a major exporter of nickel, palladium, cobalt and aluminum, and Russia and two of its closest allies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both former Soviet states, supply about 50% of the uranium fuel used at U.S. nuclear power plants, which alone should be alarming on the basis of energy security.
We can’t overlook our own country’s myopic neglect of our own vast mineral resources, estimated to be the largest in the world and worth more than $6 trillion. If not for a shortage of minerals and metals for electric vehicle batteries – and inflated prices for some metals like lithium, which rose 1,500% over the past 18 months – growth of EV sales in recent years would have been higher.
Just to meet the escalating demand for minerals will require every possible response. Reducing China’s dominance in minerals and metals processing is the key to a cleaner economy. This could be achieved by increasing mineral imports from trustworthy countries and more mining and processing in the United States. In fact, Congress has passed legislation to subsidize domestic mining of crucial minerals and metals, and the recently passed climate bill prohibits a tax credit for purchase of an EV unless the EV battery was built in the U.S. using minerals and metals from domestic mines or mines in neighboring or friendly countries. Also, President Joe Biden has expanded the list of products eligible for financial assistance under the Defense Production Act to include mining and processing of battery minerals and metals.
But Congress has yet to adopt a fast-track process for licensing new mines that would demonstrate its commitment to mineral security and provide the regulatory stability that investors need to start building them. The notion of refusing to improve the licensing process, when responsible progress is being made, serves no useful purpose. This is the reality that Biden and Congress need to recognize even as we attempt to build new supply chains for vital minerals and metals in the U.S. and overseas.
Dr. G. Ivan Maldonado is a professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee.
Leave a Comment