WASHINGTON (CN) – Inescapably – and in the face of a rapidly warming planet – the transition from a fossil fuel-based world to one that relies primarily on renewable energy must also involve greater investment in the mining of rare earth minerals, experts told Congress Tuesday.
Silver, copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, zinc, indium, praseodymium, terbium, neodymium – all are essential to creating devices relied upon in everyday life, from magnets to medical equipment to the cell phone or computer you are reading this from right now. But many of those minerals are also key building blocks in the manufacture of green technology such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric batteries.
The U.S. does not yet have an international lock on rare mineral mines. In fact, it has fallen drastically behind nations like China, which has steadily expanded operations for years throughout Asia and Africa, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just last month, a joint drilling venture between China, Canada and the Congolese government unearthed the highest grade of copper ever discovered in what speculators believe could also be one of the world’s largest-ever copper mines. That mine, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, could produce over 700,000 tons of the high grade material annually, according to Ivanhoe Mines Limited.
Yet another mine, South Africa’s Bushveld Complex, houses the world’s largest amount of platinum-based minerals, all of which are key to producing catalytic converters that help reduce carbon emissions in vehicles the world over.
During her testimony Tuesday, Allison Carlson, senior vice president of the think tank Foreign Policy Analytics, warned members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that China is not only moving full steam ahead on mining operations in Africa but is also poised to dominate the mining of graphite, yet another key component in the construction of electric batteries.
“Ninety percent of the lithium in Chile, Argentina and Australia – China has already acquired equity stakes in local resources and is financing developers as well. Chinese firms have expanded their presence so much that they control 59% of the world’s lithium resources through equity stakes,” Carlson said.
The rush for nations to claim premier spots atop the world’s mineral mine supply chain will only intensify as climate change continues to ramp up temperatures around the world, according to a 2017 report by the World Bank.
The report forecasted that demand for minerals would grow more than 1,000% if the world’s temperatures shift upward by just another two degrees.
This factor, committee chairwoman Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Tuesday, makes clear that the U.S. should take a “holistic approach” to rare mineral mining, permitting and planning in the not-so-distant future.
In moments of rare bipartisanship Tuesday, several Democrats on the committee, such as Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, agreed with Republicans who made full throated calls to expedite U.S. involvement in rare mineral mining.
“Mining can be done with environmental regulations in place,” Cortez Masto emphasized. “When it comes to critical minerals extracting, processing, recycling… now is our call to action.”
Committee members also reached a consensus on another crucial item they collectively argue will both spur and regulate the mineral mining industry: updating the General Mining Act of 1872.
The legislation has not been modified since its inception 147 years ago. A modernized version would feature rules around environmental protections and, potentially, may even include assurances of royalty payments for Americans when federal hard rock minerals are sourced.
Though Daniel Simmons – a one-time lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry tapped by President Donald Trump last year to lead the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – offered a hearty endorsement for expanding mineral development, he was less confident under direct questioning by Democrats who argued they could not reconcile his department’s enthusiasm in light of a slashed budget for 2020.
“You describe serious concerns about U.S. strategic vulnerabilities. The administration says it believes Department of Energy should promote research and development across the board, but the budget doesn’t reflect that. There’s an 85% cut to your office, a 24% cut to fossil fuel research and development, a 178% cut to advance research projects and there’s a 16% cut to the Office of Science, which you have testified is critical to this progress,” Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said.
Simmons said he would take the senator’s concerns under review.
Robert Kang, CEO of Blue Whale Materials LLC, which recycles lithium battery devices, encouraged lawmakers to take action to increase the collection of spent batteries as a stop-gap to slow U.S. mining development.
The U.S. currently collects less than 5% of all spent batteries, whereas Europe collects 40% or more.
“Today we ship most collected lithium batteries to China, South Korea and Europe. Increasing U.S. processing capacity would allow the U.S. to control the flow of metals earlier in the supply chain,” Kang said.
California and Maryland are already seeking proposals for lithium recycling plants that could serve as models for the federal government to adopt later, Kang added.
“Anywhere from 20 to 30% of the world’s mineral needs could be met by recycling. That’s not insignificant. We could gather revenue from the waste stream. One of the next new mines of the future may be urban cities. We have this material locked away in our drawers. We need to promote collection,” Kang said.
Some foreign companies have already spotted an opening in the American market. According to Kang, Korean and Canadian companies have already proposed setting up recycling facilities in the U.S. and China, he testified, is poised to do the same.