The need to reduce foreign-sourced mining of essential minerals

February 15, 2023 3:00 am

Albemarle Corp. spokesman Marcelo Valdebenito holds a bottle of liquid lithium carbonate at a lithium mine on Aug. 24, 2022, in Salar de Atacama, Chile. Albemarle, based in Charlotte, N.C., is expanding mining operations there to meet the rising global demand for lithium carbonate, a main component in the manufacture of batteries, increasingly for electric vehicles. (John Moore/Getty Images)

How much longer can the United States rely on troubled countries in South America for two critically important metals — lithium and copper — which are essential for our national security and the transition to a green economy?

The answer is we really don’t know. But we need safeguards now because we’re in a precarious position. Chinese companies have bought some of the best mines in South America, highlighting the brittleness of our nation’s supply chains.

Four countries with histories of political volatility and instability — Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile — hold some of the world’s richest deposits of lithium and copper. Lithium is the key component of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and wind and solar power. Copper has multiple uses in weapons systems, consumer products and clean energy technologies.

Growing global demand for these battery metals has tightened the supply and increased the price of lithium and copper. While much of the mining is done in South America, Chinese companies send the raw minerals to China for processing before they’re sold on the international market. Today China controls more than half of global lithium production, having invested $4.2 billion in lithium mining operations in Argentina and Chile since 2017.

The unfortunate reality is that imports meet more than 50% of the U.S. consumption for 51 mineral commodities, and we’re 100% import dependent for 15 of those, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. More than half of the minerals and metals that the United States depends on for advanced technologies such as rare earths come from China. Half of the uranium used at U.S. nuclear power plants is imported from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The United States needs to address the lingering damage wrought by the long-term decline of mining in this country and the growing reliance on imported minerals and metals. Relying on copper imports is a particular concern because it is the metal of electrification and essential in the energy transition. The World Bank expects global copper demand to grow 1,000% by 2050. A study by S&P Global has warned that the challenge of meeting net zero carbon emissions by then will remain out of reach unless significant new copper supply comes online fairly soon.

Geologists say there is an abundance of lithium and copper beneath the ground in the U.S. Lithium deposits underlie Nevada, Maine and North Carolina, among other states.  Just one potential copper mine in Arizona could meet one-quarter of the nation’s needs for decades.

For years, the United States has depended on other countries for metals and minerals the nation could mine at home, if only potential investors were not discouraged by a permitting process that’s so loaded with red tape and duplicative federal and state requirements that it takes an average of 17 years from the idea for a new mine until it begins operating.

No question, it’s going to take major changes in our nation’s supply chains to achieve mineral security that doesn’t rely excessively on imports from adversaries or countries with entrenched political dysfunction. Now is the time for government action, with a focus on improving the U.S. mine permitting process in ways that would lead to creation of new mines in this country and less dependence on imports of battery metals.

Experts say the U.S has the resources, know-how and mining technology to ramp up production quickly. What we need is a national commitment. President Joe Biden and the new Congress must begin implementing a realistic plan for reshoring mining, one that recognizes that other countries like Canada and Australia with environmental standards comparable to our own issue mining permits in half the time it takes in the U.S. Unless we produce metals such as lithium and copper on a large scale, the United States will be increasingly import-dependent on battery minerals and metals from China and other distant and unreliable countries.

China has used its grip on vital minerals to pressure other countries, as in 2010 when China blocked exports of rare earths to Japan during a fishing trawler incident, sending global prices skyrocketing. And during tense trade negotiations, China threatened to block mineral exports to the United States.

Something else: China might decide to set aside more battery metals and minerals to meet its own needs for electric car production, rather than export the materials to the United States. This would create the likelihood of substantial increases in costs for U.S. auto manufacturers, if problems are allowed to get out of hand.

If we care about our heavy dependence on imports, if we care about protecting our society from serious economic disruptions, we must begin to take steps toward reducing our imports of battery metals and placing greater emphasis on mining here at home.

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Barry Butterfield
Barry Butterfield

Barry Butterfield is a civil engineer who worked in the public and private sector for over 40 years. He has done energy-related projects in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa and Connecticut. He also worked on two of Nebraska’s more controversial projects, including the Central Interstate Compact Low-Level Radioactive Waste facility near Butte, Nebraska, and the Keystone XL pipeline. He has also done extensive environmental analysis on freight rail projects in Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Kansas. He has published papers for the American Nuclear Society and Energy Research and Social Sciences, and is an emeritus member of the American Nuclear Society.