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When it comes to the subject of this hearing, we can all agree that whatever we do, especially when we use scarce public resources (tax dollars and natural endowments), we would like outcomes to be a net improvement. I am to speaking to the role of critical minerals and the challenges associated with energy transitions along with consequences such as import dependency and the cluster of environment, social and governance (ESG) considerations. In my view, with regard to security and ESG, we need to look broadly across the energy landscape to ensure that “new energies” do not compromise gains achieved around legacy systems.
I can contribute several observations drawn from my written testimony.
- First, minerals and materials “criticality” is in the eyes of the beholder. Criticality has many connotations. One is minerals occurrence – the distribution of natural resource endowments, with what types of geologies, with what relative abundance and proximity to markets, among other things. Between 1984 and 2018, for the global economy that was in place pre-pandemic, total tonnage output of non-fuel minerals increased more than 2.5 times. We know that demand will increase for alternative energy applications and that material requirements will be higher (a logical function of lower energy densities). The challenge is not just gross tonnage but also quality. For high performance end uses and applications, the quality of raw materials matters a great deal. A significant hurdle is access for development. Ownership, terms and conditions for exploitation, economic development and industrial infrastructure to support mining and minerals processing – a number of factors impact timing and cost to deliver raw and intermediate materials that we rely upon for every aspect of life.
- In 2018, the U.S. constituted 12 percent of global non-fuel minerals production. We are tracking 41 minerals that are essential to both legacy and alternative energy technologies and systems including new battery chemistries and designs for improved energy storage and release, advanced solar, hydrogen fuel cells and wind. We are not the dominant producer of any of the 41 minerals on our watch list, and we are among the top 10 producers for only a few (mainly basic metals). Ranking does not matter given that we are a large consumer and thus demand more than our domestic supply chains can serve.
- Work by the USGS NMIC, published earlier this year, provides at least one version of criticality by devising risk factors for 52 minerals of interest. Of these, 39 rank high for supply risk and import dependence,
- Second, any conversation about energy choices should include security, for our nation, energy system and economy. Again, “security” can take many meanings. How we define security and the many complex interactions can influence attention to risks, uncertainties, mitigation and solutions.
- Economic security can entail mitigation of price risk. In recent years, energy and non-fuel minerals commodities prices have converged, for many reasons but mainly because of interdependence – minerals are key inputs for energy production, from any technology and source, and energy is a key input for minerals production and processing. Both are vital for economic performance and linked to gross domestic product (GDP). Pressure on minerals prices impacts on the cost and affordability of energy, and vice versa.
- Supply chain security is subject to myriad risks and uncertainties, about which we have been learning a great deal. Any industrial activity, including the provision of consumer products, involves many linked business segments. Requirements include supply of raw materials, shipping, transformation, distribution and end use. Numerous sources of risk and uncertainty, including natural hazards and “acts of God” can create supply chain disruptions. Supply chains for energy and minerals are large and dominate bulk shipping. For example, already, global shipments of lithium battery products for all end uses rival global shipments of traditional fuels in geographic extent. Behind global shipments of lithium batteries are global shipments of all of the raw material battery inputs. Supply chains for batteries and other components will continue to grow and increase in reach and complexity.
- A third is environmental security. We also are concerned about supply chains to support end of life decommissioning, recycling and disposal and all of these entail ESG risks and uncertainties. For instance, we know a great deal about waste, capture, recycling and disposal in established energy systems. We know relatively little about waste in the alternative energy streams and concerns are growing about end of life treatment of alternative energy components. We believe that we can recapture and reuse battery materials but currently less than five percent of lithium battery product is recycled. These functions and their associated supply chains are opaque and not well documented. We know that “e-waste” is growing, probably exponentially, and we know that global e-waste shipments and supply chains are expanding rapidly.
- If we add “climate” to environmental security, then we introduce a great deal more complexity. All industries, businesses, governments and even households are beginning to attempt to assess emissions. Emissions associated with life cycle processes for batteries and alternative energy applications are extremely difficult to ascertain. For example, global lithium battery manufacturing, including for electric vehicles (EVs), stands at roughly 740 gigawatt hours (GWh). Nearly 80 percent of this capacity resides in China, supported by nearly 3,000 coal-fired power plants, the backbone of China’s electric power grid. This means a potential output of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that nearly equals all of those associated with the U.S. domestic oil and gas systems, based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. We are starting to think about sulfur hexafluoride or SF6, an insulator for electric power switchgear. SF6 is a small contributor to global emissions but has stronger thermal properties and is expected to increase considerably with electrification.
- Geopolitical security risk and uncertainty are prevalent across supply chains, including international sourcing and trade. We have geopolitical uncertainty within North America and political uncertainty across the states, a reflection of varying attitudes, laws and regulations. We have long experience with import dependency, and we are experiencing a reprieve for petroleum and natural gas. Given that our import dependence is high for both raw materials and alternative energy components (such as wind turbines and motors, solar photovoltaics or PV, and batteries for energy storage), a distinct tradeoff of a rapid shift away from our legacy energy systems is exposure to import dependency and associated geopolitical insecurities.
- Third, there is growing attention to ESG risks specific to mining and minerals processing. Mining and minerals processing are, and can be, conducted safely and soundly with best practice and enforcement.
- Many countries have “informal mining” sectors where best practice and safety are limited, at best. Some governments are moving to “formalize” their artisanal miners with notable examples in Chile and Democratic Republic of Congo. Exposure for multinational mining companies is yet to be determined.
- International capacity for integrity and operating assurance need to expand. After the Vale tailings dam failure in Brazil, a distinct comment was that only 16 engineering groups worldwide are certified for tailings dam audits
- Communities, especially indigenous groups, are a focus for risk and uncertainty assessment and mitigation. Many existing, new and frontier minerals projects are and will be located in or proximal to indigenous lands and communities. In the U.S., we have many hard lessons from permitting and licensing that can be vetted. Achieving “social license” is demanding and even the most diligent efforts are not always successful.
With colleagues at Missouri Science & Technology, we contributed a policy brief for the upcoming G20 meeting. That brief focused on mining and minerals for energy transition with five recommendations that I will share in closing.
- Include non-fuel minerals in G20 discussions.
- G20 members should fund research to develop a uniform mineral criticality index.
- G20 member states should commit to promote transparency of critical minerals.
- G20 members should engage relevant multilateral agencies to foster technical collaborations.
- G20 members should commit to share best practices for extraction and recovery of critical minerals (an example is the Energy Resource Governance Initiative).
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