American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Turning the Same Stone Twice: Governments, Miners Turn to Mine Tailings to Bolster Critical Mineral Supply Chains

    In their quest to secure critical mineral supply chains against the backdrop of surging demand and rising geopolitical pressures, stakeholders are leaving no stone unturned – quite literally — and have in fact begun turning the same stone twice.

    As Australia’s Financial Post reports, the Australian government has completed a mapping project of sites containing mine waste with reprocessing potential.

    The Atlas of Australian Mine Waste was launched this week by Geoscience Australia in partnership with RMIT University, the University of Queensland, as well as geological surveys across the country.

    As Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Madeleine King stated“[s]ome of the minerals we need now, and into the future, may not just be in the ground—they’re also in rock piles and tailings on mine sites around the country.”

    She added:

    “These minerals might not have been of interest when first extracted but could now be in hot demand as the world seeks to decarbonize—for example, cobalt in the tailings of old copper mines.”

    Acknowledging the potential held by mine waste and tailings, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) earlier this spring solicited proposals for FY2023 grants to collect data on mine waste, using funds from Bipartisan Infrastructure Act in the context of the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI).

    Earth MRI provides more than $74 million in new mapping funding each year to “modernize our understanding of the Nation’s fundamental geologic framework and improve knowledge of domestic critical-mineral resources both still in the ground and in mine waste.”

    As announced this May, more than $5.8 million will go towards mapping critical-mineral resources in Alaska in partnership with the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys. Minerals included in the context of USGS and the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Survey research projects Alaska are: Arsenic, antimony, bismuth, cobalt, graphite, indium, platinum group metals, rare earth elements tantalum, tellurium and tin.

    Miners have long realized the potential of reprocessing tailings, and have already “made a business out of reprocessing old mine waste to extract metal, as part of a mine remediation process,” as the Financial Post reports.  Many efforts have sprung up in recent years, and we’re featuring a few examples below:

    In Australia, New Century Resources currently owns and runs the largest tailings retreatment operation at its zinc tailings retreatment operation in Queensland.

    In the rare earths realm, Reuters lists six major projects outside of China aimed at extracting the critical minerals from waste or byproducts, including Iluka Resources Ltd’s and VHM Ltd’s operations in Australia, Rainbow Rare Earths Ltd’s endeavor in northeast South Africa, Swedish state-owned LKAB’s plans to extract REEs from two existing mines, and two U.S. operations:

    Phoenix Tailings, a privately held U.S. company plans to launch operations using waste materials from a former iron ore mine in New York using its own processing technology.

    U.S. Energy Fuels, originally focused on uranium production, started acquiring monazite, a byproduct of mineral sands, to extract REEs with plans to open its own separation plant by 2024.

    Global miner Rio Tinto began producing tellurium at its Kennecott copper operation in Utah, where roughly 20 tons of the material are generated from by-product streams generated during the copper refining process. As America’s oldest copper mine, now in its 117th year of operations, there’s no telling how many critical minerals may reside in Kennecott’s historic waste piles.

    In addition to recovering tellurium from Kennecott, after commencing production of battery-grade lithium from waste rock at a lithium demonstration site at its Boron mine site in California in 2021, the company last fall began partnering with CR Minerals Co. LLC in an effort to extract a material called pozzolans from the facility’s tailings, which can be substituted for or combined with cement to decarbonization construction materials. Meanwhile, in Canada, the miner is producing scandium from titanium waste, becoming the first North American producer of scandium in the process.

    As the materials science revolution marches on and continues to unlock new technologies allowing for the safe and commercially viable recovery of mine waste tailings, harnessing this – to date largely untapped — potential could play a significant role in a comprehensive “all-of-the-above” approach to bolstering critical mineral supply chains.

  • Has the Green Energy Transition Ushered in a New Commodity Supercycle?

    If history holds one important lesson for us, it’s that most things in life are cyclical.

    Low tide and high tide, ups and downs, times of war, times of peace.  What holds true on a personal level, also applies to bigger fields like economics.

    As value investor and author Howard Marks phrased it:

    “Mechanical things can go in a straight line. Time moves ahead continuously. So can a machine when it’s adequately powered. But processes in fields like history and economics involve people, and when people are involved, the results are variable and cyclical.” 

    Commodity markets are a case in point.   As Wells Fargo Head of Real Asset Strategy John LaForge phrased it in a recent white paper“[c]ommodities typically move together like a big family, through long boom (bull markets) and bust (bear markets) cycles.”

    After a “brutal decade for commodities in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis,” in the wake of which “investors had all but abandoned the asset class in favor of equities,”, as Rick Mills writes for Ahead Of The Heard,  it appears that we find ourselves at the beginning of what experts call a commodity supercycle (defined by Bank of Canada as an “extended period during which commodity prices are well above their long run trend) – a phase predicted by analysts for several years.

    Writes Bruno Venditti for Visual Capitalist:

    “In recent years, commodity prices have reached a 50-year low relative to overall equity markets (S&P 500). Historically, lows in the ratio of commodities to equities have corresponded with the beginning of new commodity supercycles.”

    Not surprisingly, Visual Capitalist has put together a handy chart and provides some useful context:

    Image 5-9-23 at 10.40 AM

    Wells Fargo’s LaForge believes that we have already entered a new commodity supercycle that started in 2020, and with these cycles typically lasting a decade or longer, we are merely in the “third inning.”

    However, while, as Mills points out, “all supercycles have three indicators in common – a surge in supply, a surge in demand, and a surge in price” – this new commodity supercycle could “look a bit different from the previous ones for one simple reason – an increased focus on climate change.”

    As JP Morgan writes“climate change policies may lead to the largest peacetime redeployment of investment and capital,” with demand for critical minerals, especially the battery criticals lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt and manganese, as well as others underpinning the green energy shift like copper and the rare earths surging to unprecedented heights.

    Analysts for metals retailer and commodities media organization KITCO believe that “while overall market conditions in critical metals remain volatile, the long-term fundamental drivers are strong.”

    They add:

    “Governments and corporations continue to ramp up large-scale investments in critical metals like lithium, uranium, copper and nickel, with the goal of onshoring the primary components of energy transition infrastructure and securing a resilient and sustainable supply chain. This considerable task — the reversal of the movement over the past three decades to increase globalization and offshoring to low-cost producers and supply sources — is in its early stages today. But despite its nascency, this powerful trend will have considerable consequences for commodities, capital markets and inflation.”

    Bumps are to be expected, but the trajectory for now, is expected to be a longer upward trend.

    How do U.S. and our allies’ mineral resource stakeholders in the United States fit into this supercycle?

    Mills does not mince words:

    “Here in the West, it isn’t only that we have failed to maintain mining and oil investments. We have also put roadblocks in the way of mining, such as the lengthy permitting process in North America. In Canada we’ve let interest groups hostile to corporations dictate resource policy.

    We haven’t built the necessary infrastructure, either. (…)

    All of these factors are limits to growth.”

    He does see a silver lining, however, in the fact that “North Americans are finally starting to realize that to have security of supply, we need to develop our own mineral deposits.”

    He concludes:

    “The first step is recognizing that we have these metals, we do not need to purchase them from China, the DRC, Russia or any other foreign producer, we can mine and refine them right here.

    Next is upping our exploration game — and nobody is better at it than Canadian junior resource companies — so that we can find and develop the deposits that will become the world’s next mines.”

  • The Pitfalls of Decoupling – A Look at Europe’s REE Supply Chain Push

    The coronavirus pandemic and associated supply shocks, surging demand for critical minerals against the backdrop of an accelerating global push to net zero carbon emissions, as well as rising geopolitical tensions on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the looming tech war between China and the West have catapulted the issue of securing [...]
  • As Biden Administration Doubles Down on EV Adoption Push, U.S. Must Double Down on Comprehensive “All-of-the-Above” Critical Minerals Strategy

    The Biden Administration has announced the “most aggressive” plan to curb tailpipe emissions to date, with new vehicle pollution standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and announced by the White House last week. If finalized, the proposed rules would require automakers to reduce carbon emissions by 56% in their 2032 models compared to 2026 models.  The expectation is [...]
  • Nature Magazine Column Calls on U.S. to “Embrace Tough Trade-Offs” and “Get Serious” About Domestic Mining to Support Green Energy Shift

    The time has come for the United States to get “serious about mining critical minerals for green energy,” writes Saleem H. Ali for Nature. Ali points to the inherent irony of the green energy transition — renewable technologies requiring vast and increasing amounts of metals and minerals like lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese and REEs, but [...]
  • EU’s Answer to U.S. Inflation Reduction Act Creates New Critical Mineral Category

    As ARPN outlined earlier this week, the European Union has dropped its response to the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act passed last summer: the just-dropped Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) paired with sister legislation, the Net Zero Industry Act (NZIA), which aims to support investment in manufacturing capacity in ‘net zero emissions’ technologies in Europe. The CRMA not only seeks to streamline [...]
  • EU Critical Mineral Supply Chain Action Plan Focuses on Permitting, Adds Copper and Nickel to List of Critical Raw Materials

    With demand for critical minerals projected to increase dramatically against the backdrop of geopolitical tension and strained supply chains, the European Union has released its long-awaited action plan to “ensure the EU’s access to a secure, diversified, affordable and sustainable supply of critical raw materials.” The Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) presented to lawmakers in Brussels on March [...]
  • Critical in Spite of “Relatively Benign Supply Profile?” A Look at Nickel

    When it comes to the metals and minerals underpinning the green energy transition, and specifically the EV battery revolution, much of the spotlight has fallen on lithium — and for good reason, as we will discuss in a forthcoming post.  However, as ARPN’s latest review of the “battery criticals” against the backdrop of the just-released latest iteration of [...]
  • Bolstering the Domestic Supply Chain for “Battery Criticals” – A Look at Cobalt

     In this post, we continue our review of the “battery criticals” (lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese) against the backdrop of the just-released 2023 iteration of the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries.  Next up:  cobalt. With the material accounting for up to 20% of the weight of the cathode in a typical lithium-ion EV battery, cobalt was considered the highest [...]
  • As Critical Mineral Dependencies Persist, Promising “Battery Criticals” Projects Provide Opportunity to Ensure that “the Supply Chain for America Begins in America” – A Look at Graphite

     For all the talk about reducing our over-reliance on foreign critical mineral resources against the backdrop of soaring demand, strained supply chains and increasing geopolitical tensions, last week’s release of the annual USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries report still paints a sobering picture. While the number of metals and minerals for which the U.S. remains 100% import dependent [...]