2022 surely was as fast-paced a year as they come.
Didn’t we just throw overboard our New Year’s Resolutions? We blinked, and it’s time for another review of what has happened in the past twelve months.
So with no further ado, here is ARPN’s annual attempt to take stock of what has happened on the critical mineral resources front in 2022 — to assess where we are, and, filled with hope for a New Year, where we are headed.
Early 2022 —
As Covid Pressures Fade, Geopolitical and National Security Concerns Mount, While the Global Push Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions Intensifies
Coming off two years of a global pandemic affecting virtually every aspect of our lives, the world was ready to take a collective deep breath.
The severity of the coronavirus strains had lessened, vaccines, therapeutics and treatment methods for Covid-19 became more readily available, many restrictions had been loosened or dropped, and global supply chains appeared to slowly recover and reorganize from the strain of lockdowns.
In the U.S. domestic critical minerals realm, against the backdrop of the accelerating global green energy transition, it appeared that stakeholders had learned their pandemic-induced lesson as the 2021 Biden Administration’s 100 Day Supply Chain report and subsequent policy statements pointed towards the adoption of an “all of the above” approach to mineral resource policy to strengthen North American supply chains and decouple from adversaries, and especially China. (see our 2021 Year in Review post for more)
However, any sense of collective relief was short-lived.
Only weeks into 2022, geopolitical tensions were rising fast with China and Russia declaring a “no limits” partnership in the face of what both nations perceived as “interference in the internal affairs” of other states by “some forces representing a minority on the world stage” which “continue to advocate unilateral approaches to resolving international problems and resort to military policy.”
Resource nationalism began rearing its head in the Southern Hemisphere, which, often overlooked in the policy discourse, is no less crucial in the global race for critical mineral resources and has emerged as a major source of renewable energy metals and minerals. Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, which form the so-called Lithium Triangle — home to more than half of the world’s known lithium reserves — were central to this new development, but other countries in the region, like Mexico, are also in the critical minerals business. Specific developments varied from country to country (for more on the issue click here), but in each case, the trend toward resource nationalism was unmistakable.
Against the backdrop of a global lithium market expected to grow by 500% in the next 35 years, developers in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and possibly Peru were even reportedly evaluating the possibility of creating an OPEC-like lithium cartel. While observers contended that it was “important not to confuse this resource nationalism with predictions of a highly ideological leftward turn,” the underlying implications for U.S. critical mineral resource supply chains as U.S. demand for lithium and other green energy critical materials continues to grow are not to be dismissed.
Meanwhile, countries around the globe forged ahead with their pursuit of net zero carbon emissions, with up to 20 countries to date having have announced phase-out bans on internal combustion engine car sales over the next 10 to 30 years.
But the watershed moment for 2022 was undoubtedly Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. While the ongoing war has serious implications for European energy supply, the ramifications of Russia’s actions stretch well beyond oil and natural gas, and well beyond Europe.
Russia’s war on Ukraine set off a potential realignment of critical mineral resource supply chains that warrants attention. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has largely isolated it on the global front both diplomatically and economically, and, with sweeping sanctions taking hold, the Western world has turned elsewhere to meet certain critical mineral needs previously supplied by Russian companies and halted shipments of materials to the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly for followers of ARPN, Russian buyers began turning to China to plug shortfalls.
As ARPN cautioned earlier this year:
“While to date, Beijing has walked a carefully calculated line on Russia’s war on Ukraine emphasizing its concern with violence while maintaining the need to respect territorial integrity and security interests of all parties, China stands to gain major strategic opportunities from filling the void left by a Western business pullout from the Russian market, both in terms of imports and exports. China will also be able to further its grip on global critical minerals via access to Russia’s vast mineral riches.”
By mid-March of 2022, a confluence of factors — pandemic-induced supply chain shocks, increasing resource nationalism in various parts of the world, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — had completely altered the Post-Cold War geopolitical landscape and mineral resource security calculus.
Critical Mineral Security = National Security. President Joe Biden Invokes Defense Production Act
Responding to the resulting growing pressures on critical mineral supply chains and skyrocketing demand scenarios, U.S. President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to encourage domestic production of the metals and minerals deemed critical for electric vehicle and large capacity batteries via Presidential Determination No. 2022-1.
The Presidential Determination instructs the Secretary of Defense to “create, maintain, protect, expand, or restore sustainable and responsible domestic production capabilities of such strategic and critical materials by supporting feasibility studies for mature mining, beneficiation, and value-added processing projects; by-product and co-product production at existing mining, mine waste reclamation, and other industrial facilities; mining, beneficiation, and value-added processing modernization to increase productivity, environmental sustainability, and workforce safety; and any other such activities authorized under section 303(a)(1) of the Act.”
Observers and stakeholders hoped that the presidential determination would “oil the wheels of domestic mining and refining” by “funding easy wins” and “low hanging fruit,” as Simon Moores, Managing Director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence phrased it, and set the stage for subsequent additional steps to support domestic mining and processing projects.
Mid 2022 –
A New Great Game?
Post-Cold War Realignment Spurs Domestic and Global Efforts to Strengthen Critical Mineral Supply Chains
Over the course of the following weeks and months, awareness of the importance of securing critical mineral supply chains and decoupling from adversaries, i.e. China, against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile geopolitical landscape and mounting environmental pressures continued to grow, not just domestically, but also amongst the United States’ key allies.
In the eyes of Globe and Mail (Canada) columnist Robert Muggah, the geopolitics of mineral resource supply had triggered a new “Great Game” - a term coined by British writer Rudyard Kipling to describe the “fierce competition between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, both of which sought to control South Asia and Africa” which “went on to shape geopolitics for much of the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Said new Great Game, according to Muggah, foreshadowed by the 2010 rare earths dispute between China and Japan, gained momentum with the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 which committed countries to significantly reduce greenhouse gases and transition to renewables, and prompted Western nations to rethink and reorganize their supply chains.
As director of the Payne Institute and professor of public policy at the Colorado School of Mines Morgan Bazilian, and postdoctoral fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University Gregory Brew suggest:
“Where the 20th century featured battles over access to oil, the 21st century will likely be defined by a struggle over critical minerals, particularly as the United States views China as a global competitor and strives to limit its reliance on Chinese supplies for EV manufacturing and a wide variety of energy and defense technologies.”
In July, the United States and allied countries announced the formation of a new cooperative initiative to bolster critical mineral supplies. The Minerals Security Partnership (MSP) comprises the United States, Canada, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the European Commission, and seeks to “ensure that critical minerals are produced, processed, and recycled in a manner that supports the ability of countries to realize the full economic development benefit of their geological endowments.”
Observers like Reuter’s Andy Home posited that the formation of the MSP might signify a post-Cold War “tectonic realignment with far-reaching implications” as it — against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine and mounting tension with China — is “defined as much as anything by who is not on the invite list — China and Russia.” Arguing that a “previously highly globalized minerals supply network looks set to split into politically polarized spheres of influence” he suggested that a “metallic NATO [was] starting to take shape, though no-one [was] calling it that just yet.”
U.S. Congress “Net-Zeroes” in on Critical Mineral Supply Chains, Passes Inflation Reduction Act
In August of 2022, the U.S. Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes combined investments of $369 billion aimed at reducing carbon emissions by roughly 40% by the end of this decade.
A swath of significant clean energy tax credits aims at increasing domestic energy production while at the same time accelerating energy innovation abroad.
The package further includes funding for tax credits and rebates for consumers buying electric vehicles, installing solar panels or making other energy-efficiency upgrades to their homes, including, a credit of $4,000 for lower-and middle-income individuals purchasing used EVs, and up to $7,500 tax credits for EVs. These represent a renewal of the existing $7,500 electric vehicle Federal tax credit starting in January of 2023, and carrying it through until the end of 2032. The former 200,000-vehicle cap is removed and all manufacturers will have access to the credits if they comply with the other requirements in the package.
However – and of considerable interest for followers of ARPN — a new requirement is that qualified cars must be assembled in North America, and adhere to mandated “escalating levels of critical minerals to be sourced from the U.S. or a country with a free-trade agreement with the U.S.”
Experts like John Adams, U.S. Army brigadier general (ret.), believed the sourcing requirements for the battery materials contained in the package would become key to addressing “emerging energy security vulnerabilities before they are intractable crises,” while others have cautioned that because the auto industry was so heavily reliant on battery materials and components from China that the requirement would represent an almost insurmountable challenge in light of lagging timelines for mine permitting. These concerns notwithstanding, the provisions have sent a strong signal to investors that the United States is serious about “building the secure responsible industrial base our economy and national security needs,” kicking off a flurry of activity in the industry.
Fall/Winter 2022 –
Regulatory Changes Prompt Rethink As China Tightens Reins on Supply Chains
Energy Provisions in Inflation Reduction Act Spur Efforts to Build Out U.S. Battery Supply Chain, as States Step Up Their Own Efforts
In October of 2022, As part of the implementation of the 2021 infrastructure law, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the first round of funding under the Act for projects aimed at “supercharging” U.S. manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and electric grid.
Awardees — a total of 20 companies — will receive a combined $2.8 billion “to build and expand commercial scale facilities in 12 states to extract and process lithium, graphite and other battery materials, manufacture components, and demonstrate new approaches, including manufacturing components from recycled materials.”
Meanwhile, adapting to “recent regulatory changes and intensifying competition over key battery raw materials,” automakers, miners and suppliers have begun to rethink and reorganize their critical mineral supply chains. ARPN featured several examples (see here and here) of new offtake agreements and contracts between battery makers and mining companies – and even states and cities are getting in on the action, entering into partnerships with and offering incentive packages to mining companies to cultivate a “vertically integrate supply chain that will help companies increase efficiencies by reducing the reliance on imported materials,” as Georgia Governor Bryan P. Kempdescribed the rationale for a new battery plant construction partnership in Georgia.
Tying into the overall push towards net zero carbon emissions, these agreements increasingly leverage advances in materials science and technology as the mining industry has made strides towards balancing modern mining practices and environmental protections in the quest to sustainably green our future.
For more examples of initiatives by mining companies to significantly reduce carbon emissions or even “close the loop,” take a look here, here and here.
Xi’s China – Beijing’s Tightening of Reins Underscores Urgency of Decoupling Critical Mineral Supply Chains from China
Also in October, China’s Communist Party confirmed President Xi Jinping for another term in office. In what effectively amounted to a “coronation,” as the Wall Street Journal editorial board phrased it, the CCP’s move has effectively “confirm[ed] China’s combination of aggressive nationalism and Communist ideology that is the single biggest threat to world freedom.” Xi has since reaffirmed the need to increase China’s self-sufficiency in technology and supply chains, and China’s commitment to attaining control over Taiwan — a key point of contention in the country’s relations with the United States, which have already starkly deteriorated in recent years. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “coronation” “all but guarantees an era of confrontation between China and the U.S.”
Earlier this summer, Beijing had established a new state-owned group to serve as a consolidated hub for the country’s iron ore trade with a registered capital of 20 billion yuan ($3 billion). China Mineral Resources Group’s mandate covers mining, ore processing and trading. As mining.com outlines, the company’s creation was “encouraged and closely monitored” by senior government officials in Beijing. These Chinese officials have repeatedly accused the United States and its allies of “ganging up to try to suppress China’s global rise,” and consider the formation of a consolidated trading platform a “way to strengthen the country’s negotiating position in an unfriendly international environment.”
Since then, with a newly emboldened Xi at the helm, the Chinese government has been actively tightening the reins on its critical mineral supply chains. Most recently, according to news reports, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced plans to increase its supervision of China’s lithium battery supply chain, which, according to the ministry, is “severely unbalanced.”
Efforts to decouple supply chains from China may become “all the more pressing in light of current fears that (…) China may retaliate after the U.S. Department of Commerce announced sweeping limitations to semiconductor and chip-making equipment sales to Chinese customers this fall.”
2022 Reality Check
– The Real World Challenges of “Decoupling” -
Against the backdrop of a growing realization that “China has big footed a lot of the technology and supply chains that could end up making us vulnerable if we don’t develop our own supply chains,” as U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm phrased it earlier this summer, the push to decouple critical mineral supply chains from China has been one of the emerging key trend lines of 2022.
However, in spite of having made it de facto policy, it appears that Biden Administration officials are becoming increasingly wary of the term “decoupling” – as evidenced most recently by U.S. Secretary of Commerce stating explicitly that the United States is “not seeking a decoupling from China” in a policy speech on U.S. Competition with China. This development may be rooted in the fact that, in light of the complexity of critical mineral supply chains, the process of “decoupling” is fraught with more significant real world challenges than some would have thought.
Earlier this summer, a RealClearInvestigations exposé discussed the alleged China connections of a domestic lithium extraction project in Nevada, where, as RealClear’s Steve Miller writes “a Chinese-dominated mining company has procured millions of dollars in American subsidies to extract lithium in the United States – but, given a dearth of U.S. processing capacity, the mineral is likely to be sent to China with no guarantee that the end product would return as batteries to power President Biden’s envisioned green economy.
The Nevada project is still in the permitting process, but similar scenarios have already unfolded elsewhere, such as in the case of rare earths magnets used in engine parts for F-35 fighter jets, where the U.S. Department of Defense has resorted to granting a waiver for sourcing requirements because at the current time acquisition of parts without Chinese components is not possible. While the U.S.’s national security imperatives may make a rare earth waiver unavoidable, it should serve to turbo-charge domestic rare earth supply chain development to break the U.S. Armed Services’ Chinese rare earth dependency once and for all.
Of course, experts have long warned that decoupling supply chains for lithium, for example represents a formidable challenge.
As Simon Moores, chief executive of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence argued in the wake of the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, “[c]onsidering it takes seven years to build a mine and refining plant but only 24 months to build a battery plant, the best part of this decade is needed to establish an entirely new industry in the United States.”
Meanwhile, the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) challenge, becoming increasingly prominent in 2021, continues to represent a significant hurdle for shoring up domestic supply chain security, particularly as it now appears that its newest manifestation, “virtual weaponized NIMBYism” in the form of concerted cyber warfare campaigns in which networks of inauthentic accounts across social media platforms, websites and forums pose as local residents opposed to certain mining or processing projects.
(see our post on virtual weaponized NIMBYism here)
Interestingly, and underscoring that the critical minerals challenge has gone mainstream it was CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who put his finger on the crux of the issue stakeholders are currently grappling with in a TV segment this summer. He said:
“The minerals industry isn’t as popular as renewable energy – particularly on the Left. There are real environmental hazards. But if people want to protect the planet from climate change and authoritarian powers, they will have to get onboard with new mineral projects.”
While pointing to the importance of other components that ARPN has consistently highlighted as part of a comprehensive “all-of-the-above” approach to mineral resource security – recycling and closed-loop solutions as well as increased R&D in the materials science arena – Zakaria closed his segment as follows:
“This will have to remain a priority for years and years to come. For the sake of the planet and international security, we will need to dig deep, quite literally.”
2022 – Metals in Focus
Government Critical Minerals List, Rare Earths and the Battery Criticals
While USGS released its second government critical minerals list in February of 2022 (an update to the 2018 list of 35) featuring 50 metals and minerals deemed critical to United States national security and economic wellbeing, this year’s media coverage might have you believe that all that matters when it comes to securing critical mineral supply chains, is the rare earths and the battery criticals (Lithium, Cobalt, Graphite, Nickel, and Manganese).
And even here, initially, lithium appeared to steal the spotlight – after all, much of the green energy transition is fueled by Lithium-Ion technology.
In recent months, this has shifted.
With the U.S. Department of Labor including lithium-ion batteries into its “list of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” – a list of 158 goods from 77 countries assumed to be produced in violation of international standards regarding child or forced labor, tracking the cobalt supply chain is becoming increasingly important and the added scrutiny of labor practices for cobalt adds increased urgency for U.S. policy and other stakeholders to build out a North American supply chain.
With Indonesia’s investment minister hinting at the possibility of Jakarta pursuing the creation of an OPEC-like cartelfor nickel (and other key battery materials), the spotlight is falling on nickel.
the looming specter of battery material cartelization – first introduced earlier this year by South American Lithium producers — should be reason enough for U.S. stakeholders to kick the buildout of domestic battery supply chains into high gear wherever possible.
As recent U.S. developments suggest, efforts are already underway.
The first recipients of federal funding disbursed under the 2021 infrastructure law to “supercharge” U.S. manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and the electric grid included the Tamarack Nickel Project in central Minnesota. As ARPN has noted, the project had previously been awarded $2.2 million to fund an effort to achieve carbon capture by a process that mineralizes the carbon in rock – a process far more stable than methods that inject carbon, where it remains vulnerable to seepage and fracturing due to earthquakes. Bringing the supply chain home could not only inoculate the U.S. from trade issues on the critical minerals front, but could also help reduce the industry’s — arguably large — carbon footprint.
Graphite has also entered the chat. As the key raw material in the battery anode, graphite is the largest component of lithium-ion batteries by weight. In light of “phenomenal demand growth from the EV battery sector and delays to new capacity as well as rising power costs,” the graphite supply chain represents a significant and growing challenge for automakers looking to reduce the carbon footprint of the materials they use for their EVs.
Currently, according to the USGS, the United States is 100% import dependent for its graphite needs, but as ARPN recently pointed out,
“that’s not for lack of known graphite resources. As USGS noted in February 2022 in its updated U.S. Mineral Deposit Database, Graphite One’s Graphite Creek deposit near Nome, Alaska is America’s largest graphite deposit. If U.S. Government efforts to develop an American-based EV and lithium-ion battery supply chain have any hope of succeeding, looking for ways to help projects like Graphite Creek down the path to production will be, in a word…. Critical.”
Until then, China’s battery anode dominance could be the West’s Achilles heel in the green energy transition – in defense planners parlance, a potential “single point of failure”: irrespective of whether we succeed in developing multiple minerals and metals for the battery cathode, if we are unable to meet anode material needs – and we cannot do so sustainably and ESG-friendly without natural graphite — we will not be able to build a rechargeable battery independent of China.
New Focus: The Super-Criticals
Altogether, a new set of critical minerals appears emerge as a key priority for stakeholders.
What ARPN has dubbed the “super-criticals” – the five battery materials, plus a sub-set of five rare earths required for permanent magnets (neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, terbium and samarium) altogether comprise a group of 10 criticals within the 50 critical minerals on the official U.S. government list, and many of the efforts to build out a secure North American critical minerals supply chain are focused on this group of materials. By June, courtesy of another DPA Presidential Determination, platinum and palladium pushed the super-critical list to 12.
All-of-the-Above and Supply Chains in 2022
At the end of 2021, ARPN suggested that if the term “supply chain” could “move from jargon to meme in 2021,” maybe 2022 could be the year that strengthening supply chains could “move from rhetoric to reality” – and in some ways it was.
As outlined above, much progress was made, including important groundwork to build out a secure North American critical minerals supply chain. However, much more remains to be done, and to overcome the many challenges, new alliances will need to be forged.
As Shane Lasley argues in Critical Minerals Alliances 2022, a magazine covering 29 metals and minerals (when counting rare earths as 14) deemed critical to North American supply chains as well as related policy issues:
“The optimum solution to laying the foundation for the next epoch of human progress will only be discovered through the forging of unlikely alliances between the woke and old school, environmental conservationists and natural resource developers, liberals and conservatives, national laboratories and private sector entrepreneurs, local stakeholders and global mining companies, venture capitalists and innovators, and everyone else with visions of a cleaner, greener, and high-tech future.”
And so the stage is set for 2023, as decisions to come will determine national fortunes and human progress in decades ahead.