Against the backdrop of the current U.S.-Chinese tensions over Rare Earth Elements and the “global battery arms race,” Morgan D. Bazilian, Professor of Public Policy and Executive Director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, argues that the United States must “widen its consideration of critical materials past a limited understanding of security in a deeply interconnected world.”
In a post for Scientific American, Bazilian retraces trends and events in the critical minerals sphere and points to the shortcomings of methodologies applied to date to measure criticality of metals and minerals. Writes Bazilian:
“But how do we measure security or criticality in a meaningful way? The methodology used in the U.S. list essentially boils down to if it is deemed “essential” and if it is estimated to have a supply chain risk. Neither of those hurdles is precise, so proxies are used. That is typical in security assessments of all kinds.”
Comparing various approaches used around the world and drawing from examples from the energy sector, he concludes:
“The future will likely bring more globally interdependent markets and systems. As a result, it is useful to further encourage new quantitative and qualitative approaches to the issues of security and criticality—in both minerals and energy. Additionally, some of the tools developed during the early oil shocks, such as the development of the International Energy Agency, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and sending the Navy’s Fifth Fleet to protect key supply choke points (such as the Strait of Hormuz), are now being considered to protect access to critical materials.
Finally, policy must take into consideration issues across the supply chain from raw materials through final manufacturing in an interconnected world. A narrow focus on domestic ‘dominance’ will not be sufficient, nor useful in addressing mineral criticality. The lessons from the energy sector are attractive as an analogy—a thoughtful application in a very different sector is required.”
One should note that the piece was written before the release of the Commerce Department’s Critical Minerals Strategy in early June, which itself has made recommendations on how to improve assessments, such as to make supply chain networks more robust “so that domestically produced critical minerals can support our Nation’s economic security and national defense.”
For example, the strategy calls for an “an interagency methodology to periodically assess market trends and competitiveness of the U.S. critical mineral industry and its downstream supply chains in order to recommend policies and strategies such as government investment in R&D, capacity expansion, stockpiling, and trade actions.”
That not withstanding, Bazilian’s points of how to measure criticality – and particularly his emphasis on factoring in the degrees of interconnectivity in today’s globalized world remain valid – and provide some important food for thought as the debate over critical mineral resource security continues to heat up.