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The Road to “Building Back Better” is Paved with Critical Metals and Minerals

Another round of COVID relief stimulus checks is hitting Americans’ bank account this week, and a vaccine schedule laid has been laid out.

Time for the Administration and Congress to move on to the next key priority of the Biden Administration’s “Build Back Better” agenda: an economic recovery package that will “make historic investments in infrastructure, along with manufacturing, research and development and clean energy.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, a national network of labor unions and and environmental organizations, is here for it:

“Strengthening and retooling our manufacturing sector to make today’s and tomorrow’s clean technologies and all products in cleaner ways, and modernizing our crumbling infrastructure to be safer and more energy efficient will protect our air and water, boost efforts to end economic and racial injustice, and create good union jobs across our nation,” Jason Walsh, executive director for the organization that is calling for at least $4 trillion in federal investment, said last month.

It may be popular in many circles, but it is going to be a massive undertaking — not just because it will require trillions of dollars in investment.

To use an infrastructure metaphor, we have already established that the road to a lower-carbon future is paved with critical metals and minerals — lots of them, as evidenced by last year’s World Bank report entitled “The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition,” which estimated that production of metals and minerals underpinning the shift, such as the battery tech metals graphite, lithium and cobalt, would have to increase by nearly 500 percent by 2050 to meet global demand for renewable energy technology. To achieve the transition to a below 2°C pathway as outlined by the Paris Agreement, the deployment of wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage will require more than three billion tons of minerals and metals.

A similar scenario unfolds for overhauling America’s infrastructure, which, undeniably, is crumbling. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card assigned a D+ to America’s roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure. With an update of the quadrennial report due this year, and infrastructure reform having fizzled after a first push during the Trump Administration, there is no reason to expect a better grade this time around.

The sheer need for mainstay materials like steel and copper for construction and wiring or zinc for galvanization already make clear that we’re looking at another mineral intensive component of the Biden Agenda. But it’s not just old school transportation infrastructure that is in dire need of an overhaul.

ARPN’s Daniel McGroarty made it clear in a piece for Investors Business Daily in the early days of the Trump Administration:

“This isn’t your grandfather’s infrastructure. Bridges, tunnels and roads are just part of the story. Today, our infrastructure extends to the national power grid — currently a patchwork of lines, nodes and often antique switching towers we rely on to move energy to where we need it — to the internet itself, which has a physicality we easily overlook in this Age of the Cloud and Wireless. These systems, marvels that they are, come closer to tin-can-and-string contraptions than the modern version we would build if we began the work today.”

With that, comes another layer of material inputs — lots of copper for wiring, but also battery tech metals like lithium, graphite, nickel and vanadium for energy storage, to name but a few.

Meanwhile, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has highlighted our nation’s over-reliance on critical metals and minerals underpinning the above-referenced goals of a lower-carbon future coupled with a comprehensive infrastructure overhaul.

How do we reconcile massive material inputs and sustainably “Building Back Better”? The challenge is big, and will likely require an “all-of-the-above” approach — but thankfully, as we previously pointed out, is “increasingly ‘recognizing [its] responsibility and trying to meet the increased expectations of consumers, society and governments” to contribute towards the push towards a greener energy future.’ In its growing efforts to do so, it is harnessing “advances in materials science and technology to meet the challenge of restoring a balance between mining and environmental protection.”

As Washington D.C. delves into part two of President Biden’s “Build Back Better,” agenda, we will continue to highlight initiatives by mining companies to “close the loop,” ranging from overhauling supply chain policies to ensure suppliers conform to certain environmental and social standards, to incorporating renewable power sources into their operations to offset some of the carbon costs of resource development — as we have done in the past (take a look here and here).

Stay tuned for the next roundup.