Earlier this week, the Biden Administration unveiled a road map for reducing the transportation sector’s carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050.
Two weeks into the new year, the green energy transition continues to gain steam. However, as Morgan D. Bazilian of the Colorado School of Mines and Gregory Brew from the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University argue in a new piece for Foreign Affairs, while this general trend represents
“welcome and overdue progress, (…) implementing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could be stymied in part by a material obstacle: the procurement of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper that are essential to clean energy systems.”
As followers of ARPN well know, 2022 saw several important developments to boost domestic critical mineral supply chains. (See our Year in Review post here.). And we can’t resist noting that copper – rightly referenced by Bazilian and Brew as an essential material for clean energy applications – is not officially a Critical Mineral, despite ARPN’s consistent case for copper’s criticality.
In any case, with demand outpacing supply for many of the metals and minerals underpinning the pursuit of net zero carbon emissions, Bazilian and Brewer lament that “[t]he way the United States seems intent on obtaining these minerals (…) is myopic.”
They argue that “[t]o win the energy battle of the twenty-first century, the United States must avoid repeating the policy mistakes of past eras and focus on increasing domestic production and advanced manufacturing at home, while establishing secure and resilient supply chains with allies—and even foes—abroad.”
As Bazilian and Brewer outline, the level of supply production needed to implement plans to reduce emissions “does not yet exist. New mines will have to be dug, and processing and refining industrial complexes will need to be built—both exceedingly difficult to do with existing permitting rules. The existing facilities, moreover, are almost entirely outside the United States. The production of critical minerals is concentrated in a handful of countries.
Against the backdrop of heightened geopolitical competition, they say, “Washington should avoid the counterproductive strategies of the oil era and adopt a varied approach combining domestic policy options with a flexible foreign policy. The goal should be to build a secure position for itself and its allies, reduce dependence on Chinese supplies, and recognize the competitive environment without resorting to brute force or nationalistic tendencies.”
Specifically, they suggest the United States should:
- accelerate the development of its domestic critical mineral resources and streamline the mining permitting process to further expand mining capacity;
- work with allies to develop supply chains for critical minerals;
- and work with allies to regulate critical mineral markets to reduce volatility to encourage investment and prevent disruptions due to price spikes.
To be sure, progress has been made on several fronts. As ARPN outlined in our 2022 recap, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to spur domestic resource development and Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August, both of which have sent strong signals to investors and industry that the United States is serious about confronting the critical minerals supply chain challenge head-on.
At the same time, as scholars at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Center have pointed out, “the Biden administration’s efforts to free up federal funds for domestic mining activities has highlighted the inherent conflict between accessing the minerals needed for climate action and the administration’s commitment to environmental and social justice.”
Developments like the recent Biden administration halt on progress on the Ambler Road project in Alaska, which proponents say would unlock access to critical minerals and create new jobs, point to conflicting viewpoints between the President’s stated objectives and his Administration’s policy.
Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy lamented the Administration’s Ambler Mining District decision during a 2022 critical minerals summit held in Fairbanks, which we covered here:
“This administration must speak with one voice. It wants critical minerals, or it doesn’t. It wants the lower energy prices, or it doesn’t. It wants to create jobs in the U.S. or it doesn’t. It wants to protect the environment or it doesn’t. It cares about human rights, or it doesn’t. (…) The disjointed federal permitting process doesn’t just hurt Alaskans (…), it hurts every industry, and every state. (…)
If we set ambitious goals for EVs or renewables without permitting the production of critical minerals here, those minerals will still be produced, they just won’t be produced in here in America or Alaska, they’ll be produced by child labor, potentially, they’ll be produced without environmental standards, potentially, they’ll be produced at the expense of the American worker, to the benefit, potentially, of our adversaries.”
The stakes are high, and the Wilson Center Environmental Change and Security Program believes that “Critical Minerals and Energy Security” will be one of the top three issues in the coming months as 2023 promises to be a “pivotal moment for U.S. foreign and domestic policy on critical minerals.”
We are here for it, and ARPN will be documenting and analyzing the developments and decisions that will “determine national fortunes and human progress in decades ahead.”