Mining myths create vulnerabilities in US supply chain, says industry expert
The United States should carefully consider which countries it chooses to rely on for its metals and minerals, a mining industry expert told an audience at the Arizona Manufacturers Council recently.
Adam Hawkins, who for decades consulted for mining companies, says the concept of “mineral dependency,” which refers to the role minerals will play in the country’s ability to maintain a competitive edge as a global superpower, is expected to influence strategy, decision-making, public policies affecting national mineral production, and the country’s move towards a sustainable supply chain.
“Where do we buy our metals from? People will tell you their tomato management, but not where the metals in their phones came from,” Hawkins said, comparing consumer awareness of the food supply chain versus the critical materials supply chain. .
Misconceptions about mining
Hawkins says misconceptions about where our products come from and how mining is integral to the production of many of the products we deem essential to our daily lives are at the root of many unsubstantiated related myths to mining. These myths are often touted by elected officials and public figures unfamiliar with the mining industry.
Hawkins said, for example, that the idea that the United States doesn’t need new mines and that relying on recycling will secure the country’s critical materials needs is baseless.
A recent report covering the mineral intensity of the transition to cleaner energy sources showed that demand for some key minerals will skyrocket by more than 500% by 2050. Demand for copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel and other metals could not be satisfied. by the “circular economy” envisaged by supporters of an almost total dependence on recycling.
“Biden has promised to convert the entire US government fleet – approximately 640,000 vehicles – to electric vehicles (EVs),” Hawkins said. “This plan alone could require a 12-fold increase in US lithium production by 2030, according to Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, as well as an increase in domestic copper, nickel and cobalt production.”
Our current mineral dependency
The United States imports more than 50% of its metals and minerals, and these usually come from Canada, Mexico and sometimes Chile and Australia. Hawkins explained that these countries are generally politically aligned with the United States and have very strong regulatory environments.
“China is where the scary things start,” Hawkins said. “The nation is not necessarily aligned with our political and homeland security goals. Why would we give them our addiction to rare earth metals then?
The United States was 100% dependent on net imports of rare earth metals in 2018, importing approximately 11,130 metric tons of compounds and metals. Eighty percent of these imports came from China.
This fact is especially discouraging in the face of the reality that rare earth metals are used in almost every advanced technological device. Smartphones, digital cameras, computer hard drives, light sources and televisions all depend on imports of rare earth metals.
“We are currently unprepared to deal with a critical trade embargo,” Hawkins said.
Nickel, a metal used primarily to make other metals stronger and better suited to extreme temperatures and corrosive environments, is an important material for many industries, including aerospace. Unfortunately, Russia remains the world’s largest supplier of nickel.
Similarly, China is the leading producer of titanium, a metal necessary for the manufacture of aircraft, among other things.
Building a sustainable supply chain
“Look at our own inventory of short, medium and long-term mineral opportunities,” Hawkins said. “Right now, we have more capital to develop new mining projects than there are projects; we need to make sure they have a soft landing and are chasing material.
Hawkins believes the president should use his powers under the Defense Production Act of 1950 to order companies to produce and supply specific materials to bolster and support national defense.
He pointed to a bipartisan bill that “would make it easier for nonprofits and others to help clean up abandoned hard rock mines by erasing past debts for acquiring the sites.”
“We should also encourage domestic production of rare earths and other critical minerals,” he said. “That’s actually how China was able to dominate the rare earth metals market.”