Jun 5, 2019

U.S. minerals strategy aims to safeguard vital technologies

A glass slide being coated with indium tin oxide for use in a nanoparticle solar cell. Photo: Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Commerce Department released on Tuesday an interagency report that identifies a list of minerals deemed critical to U.S. strategic interests and outlines an action plan to ensure their supply.

Why it matters: Securing these minerals and their supply chains is essential to leading the way on technologies that will enable the global energy transition, including cobalt and lithium for batteries, graphite and scandium for fuel cells, and indium and tellurium for solar panels.

Background: The U.S. relies 100% on imports for 14 critical minerals and over 50% for 15 others and has few commercial processing facilities. Amid American neglect, China has carved out a dominant position in critical minerals.

Between the lines: Critical minerals present different security challenges from crude oil and are central to a successful and sustainable energy transition.

  • Although both resources are often concentrated in regions of high political risk, critical minerals feature less market governance, less liquidity and an opaque supply chain. For example, there is no "OPEC" for minerals, and the quality of data on supply and demand varies drastically. Some mineral markets are so small that a single actor can easily swing prices.
  • The extraction of critical minerals raises environmental and social concerns, exacerbated by artisanal mines with spotty labor standards that often come online as prices spike and shut down suddenly when they dip.

What we're watching: There are valuable ways the U.S. government could build on its new strategy:

  • Coordinating with Congress, which has introduced a bipartisan American Mineral Security Act that shares many of the administration's goals.
  • Reinvesting in atrophied economic geology programs at American universities. This is particularly important for workforce development, since the U.S. Geological Survey and other key entities can hire only American citizens to work on these issues.
  • Investing further in processing facilities and innovation, especially to reduce dependence on minerals that create strategic vulnerabilities.

David Livingston is deputy director for climate and advanced energy at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center. Reed Blakemore is an associate director at the Global Energy Center.

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