The United States could be about to witness a replay of the politics of the Shale Revolution, only this time those politics will be playing out around the mining of the country’s own supplies of rare earth minerals. America has ample supplies of these minerals, which are crucial to the continued advancement of solar and wind power, as well as the batteries for electric vehicles. But the processes required in mining for those minerals are negatively impactful to the environment, as all extractive industries invariably are, and thus likely to become points of public controversy.
Enter the anti-development green lobby. Enter the Democratic Party politics that push the “Green New Deal” that envisions a rapid “energy transition” to renewables and electric vehicles and the abolition of fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. The sparks will inevitably fly when the traditional priorities of these interest groups and policy goals collide.
During the early days of the shale revolution, there was initially a general consensus within both major political parties that America’s new abundance of natural gas from shale formations across the country presented an opportunity to dramatically reduce the country’s emissions of both carbon and pollutants through a rapid shift away from coal in power generation. But the consensus within the Democratic ranks quickly began to disintegrate as the green community that funds such a large portion of the party’s campaigns mounted its campaign to demonize hydraulic fracturing (”fracking”) starting in 2008.
Today, the leaders of the Democratic party talk about natural gas in power generation more as a nuisance to be quickly eliminated than as a “bridge fuel” that has done so much to create cleaner air in this country. The question for those promoting this “energy transition” will inevitably become whether the same kinds of destructive and costly political dynamics can be avoided when it comes to efforts to mine for large U.S. resources of minerals such as lithium, cobalt and others?
With China becoming increasingly aggressive on the world stage, and working to tie up crucial global supplies of such minerals for its own future domestic needs, the ability for mining companies to access America’s own ample resources of those minerals in order to facilitate the Biden/Harris administration’s “Green New Deal”-related goals is obvious. Today, the U.S. is overwhelmingly reliant on other countries – including China – for supplies of such minerals as antimony (2020 production: 53% from China, 20% from Russia, and 19% from Tajikistan, 0% from the US) cobalt (Congo accounts for 70% of global production) and lithium (U.S. production accounts for just 1% of its own needs).
For this “energy transition” to succeed in the U.S., it is obvious that the country must be able to produce its own supplies of these minerals. Yet, the processes for extraction of such minerals are quite impactful on the surrounding environment and are already being opposed by green groups in America. I detailed the processes involved with and opposition to the growing U.S. lithium industry in a piece several weeks ago.
The process for obtaining antimony, a rare earth mineral used in the production of solar panels, wind and hydro turbines, semi-conductors and batteries, is equally, if not more impactful. Antimony today is mostly obtained from the mining of stibnite, an alloy made up of antimony and Sulphur, and the vast majority of stibnite mining currently takes place in China. Already, the problems become obvious.
But they get worse. The most common method of mining for stibnite is via open pit mining, a process that U.S. green groups have traditionally opposed when use for mining of coal, copper and other important minerals. Whether these groups would remain intellectually consistent when it comes to mining for rare earth minerals needed to facilitate the “Green New Deal” remains to be seen.
Antimony also bonds to copper, gold and other precious metals, and can be obtained from mining operations for those minerals. Right now, we see the Biden/Harris Department of Interior working to delay a proposed Rio Tinto copper mine in Arizona due to green lobby opposition. In response to pressure from ESG investors, Rio Tinto plans for this to be an underground mine, not open pit, a major and costly concession that appears to have had no mitigating impact where the opposition is concerned. For the “Green New Deal” to succeed, something will have to ultimately give in cases such as this.
Cobalt is typically obtained as a by-product from the refining process related to nickel mining. Traditionally, nickel has been most commonly obtained as the result of extremely impactful surface strip-mining operations. America has abundant domestic resources of nickel, but again, the problems where the green community is concerned quickly become obvious.
The bottom line here is this: There will be no successful “energy transition” or “Green New Deal” implementation in the United States unless companies are allowed to access this country’s own plentiful supplies of these and other rare earth minerals. Anyone who is serious about the energy transition and countering Chinese dominance in critical mineral and rare earth development should support domestic policies that ensure responsible but swift mining development for these minerals.
The irony is that the same green lobby that advocates for the “Green New Deal” is perhaps the largest potential obstacle to its success.