Seeking a miracle from American miners
North of 60 Mining News - December 13, 2023
Last updated 12/21/2023 at 1:16pm
Massive increase in mining needed to bridge abyss to US's clean energy ambitions; a bad reputation holds the sector back.
RENO, Nev. – With policymakers, regulators, automakers, and the public at large looking for "a miracle" from the American mining sector, National Miners Day 2023 was like no other for the more than 1,800 industry representatives that convened for the American Exploration & Mining Association's annual meeting and convention.
The miracle being asked of the mining sector is to supply nearly unfathomable quantities of minerals and metals needed to transition from an economy fueled by petroleum to one powered by low-carbon electricity.
"I spend my time looking into the abyss between us and the energy transition," Douglas Wicks, program director at the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA‑E), said during a Dec. 6 keynote address at the AEMA conference. "We are literally facing the largest challenge that humankind has ever faced."
Wicks said that whether or not one believes the hype about climate change, the energy transition is going to happen, and the switch to low-carbon energy sources is going to require a lot of minerals.
This revolutionary change, however, is still in its infancy. For example, Wicks said the amount of electricity being generated by wind currently only represents a rounding error when it comes to global energy generation.
"We are going to need to come up with clean energy solutions for 331,000 terawatt hours between now and 2050 – think about those numbers, those are huge," the ARPA‑E director said.
For a sense of perspective, this is roughly 6,500 times more than the annual energy consumption of New York City or about 1,275 times more than the entire state of California.
This 331,000 TWh of clean energy and the electric vehicles that go with it are much more mineral-intensive than their predecessors.
EVs require six times more minerals and metals than the more than 1.4 billion internal combustion vehicles they are replacing. At the same time, solar, wind, and other sources of low-carbon energy needed to charge those EVs require much more mined materials, especially copper and critical minerals, than fossil-fueled electricity.
This is why S&P Global Vice Chair Daniel Yergin wrote, "We are right now in the process of moving from big oil to big shovels."
"Keep that in mind, you guys have a lot of work to do," Wicks informed the mining crowd gathered in Reno on National Miners Day 2023.
Overcoming a bad reputation
Given the long permitting timelines, mines being taken off the table by the Biden administration, and a shortage of miners, the U.S. mining sector is also looking for a miracle that will allow it to carry out that work.
"We've been stuck as an industry, as an association, in this position of feeling really cheered on by the public and feeling like we can rightfully take our place at the economic table, but we have to continue to everyday push back on things that keep us from moving forward, and quite frankly are pushing capital and interests into other countries," outgoing president of the American Exploration & Mining Association Mike Satre told Mining News.
From politics in Washington to young people not wanting to be miners, the hurdles facing the mining industry are rooted in an unsavory view of the sector by many Americans.
"Mining does not have a great reputation – we have a reputation from the past. We may have improved things greatly, but the perception of mining is very negative," said Susan Lasecki-Coiro – consulting director of sustainability, strategy, and supply chains at Environmental Resources Management.
"To me, that is one of the root causes of some of the challenges that we have," she added.
This sentiment is shared by both the outgoing and incoming presidents of AEMA.
"What we haven't always been great at in the past is using our trade associations, using the power of numbers, to get out the overarching message of who we are," Satre told Mining News.
This message is being carried forward by Carolyn McIntosh, who stepped into the role of AEMA president at the annual meeting.
During her inaugural address to AEMA members, McIntosh said the mining industry must "reestablish the positive reputation that we should have."
A wider understanding of the environmental, social, economic, and national security advantages of mining in America would go a long way to gaining political support for the mining industry in the U.S. and attracting the next generation of high-tech miners to the sector.
The aggressive timelines for the global energy transition, coupled with China's dominance in producing most of the metals needed, is increasing the urgency to gain broad support for America's mining sector.
To underscore this urgency, McIntosh referred the mining audience to a popular Visual Capitalist infographic that shows the minerals and metals critical to China, the European Union, and the United States, which include 10 commodities critical to all three – aluminum, antimony, cobalt, copper, fluorspar, graphite, lithium, nickel, rare earths, and tungsten.
"Those are, at least for now, critical minerals that we all are going to be attempting to produce and perhaps fighting over," she said.
For the U.S., the competitive nature of these and other minerals and metals is compounded by a heavy reliance on imports.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, America is 100% dependent on imports for 15 mined commodities, including fluorspar and graphite, and more than 50% reliant on foreign countries for more than 50% of another 35 minerals and metals.
China dominates the global refining of most of these minerals. This includes 100% of the world's refined natural graphite, 98% of gallium, more than 90% of manganese, 70% of cobalt, 60% of germanium, nearly 60% of lithium, and 40% of copper.
In August, China emplaced state-controlled export restrictions on various gallium and germanium products and, on Dec. 1, enacted similar limitations on graphite exports.
Despite the growing recognition of China's dominance when it comes to mining and processing critical minerals, and that nation's willingness to use that supremacy as a geopolitical tool, Lasecki-Coiro says "the diversification of our value chain is not taking place too much."
Wicks said many policymakers in Washington still do not fully understand the hurdles and often decades-long permitting and development timelines in the U.S.
"I hear around the halls of D.C. a lot, 'We just need to go out and mine more, that is pretty straightforward," he said.
The ARPA-E program director, however, is an example of representatives within the administration who understand the miracle it will take to bridge the abyss between America's current situation and the clean energy future envisioned by the White House and many of the nation's citizens.
"The miracle is sitting in this room," he told the mining community gathered in Reno.
For the attendees sitting in the room, the building of a strong mining sector in the U.S. has a deeper meaning.
"For us, domestic mining is not just a geopolitical or political issue – it means jobs, it means the strength and health of our communities – it really defines our future," McIntosh said.
CORRECTION: This article was updated to clarify Wicks position as program director.