The United States needs a more robust strategy in the race to procure critical minerals that will be crucial to meeting any of its clean energy goals.
The U.S. has acknowledged that it depends on China for imports of key metals and minerals necessary for the energy transition, supply chains, and national security.
Yet, while the Administration was reviewing supply chain issues and vulnerabilities to its demand for critical minerals, China is moving in on Africa and South America to strike alliances and lend money to mineral resource-rich African countries, while Russia is thought to be providing shadow “security services” in some African nations with a mercenary organization with links to the Kremlin.
In the global race to secure critical minerals, the United States is currently losing to China.
The U.S. imports more than half of its annual consumption of 31 of the 35 critical minerals, the Department of Energy said at the start of President Joe Biden’s term in office. America does not have domestic production for 14 of those critical minerals and is completely dependent on imports to supply its demand.
As of early 2021, the U.S. imported 80 percent of its rare earth elements (REEs) directly from China, with remaining portions indirectly sourced from China through other countries, DOE said.
In 2020, China accounted for 85 percent of global production of refined rare earth products, with other Asian countries (Malaysia, India, and Vietnam) and comparatively minor European operations accounting for the remainder, Wood Mackenzie said in an analysis of REEs in October 2021.
“China also consolidated its domestic rare earth industry into six state-owned enterprises, giving it greater control over the supply and pricing of rare earth exports globally,” WoodMac’s analyst Ross Embleton and David Merriman, Manager, Battery & Electric Vehicle Materials, said.
According to Roskill, a Wood Mackenzie commodity research business, China accounted for 54 percent of global rare earth elements mining in 2021 and for a massive 85 percent of refined REE supply in the world. To compare, North America accounted for 18 percent of mining of REEs last year, and for ZERO refined supply of those elements.
“The geographic concentration of rare earth mining and refined production has long raised concerns over the potential for supply disruption and the wide-ranging end-use markets they serve,” WoodMac’s Embleton and Merriman said.
Some 90 percent of neodymium (NdFeB) magnet manufacturing currently takes place in China, despite efforts to diversify mined and refined supply.
“This raises geopolitical concerns,” they note.
At the end of a 100-day review of critical supply chains and critical minerals, the White House and the Administration decided to establish a working group comprised of federal agencies “to identify potential sites where critical minerals could be sustainably and responsibly produced and processed in the United States while adhering to the highest environmental, labor, community engagement, and sustainability standards.”
While the U.S. is working in working groups, China and Russia are moving in African countries rich in mineral resources to gain access to their reserves in legislations with low environmental standards, cheap labor, and few regulations, Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and founding principal of risk advisory International Market Analysis, notes in Forbes.
China is lending money and working with African nations as part of its Belt and Road initiative, while Russia is reportedly moving in with the Wagner group, a private military group thought to have ties to the Kremlin. Russia denies any state involvement with the group or its activities in Africa, most recently in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Apart from looking to extract mineral resources at home, the U.S. and the West should develop strategic critical mineral reserves, similar to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), to use in times of supply disruptions, Cohen says.
Shortfalls of rare earths and key minerals for the energy transition could be just around the corner, considering how mineral-intensive clean energy and net-zero emission pledges are. The United States needs to move faster in securing key minerals domestically and from allies such as Australia; otherwise, America’s clean energy goals and hi-tech and automotive supply chains could depend on China.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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