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Marc LeVier

Last month’s Mining Engineering featured the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) annual mining and critical minerals reviews. These yearly reports are always of interest in examining the changes to supply and demand projections as well as how the future bodes for the mining industry. I paid particular attention to the detailed explanation of the methodology used to determine how critical minerals are selected for the official list. The methodology is logical and uses models with statistical analysis to assess which elements qualify for critical status. The article explained why copper is not on the critical minerals list. Based on copper import levels, annual domestic production, and production from countries like Chile, Mexico and Canada, which have free trade agreements with the United States, the USGS reported that the amount of imported copper is “not high by historical standards.” The report went on to say that the USGS is in the process of reviewing the critical minerals list as part of the normal three-year cycle mandated by the Energy Act of 2020, and any revisions to the list will be issued through a public review in due course.

This explanation seems rational — or does the explanation ignore the recent pleadings of U.S. senators, the National Mining Association and others to add copper to the critical minerals list right away. The USGS methodology, in my opinion, is business as usual with a backward perspective that does not adequately consider the skyrocketing demand for the minerals needed to meet the country’s carbon emission reduction goals. The USGS&rsquo methodology seemingly ignores Congressional directives and data provided by trade associations based on forward looking estimates of future demands, which result from a very unusual circumstance, driven by policy objectives to rapidly transition to other forms of energy and electric vehicles (EVs) by 2040. There is a need to perform the critical mineral assessments with a reformed methodology that responds to the Biden administration’s transition timeline goals and uses common sense. Common sense dictates that the transition demands critical minerals such as copper be accounted for and not ignored.

On Feb. 2, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) and five other senators sent a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland requesting that she direct the USGS to immediately add copper to the critical minerals list. This bipartisan letter provides detailed justification for why copper needs to be on the critical minerals list based on the projected demand for copper to support the nation’s energy transition objectives.

SME Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Dave Kanagy, sent letters to each of these senators thanking them for their leadership. The letter cited the critical uses of copper and “copper’s universal need that is essential to both renewable and fossil fuel technologies. Without copper future carbon emission goals cannot be met.”

At the same time, this administration recently put a significant deposit of copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota off limits to mining and is now proposing to elevate conservation and landscape preservation over mining and other multiple uses of public lands. The same action has occurred in Alaska with vetoes of proposed copper projects and potentially would remove a great amount of highly prospective land from domestic exploration.

As for the Fair Trade Alliance, the president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, recently nationalized all the lithium resources. Chile, an “ally with a “free trade agreement,” has impacted the USGS model. The same can happen with copper as the political leanings in Chile appear to be changing and the USGS methodology should be adjusted accordingly. In these unusual times, the Administration should reevaluate the Energy Act of 2020 and consider conducting reviews on a more frequent and vigilant basis.

Recently, SME published a flyer, “Mining Needs for the Green Economy,” which can be found on the SME website. The graphic on this flyer, “Meeting the Clean Energy Demand,” derived from referenced sources, shows that the soaring requirements for minerals will create an increase in mineral production value of four times by 2040 and a potential increase of lithium (Li) prices by 2.5 times. “The limited availability of four key minerals -- copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium – will negatively impact the U.S. economy within five years.” This information was developed before Chile nationalized its lithium resources. The price of Li may soar beyond 2.5 times. New models must incorporate more anticipation of geopolitical impacts if the United States is to be become mineral independent and increase its ability to manufacture the materials and products that go with wind and solar energy and EVs. Again, in five years the ability to provide these materials without an increase in new mines across all commodities will vanish.

In 2010-2014 critical mineral efforts were focused at the government level on the Department of Defense and the critical need for rare earths for advanced weaponry. Over time the Department of Energy became more engaged in acquiring critical minerals for renewable energy. Research grants were and continue to be awarded to universities and private companies to determine new sources of rare earths as well as innovative technologies to process and recover the rare earths. DOD and DOE programs are numerous and can be beneficial, however, the independent programs of both agencies overlap in the quest to achieve their independent goals and the programs do not appear to be coordinated efficiently. This leaves the impression that the government’s transition plan is nonexistent and/or sorely wrought with unnecessary bureaucracy.

Fast forward to today, I am returning from the SME New York Section Finance Conference. I enjoyed the speakers and various topics related to mining and finance, especially in the middle of the one of the world’s largest finance districts. Several DOE representatives engaged in the discussion on rare earth production from alternative sources. Personally, I did not hear what I hoped to hear, actual progress toward solving the problem. However, it is always good to listen and try to understand how the governmental agencies think they are doing in the energy transition quest. According to the DOE, the provision of the tremendous volumes of rare earths and other critical minerals will most certainly be accomplished, in large part because of research efforts at universities studying production of rare earths from fly ash, coal refuse and lignite.

I found the conclusions of the DOE presentations to be lacking in accuracy. There has been limited progress in this area and although our colleagues in academia can do tremendous research, the ability to engineer, finance, construct and commission is beyond their scope. Today, there are no actual rare earth refineries or metal alloying facilities in operation in the U.S. No operating mines are being developed except for MP Minerals, which currently sels its product overseas, China in particular, and Energy Fuels, which independently is expanding its uranium processing and recovery mill in Blanding, UT to process monazite tailings/concentrate for rare earth recovery, with the final product going to NeoMaterials in Estonia.

The DOE representatives appeared to be pushing the Administration’s party line as opposed to a strategic vision with a solid implementation plan. I continued to hear (pardon my opinion), “stay calm, all is well. We have solved the problem!” Meanwhile, the optimism has not considered the other aspects of project development and execution required to create a reliable supply chain.

The addition of copper to the critical minerals list would appear to be a no brainer. However, the need for a solid plan for the production of these critical minerals and creation of the downstream manufacturing facilities where these materials are used and converted into final products is even more important.

More than ever, we need to continue to tell the “Good of Mining” to the public and the critical role minerals play in ’s daily life.