Trump Wants Critical Metals

U.S. wants to reduce its dependence of critical metals/minerals.


In recent times, President Trump has taken an active role in the electronics and related sectors, notably the U.S. administration’s move to block Broadcom’s unsolicited, $117 billion takeover bid for Qualcomm.

The Trump administration has also raised eyebrows by blocking other deals as well. And with little or no fanfare, the administration is also taking a role in another area—critical minerals and metals.

In December, President Trump signed an executive order to reverse the trend of increasing dependence on foreign imports of critical minerals and metals. And recently the U.S. Department of the Interior, led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), released a report that examined 23 minerals that are needed “for manufacturing everything from batteries and computer chips to equipment used by our military.”

As previously reported, the reliance of these commodities presents a range of supply chain issues that can affect specific products, broad markets, and in some cases spark national security concerns. “Our nation’s growing dependence on foreign minerals is a distinct threat to our economy, our national defense, and our international competitiveness,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said at the time. “We need to improve all aspects of the supply chain – from geologic surveying to permitting reform – so that our nation produces more of the minerals that are fundamental to energy, health care, manufacturing, and other technologies.”

All told, the moves aim to identify new sources of critical minerals. The administration also hopes to streamline the leasing and permitting process to expedite production, reprocessing and recycling of minerals at all levels of the supply chain.

It makes sense on one level. But on the other hand, is it too little and too late to jumpstart or revitalize the critical metal mining industry in the United States? Is it just another political ploy to appease a small base?

There are several ways to look at the issue. In 1954, for example, the United States was reliant on foreign sources for 8 minerals, according to the USGS. But production of raw metals/minerals has been on the decline in the United States, due in part to costs and environmental issues associated with mining.

More recently, the EU, the United States and others must import a large percentage of critical metals/minerals from China, Congo and other nations. In 2016, the U.S. was 100% dependent on foreign sources for 20 of the 90 metal/mineral commodities tracked by the USGS.
Perhaps the best example is rare earths. These obscure metals/minerals are critical for a host of systems. Years ago, the U.S. had some sources of supply for rare earths, but it shut down the vast majority of its mines for a host of reasons.

Today, though, the U.S and everyone else is mostly dependent on China for rare earths. State-run mining enterprises in China not only control the supply of rare earths, but also the prices.

To be sure, it’s a troubling trend. So it makes sense to get the ball rolling and address the issue. On the other hand, the U.S. has the natural resources, but how can it compete against large players in China and other nations?

“It is a bit late to be mining tantalum and other metals/minerals. Tungsten, phosphor rock and fluorspar compete with other countries. However, there are some seriously scary stories regarding the world’s looming shortage of phosphor because of growing need for fertilizer based on phosphor. However, we are talking more than 10 years out, so many countries do not pay attention to the ‘end of the world’ scenario,” said Lita Shon-Roy, president, CEO and founding partner of TECHCET.

Asked if it is too late for the United States to jumpstart its critical metal/mineral mining sector, Caspar Rawles, an analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said: “I don’t think so, primarily because of critical battery minerals (i.e. cobalt, lithium, graphite). These aren’t ‘flash in the pan’ commodity booms. This is a true long-term demand scenario, so we will need long-term increasing supply to meet future demand,”

Rawles is referring to the demand for critical metals and minerals for electric vehicles and other products. Electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt, graphite and lithium are key materials for the batteries.

The supply of cobalt is a concern. Cobalt, a by-product of copper and nickel, is largely mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In addition, China refined 54% of the world’s cobalt in 2016, and also produces 80% of the world’s cobalt chemicals, the form that appears in lithium-ion batteries, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

“The U.S. would be happy to remove some of its dependency on Asia for these refined products. They are not only important for the future of transportation, but also for use in military applications,” Rawles said. “The U.S. has a long way to go to be not dependent on imports of these minerals, if it is even possible. But I think the fact that cobalt, lithium and graphite have been included in the report shows how seriously the U.S. government is taking the security of the supply situation.”

Perhaps it’s not too late to revitalize some parts of the critical metal mining industry in the U.S. It makes sense from that standpoint. But on the other hand, these policies resemble the Trump administration’s move to revitalize the U.S. coal and steel industries. It’s misguided thinking to believe that these industries will relive their past glories.

The administration should look beyond our borders. To be sure, the European Union, China and others are pouring billions of dollars into a host of growth industries, such as AI, alternative energy, electric cars, machine learning, quantum computing, semiconductors and others. That’s where the action is.

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