Apr 19 • 59M

#23 Mining in the energy transition: fact, fiction and misinformation

 
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Ian Morse, publisher of “Green Rocks” newsletter; Thea Riofrancos, Assistant Professor Political Science, Providence College

Lithium mining is in the spotlight right now - prices have gone insane, as Elon Musk tweeted only just last week, saying that Tesla may get into the mining business itself as a result.

Lithium, along with cobalt and nickel, are critical elements of electric vehicle batteries and we’re hearing everywhere these days that there isn’t enough of this stuff to go around.

I wanted to know if this is actually, geologically, true? And is this the dirty secret of the clean energy revolution?

To find out, I talked to Thea Riofrancos. She is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College, and Ian Morse. He is science writer and publisher of the “Green Rocks” newsletter

What I found out was that this is a really big conversation that touches everything from global supply chains to climate action to human rights to geopolitics to commodity markets.

Some of the big questions we tackled were: Are we in locked a global struggle for scarce mineral resources that are critical for the energy transition?

Does this mean we have to mine like crazy to get them?

And is there such a thing as clean and responsible mining?

Spoiler alert - nothing may be actually quite what it seems on the outside.

Oh, and, by the way, Elon Musk says that Tesla have some cool ideas for sustainable lithium extraction and refinement. But, as Ian explains at the end of our interview, Tesla’s batteries are notorious for being impossible to recycle, thereby driving even more demand to mine for lithium.

So, buckle up for a fascinating and thought provoking discussion.

We talked about:

01:25 “Critical minerals” is a term with military origins, Thea cautions against replicating that idea - that national security depends on the control or dominance of the supply chains that these minerals feed.

5.54 Calling them “climate” or “decarbonisation” metals allows mining companies to re-brand extractive activities as sustainable and responsible.

8.57 Why are prices so high right now? Thea & Ian talk about market speculation and the financialization of commodity prices, the role of commodity traders.

14.27 Mines on average take a decade to build and operationalize - this creates a lag between demand and supply, and drives markets shortages and price rises.

19.27 Relying exclusively on mining to drive the energy transition may be one of the slowest ways to do climate action, because we know we’ll only have enough materials in 15 years.

22.42 The global map of lithium extraction is changing. Right now there are four main producers, in 10 years from now that will probably double. Rivalries will change, and nation states will shift their economic policies around these stakes.

24.03 Market shortages of critical minerals is driving two big new trends: On-shoring of extractive activities and vertical integration of supply chains.

Car companies like Tesla and VW are contracting directly with raw material companies, either via direct investment or joint ventures. This further drives market shortages as it takes years of supply off the market.

24.13 Ian talks about his experience covering nickel mining in Sulawesi, Indonesia, “where the ground was dug up, shipped elsewhere. And people there were left with red seas, polluted air, no rainforest.”

32.45 The “global race” media narrative crowds out discussion of solutions to the climate emergency, and it allows mining companies to brand themselves as climate heroes.

35.00 The worst way to organize an energy transition is to change only the fuel source. The fastest way to decarbonize the transport sector is to scale up public transportation.

40.50 What can we learn from the recent example of Chile, a mineral powerhouse with a new left-wing government breaking new ground on policy approaches to the extractive sector.

57.49 Our EV batteries were not designed to be recycled - they are hard to take apart, and its hard to extract the minerals to be re-used. So recycling could significantly cut down on how much we need to mine. Why isn’t this happening at scale now? Because recycling is competing against heavily subsidized materials - which is newly mined metals.

52.40 China’s BYD recently developed a battery that’s relatively easy to pull apart with your hands, but the Tesla battery is notoriously difficult to disassemble and recycle.

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