Green New Deal’s 3 billion ton problem: sourcing technology metals

New lithium-sulfur battery could keep your smartphone on for five days

President Joe Biden’s climate plan faces a policy challenge that cuts across clean energy, technology and national security: critical minerals.

This is also an area of policy which may find bipartisan convergence as critical metal supply was an area of interest to the Trump-Pompeo state department when they launched the Energy Resource Governance Initiative in 2019. In one of his valedictory pieces of prose, Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, alongside erstwhile Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Francis Fannon, made a plea for continuing this policy.

Indeed, as a bipartisan gesture that ironically also aligns with the Green New Deal, the Biden administration should find ways to continue this effort. Ensuring sustainably sourced mineral supply for the United States through mineral exploration relations with key allies should be a priority for not only the State department but also the Departments of Energy and Interior. The World Bank estimates that meeting targets of 2 degrees Celsius reduction in temperature will require 3 billion tons of minerals worldwide for green technology.

The United States lacks a reliable supply of critical minerals that can be made into metals for everything from laptops to batteries for electric vehicles to solar panels to wind turbines. Biden’s plan for climate mitigation will need to include electric car uptake, and in this regard he is also getting positive signals from the private sector. General Motors recently noted its intention to phase out gasoline and light diesel cars by 2035. In order to do so, American carmakers will need steady supplies of nickel, cobalt, manganese, and copper for electric car batteries. In addition to terrestrial supplies of these metals, they can also be mined from the oceans. The Clarion Clipperton Zone, a remote part of the Pacific Ocean a couple of thousand miles from Southern California has a vast reserve of polymetallic nodules in the deep sea with billions of tons of metals to service the entire need of the clean energy transition. 

To appropriately access such resources, the United States should consider ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea so as to have greater influence on the International Seabed Authority — an organization set up under this convention to issue exploration and extraction licenses in international waters. Although further research on biodiversity impacts is ongoing, initial comparative research of the carbon footprint of oceanic mining suggests that it has a lower carbon footprint than terrestrial mining. Using nodules found at the bottom of the ocean can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent. Nodules keep soil intact, reducing by 94 percent the amount of sequestered carbon at risk.

In total, making 1 billion batteries for electric vehicles — the amount projected as needed by 2047 — could reduce CO2 by 11.5 gigatons — an amount that’s nearly a quarter of current global emissions — if nodules are collected rather than minerals mined on land.

Furthermore, there is no displacement of sensitive communities and violation of property rights of vulnerable populations which have led to opposition of many American mining projects, particularly on indigenous lands. The Biden administration’s sensitivity to indigenous concerns would also be in congruence with the responsible extraction of oceanic minerals. No doubt there are genuine concerns about oceanic conservation of unique microbial ecosystems in the deep seas, but the U.S. could play a leadership role in developing technologies to mitigate adverse impacts. All such impacts should be considered in comparison with the biodiversity threats from terrestrial mining which are well-documented.

In addition to the environmental and social benefits of deep-sea collecting, the U.S. could become a global leader in this raw material market. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced the American Mineral Security Act to rebuild domestic supply chains, and in December, near the end of his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring a national emergency in the mining industry largely on account of the dearth of critical minerals important to American interests. Yet, these efforts would do little to overcome aggressive Chinese actions to dominate global supplies; it will take years to catch up.

The Biden administration can seize new opportunity. Deep sea nodule collecting is a quicker and bolder way to pioneer the new energy revolution. It can serve both American and the planet’s interests well.

The administration’s climate plan calls for $2 trillion to be spent on green infrastructure. The goal of the green transition that is being embraced globally is to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that leads to climate change. A diversified strategy of metal sourcing will be needed to meet this goal. The demand for these metals to meet our Paris Agreement targets will initially be so great that it cannot simply be met by recycling, as highlighted in a recent report from the Global Environment Facility’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel. An integrated policy for mineral resource governance on land and the oceans is thus urgently needed.

President Biden’s decision to order a review of U.S. sourcing of battery metals and semiconductor infrastructure is a good first step, and the new executive order issued on Feb. 24 is encouraging.

We need a coherent strategy that links domestic and foreign supply sources for economic and ecological efficiency. The United States is well-positioned to use this issue as a bridging strategy between domestic jobs and foreign alliances as we reengage with the international community on environmental governance.

Saleem Ali is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware and also directs the university’s Minerals, Materials and Society program. He is also a member of the United Nations International Resource Panel. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali

Tags critical minerals Donald Trump Electric vehicle battery Environmental impact of mining Green New Deal green technology Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Mike Pompeo nodule ocean mining oceanic minerals Sustainable energy

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