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U.S. must break dependence on Russia, China for minerals

PoliticsU.S. must break dependence on Russia, China for minerals

The law of supply and demand should dictate that the United States be more aggressive in meeting the increasing demand for minerals.

With demand spiking because of a need for metals that are used in electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and the solar industry, it makes no sense that politicians are not enacting policies to release entrepreneurs to provide supply using cutting-edge, environmentally friendly technology. We rely on China and Russia, which have tossed aside environmental concerns, to meet market demand.

Norway and Japan are on the right track. American politicians should look to these nations as examples of how to respond to the increasing demand for metals and minerals. Recently, Norway’s Parliament approved opening some of its territorial waters to exploration and — pending environmental impact assessments — extraction of seafloor massive sulfides, one of three seafloor mineral types.

Japan has conducted extensive exploration of its national waters and plans to extract rare earth minerals from its seafloor clays starting this year. CNBC reported on Jan. 29 that “essential metals such as cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese can be found in potato-sized nodules,” which are of greatest economic interest. The “end-uses of these metals — along with other strategic minerals and rare earth elements — are wide-ranging and include electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.”

Western nations like the U.S. and Canada should follow Norway’s and Japan’s lead to reduce reliance on Russia and China for metals.

China has been aggressive in this space, investing in deep-sea minerals as part of its national strategy. It has recognized that the United States has been slow to adopt smart policies addressing seafloor metal extraction. China sees this as an opportunity to expand critical mineral dominance at a time when that nation already provides 68% of the world’s nickel, 40% of its copper, 59% of its lithium and 73% of its cobalt refining.

China holds five of the 31 exploration contracts awarded by the International Seabed Authority across all three marine mineral types in international waters, while the U.S. has none. That is bad economics and bad politics. China has made huge investments in deep-sea mining technology, and the U.S. needs to counter that for economic and national security reasons.

Nodules could solve the increased demand for EV batteries in North America. Today, U.S. companies are constrained from collecting nodules to supply key battery metals to the U.S. and allied supply chains. Companies in friendly nations, like The Metals Co. in Canada and listed in the States, have perfected deep-sea nodule sourcing and processing. Nearshoring extraction provides a resilient mineral supply chain and will wean the United States off importing minerals from adversaries.

In an election year, it makes sense for politicians to promote mineral independence. Much like both parties have pushed energy independence, the idea of mineral independence would forward national security concerns because of the current reliance on China and Russia for minerals needed for U.S. defense readiness.

Politicians need to open their eyes, much like Norway has done, to recognize that seabed resources — and particularly polymetallic nodules — are a strategic resource. Right now, there is a mineral deficit in the West that threatens the goal of military preparedness and technological superiority over our adversaries. With a war raging in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia expanding, it makes zero sense to source anything from Russia.

Although many extreme activist environmentalists complain loudly about mining the oceans, the science shows that deep-sea nodule collection is far less damaging to the environment than mining on land. The extremists who want no mining at all are doing more harm to the environment because of the well-documented environmental benefits of deep-sea mining.

In contrast to clearing swaths of rainforest, mineral-rich nodules can be lifted right off the seafloor, avoiding the traditional environmental impacts of mining that include water, air and soil contamination risks and the generation and storage of toxic waste. The practice of nodule mining also avoids impacts on indigenous communities, reduces risk to workers and dramatically reduces carbon dioxide emissions (as high as 90%). One would think a thoughtful environmentalist would recognize this.

As somebody who would like to see Washington do something smart this year before the 2024 election, it would make sense for the parties to both push for a refreshed mineral policy that helps to provide domestic resources for EVs while allowing allied industry to beat out China and Russia. It is time for mineral independence from our adversaries and a nodule extraction policy that has proved environmentally friendly.

• Brian Darling is former counsel to Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.

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