Everybody is claiming to have “Critical Metals/Minerals” these days. Desperados in the copper space are the most shameless at touting this claim, while the most ludicrous are those in the gold space (though that goes without saying).
But how to measure what is and what isn’t critical?
Criticality and Chinese dominance have become popular themes over the last decade with the British Geological Survey’s (BGS) first Criticality ranking in 2011 (in the midst of the Rare Earth boom) firing the starting gun on a race between countries to define what is critical to their own circumstances.
All attempts at ranking criticality are bound to run into criticism with different pundits and different economies perceiving different needs. Moreover, circumstances change, as Cesium showed when it went from being dominated by the US to being dominated by China when the US, fecklessly, let Sinomines acquire Cabot’s specialty fluids division. In our perception, Tungsten is not as critical as it was due to numerous non-Chinese developments in the pipeline.
Of all the Criticality lists the BGS one was the only one giving scoring to the metals and then producing degrees of risk to supply. Moreover, it gives the impression of being focused upon which metals are at risk (largely from China-dominance, though unstated) rather than saying (as the JOGMEC list does) that certain metals are critical for a specific (i.e. Japan’s) economy.
Criticality as Semantics
Metals rankings have now become like radio stations’ Top 40 lists of days gone by. However, it may just be a matter of international semantics as to what the word “critical” actually implies.
Some are saying that this means a metal is vital to an economy (which of course iron ore is to every economy) but others are interpreting it as being that the supply is in some way threatened or vulnerable. And the latter is where the China Factor is invoked. Europe meanwhile wants to fence-sit and pretends that it is not accusing the Chinese of wielding a big stick threatening EU industries (when really the Chinese are being threatening indeed).
The BGS by using the word “Risk” did not mince its words. Everyone knew what it meant. Chinese dominance meant supply could be turned off.
Rising Tide of Concern?
The financial media chattering about Chinese dominance of particular metals is one thing, but it is when the average householder gets concerned that the issue really becomes popular. Giving a speech several years ago on Erbium and 5G we noted that few, if any, of the public even knew that the jump from black & white TVs to colour TVs was made possible by Europium and behind that lay the Mountain Pass mine.
For the public, the new 5G technology seems to come out of the ether, literally, and thus it is not a good idea to ask too many questions about what metals make it happen because one would find out that (notwithstanding Huawei’s involvement) the REE component (Erbium) in 5G largely is China-sourced or China-processed. Who amongst the Great Unwashed (or experts) can tell us where other 5G inputs, like Scandium, Cesium and Tantalum, come from?
Alarm bells though have been ringing in the C-Suites (of Germany and South Korea, more than Detroit) about the vulnerability of the EV “revolution” to Chinese machinations and that has set off a furious hunt for non-Chinese supply chains.
Curiously though, the European list does not include Lithium amongst the critical metals, though this is probably predicated upon its upstream supplies being mainly from “friendly” sources such as Australia, Argentina and Chile. But with China dominating conversion of Lithium into Lithium ion batteries (and having a stranglehold on Cobalt from the DRC) it does not pay to be so simplistic in calculating where one’s sources might be.
Ergo, with China being the principal midstream processor, can one be so blithely dismissive of the criticality of Lithium?
The various surveys that followed on the heels of the original BGS Criticality rankings now reinforce the sheer number of metals at risk, though as one can see below each agency producing these lists has differing views of the criticality of different metals within their remit.
We can note from the lists above that the US regards most metals as having some degree of criticality.
The critical metals space is torn with rising demand for metals that have seen little, to no, development since before the Commodity Supercycle even began and is now seeing a secular decline in Chinese production due to over-production, exhaustion and environmental devastation. This makes for a rather dramatic tug of war.
It is now clear that the genie set free by Trump’s seemingly prophetic “Trade War” of the Chinese threat to supplies cannot be put back in its bottle. The “love” of the US industrial complex’s for cheap Chinese minerals has now even been called into question. We doubt that the East Asians (i.e. Japan, Korea and Taiwan) and the Germans can ever be easily lulled back into a false sense of security (of supply) by the Chinese.
The legacy of underinvestment and the lack of capital markets’ interest in specialty metals stories (beyond momentary pump-and-dumps) combined with the Chinese massive own goal in splurging its resource base in predatory pricing and, frankly, dumping over three decades has made for a secular crisis in metals supplies.
This crisis is likely to be enduring and will definitely result in the long-term higher prices (even shortages).
All the chatter does not provide money for projects. Unfortunately, it is only metal price spikes that seem to do so. The soaring price of Lithium and Cobalt in 2017 was a case in point and then the Vanadium surge of 2018. However, the REE putsch of mid-2019 waxed and waned so fast that no party got any financings done before the brief window of opportunity slammed shut.
Less sexier metals never even get their day in the sun. Tellurium or Cesium could quadruple and it would not generate more than a muffled whisper in the trade journals. The same for individual Rare Earths such as Erbium and Dysprosium.
We are of the opinion that the critical “state” of the metals world will remain as long as the West is not self-sufficient in its supply of specialty metals. The Chinese have shown themselves to be malevolent players and that was while they had the whiphand in many metals. As they start to lose their grip the frustrations will start to rise, already we are starting to see some rancour in relations with Burma over neo-colonial resources policies being imposed by China on its neighbour. Other Belt-and-Road “beneficiaries” have found that Chinese largesse comes at a hefty price. Is this mere sparring or the first shots in a monumental struggle over the world’s most crucial mineral resources?
In retrospect, Trump’s “Trade War” of 2018-20 may be seen as the “phoney war” phase of a much bigger tussle over access to the world’s scarce specialty metals resources. The criticality rankings are the playlists for the background music as this plays out.
Note from Publisher: Next week – on Wednesday, November 9th in Toronto, the inaugural Critical Minerals Summit is on! To secure a delegates pass, click here — READ: Summit to Address the Impact of the $1.2 Trillion EV Market Demand by 2030 on the Critical Minerals Sector