Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is vast and has been valued at $1 trillion to $3 trillion. The country is rich in copper, iron, lithium and rare earth metals. Copper resources for all known deposits total about 57.7 million metric tons. At current prices, the resource value is $516 billion. These are “undiscovered” resources – identified but not fully explored and assessed. If they are recoverable at a profit, they would rank Afghanistan among the top five nations for copper reserves in the world. Afghanistan’s iron ore resources are estimated at 2,100 million metric tons of high-grade ore that is 61 percent to 69 percent by weight. At current price levels, its value is $336.8 billion, placing Afghanistan among the top 10 nations worldwide in extractable iron. Rare earth elements (cerium, lanthanum, praseodymium and neodymium) total about 1.4 million metric tons. Two of these, praseodymium and neodymium, are at high price levels—more than $45,000 per metric ton—and make magnets used in motors for hybrid and electric cars, as well as for wind turbines.
There is strong global demand for the metals, particularly copper, lithium and rare earth elements, which are essential to the growing markets in renewable energy and electric vehicles. But, Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure needed to access and develop them. While roads exist to many ore deposit areas, Afghanistan lacks good-quality roads, railways, water and electricity. For Afghanistan’s resources to develop, it would require long-term foreign investment, skill-building and infrastructure expansion.
U.S. departure from Afghanistan made the country ripe for Chinese development, with which China has had previous experience. In 2007, under the former Ministry of Mines, a $2.9 billion contract for a portion of the Aynak copper deposit was granted to two state-owned Chinese companies. The 30-year contract had a high royalty rate and required that ore smelting and processing be done locally. Other conditions included building a 400-megawatt coal power plant and a railway to the Pakistan border. Also stipulated was that 85 percent to 100 percent of employees, from skilled labor to managerial personnel, be Afghan nationals within eight years of the date work begins. Though originally agreed to, these terms were later declared onerous by the companies, halting development.
Afghanistan has been called the “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”—a metal that is essential for electric vehicle batteries and battery storage technologies, which will be in demand if all the electric vehicle goals are met by the United States, Europe and China. For example, Ford Motor Co. recently announced plans to spend $11.4 billion on battery and electric vehicle manufacturing. Ford’s plan to construct a trio of lithium-ion battery factories in Kentucky and Tennessee aims to double the 2020 U.S. battery production capacity by adding 129 gigawatt hours of manufacturing a year, with production starting at the plants in 2025. Where it will get the required metals including lithium, cobalt, and nickel, which are mainly mined and refined outside of the United States, is a looming issue. In 2020, North American lithium-ion battery cell capacity represented just 7.6 percent of global capacity. In comparison, 75.3 percent of battery cell capacity was located in China. For perspective, we note that all of the countries of OPEC produce 40 percent of the world’s oil.
Recently announced deals, however, have been found to be insufficient to support all the optimistic electric vehicle and battery forecasts. And while safe from a deficit in 2021, there is an estimated 30,000-metric ton shortage in lithium carbonate equivalent by 2025. While there is plenty of lithium in the ground, accessing and processing it in the time line needed is a major issue. China is among the five top countries with the most lithium resources and it has been buying stakes in mining operations in Australia and South America where most of the world’s lithium reserves are found. For example, China’s Tianqi Lithium owns 51 percent of the world’s largest lithium reserve in Australia.
Other critical metals are showing deficits this year. Global primary nickel supply is facing a deficit in 2021, coming up short 128,000 metric tons. Refined cobalt could see a 1,800-metric ton shortfall this year, and supplies will be tight through 2025.
Rather than mining critical metals domestically, President Biden intends to import them. He is caving to environmentalists who oppose mining, even while they insist upon “green energy” which relies on minerals. Biden intends to rely on other countries to supply the bulk of the metals needed to build electric vehicles and other green products and focus on processing them domestically, which would placate environmentalists. The plan will initially rely on metals imported from Canada, Australia and Brazil, among others, to supply the raw materials needed to help reach Biden’s carbon-free goals. The U.S. government has invested in Brazilian and Canadian mining companies as well as various mining projects in Africa where environmental mining regulations are less onerous. Biden’s plan will be finalized after a year-long review of supply chains. Meanwhile, proposals in the House of Representatives to stop mining or make it more difficult in the United States have received bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Senate because of the negative impact they will have on mining here, and might very well hamper the move towards electrification and decarbonization.
Against this backdrop, the United States is dependent on China for the majority of its critical mineral requirements. For example, the United States imports about 80 percent of its rare earth needs from China, compared to a high of 23 percent of imported oil from the Middle East in 2001.
The Biden administration’s goals for climate change and energy requires vast amounts of critical minerals needed for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. Afghanistan is rich in many of these critical minerals, but currently the infrastructure is lacking in the country to mine them and foreign investment is needed. China is likely to make those investments in Afghanistan and increase its presence in these industries, despite its current dominance in them. President Biden plans on importing the critical metals because of environmental opposition to developing mines in the United States. That will make the United States four times more dependent on China than it was on the Middle East for oil supplies in 2001. Policy makers should be asking whether this is the path they wish to follow.