Solar panels, wind turbines, and electric car batteries are made from some of the most hard-to-get metals on earth— dysprosium, neodymium, manganese, cobalt, and lithium. According to UK scientists, the current annual global production of cobalt needs to double by 2050 to produce the electric vehicles required to just satisfy British climate targets. Another study found that if countries were to meet the Paris accord and keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, demand for cobalt and lithium would exceed the current supply by 2022 and 2023, respectively.
China leads the world in rare earth metal production (a group of 17 chemical elements), supplying 90 percent of the export market. The United States purchases 80 percent of its rare earth metals from China, despite having the resources to produce its own supply. These metals could be extracted profitably in the United States, but are not because of our restrictive and redundant environmental regulations.
Current Production, Reserves, and Prices for Major Metals
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, global production of rare earth metals in 2018 totalled 167 thousand metric tons, with China producing 72 percent of the world’s production. China also controls 38 percent of the world’s reserves, which total 117 million metric tons. China’s reserves are the largest at 44 million metric tons, followed by the United States and Brazil, each with 22 million metric tons, and Russia with 17 million metric tons.
Global production of graphite totals 896 thousand metric tons, with China supplying 71 percent. Graphite reserves total 307 million metric tons with China and Brazil each controlling 24 percent.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo produced the most cobalt in 2018 at 112 thousand metric tons—a 71 percent share of the 158 thousand metric tons produced. Cobalt reserves total 6.6 million metric tons, with the DR Congo controlling 52 percent. However, there are ongoing problems with environmental and child labor issues in the DR Congo; labor abuses linked to cobalt mining have been widely documented by human rights groups and by media organizations across the world.
Australia and Chile lead the world in lithium production with 27 million metric tons and 16 million metric tons, respectively, produced in 2018 from a total of 62 million metric tons. World reserves of lithium total almost 14 million metric tons with Chile controlling 58 percent.
Lithium prices set a record high in 2018 at $14,656 per metric ton—21 percent higher than in 2017. Cobalt prices totaled $72,923 per metric ton in 2018—30 percent higher than in 2017.
U.S. Dependence on Foreign Metals
China leads the world in producing and exporting minerals and metals, supplying many that are critical to U.S. manufacturing, technology and energy production, and national defense. Many critical metals are on U.S. federally-owned lands, including manganese, cobalt, nickel, graphite, aluminum, and several of the rare earth metals. The United States is 100 percent import-reliant for 18 minerals—14 of them are considered “critical” by the Department of Defense or the Department of the Interior.
The United States has a duplicative and inefficient system of regulatory permits and oversight that governs domestic mining. Generally, the U.S. mining industry is faced with a regulatory system that forces them to wait seven to 10 years to obtain a mining permit, compared to Canada and Australia where the process takes two to three years, which limits our nation’s ability to capitalize on our mineral wealth. The United States needs to retool our permitting process so that minerals from U.S. public lands can fuel our advanced energy, infrastructure, and manufacturing technologies, which would increase U.S. manufacturing and its position in the global economy and reduce our dependence on foreign imports.
The United States needs to develop its critical metals and remove its reliance on foreign imports, particularly from the Chinese, who are leaders in rare earth metals and graphite production. These metals are used in many technologies and in national defense systems. To become self-reliant the United States needs to modify its regulatory permitting system and oversight. The sooner we can remove our dependence on these critical metals from foreign interests as we did for oil and natural gas, the better our nation with be economically and militarily. Otherwise, we risk dependency on other international actors for minerals at much higher rates than the United States was ever dependent upon OPEC.
Further reading on the global supply of rare earth metals is available here.
Further reading on the environmental impacts of rare earth metal production in China is available here.