Low-Energy Fridays: Part 2: In Search of Mineral Security
Last week’s Low-Energy Fridays laid out a looming problem: mineral security. A subset of other national security issues, mineral security shares a lot of similarities with energy security. Given the political momentum toward a clean energy economy, we can expect that a future economy will be more vulnerable to interference in mineral markets needed for clean energy. So it makes sense for policymakers to pursue policies that mitigate those vulnerabilities.
Pragmatically, as mineral consumption rises for energy applications, so too will the prices—thereby incentivizing the adoption of new mineral security policies. There are too many potential policies to cover in one Low-Energy Fridays post: There’s the opening of new mines, sourcing from friendly suppliers, strategic mineral reserves, materials substitution, minerals recycling, legacy resources (i.e., fossil fuels), innovation and more. But the main policy takeaway is that lessons from energy security prove there are good ways and bad ways to improve it, and the key is to leverage the market effectively.
Like energy security, mineral security is fundamentally a problem of scarcity. Markets are well suited to address scarcity because consumers spend a lot—and these dollars incentivize producers to find ways to deliver products at lower costs to consumers. Energy security policies focused on unlocking the potential of the market, like ending price controls on oil or commercializing drilling technology innovation, have been enormously successful.
Similarly, our mineral security policies should focus on eliminating barriers to market entry—though this can only go so far. While the United States has massive fossil fuel resources, not every mineral the country needs is available in large quantities within its borders. This means that while things like permitting reform can help, they aren’t complete mineral security solutions.
One option we’ll likely see policymakers pursue will be materials substitution, like using more nickel to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries instead of cobalt. But the resulting products would involve cost and performance tradeoffs. While the market will seek the optimal balance of cost and performance for products on its own, it may be at odds with policymakers’ mineral security priorities. Should policymakers adopt EV mandates and later find they need to restrict minerals sourcing, the negative economic impact will be compounded. This is why climate policies focused on reducing the real costs of EVs or alternative fuels are preferable to mandates that make consumers vulnerable to unforeseen future market conditions.
The other big policy shift we can expect is a focus on recycling, though there are few policies in place to pursue this right now. Industrial consumers recycle because they use such large quantities of minerals that it makes economic sense—unlike typical U.S. consumers, who recycle less than half of easy-to-recycle items such as cellphones and computers. But this has a simple solution, as we’ve known for decades that market-based policies like deposit-refund systems drive up recycling rates. Expect more on this in the future.
Ultimately, the issue of mineral security reveals that minimizing economic costs is harder when government mandates are at odds with consumer preferences for product quality and cost. Germany tried to replace Russian natural gas with renewables but ended up burning more coal instead. Mineral security issues reveal that if the United States doesn’t have good solutions in place, the status quo will remain and ironically could be worsened if pursued policies unwittingly undercut the incentives for innovation (e.g., a mandate for EVs erodes incentives for producing low-carbon liquid fuels).
The solution, as ever, is for policymakers to exercise humility, avoid mandates and recognize opportunities to leverage market preferences to achieve outcomes.