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CMA @ Mines & Money Connect - What Does the Term ‘Critical Mineral’ Mean in 2023?

Updated: May 2, 2023

On the 25th of April 2023, at Mines and Money Connect London, CMA Founder Jeff Townsend chaired a keynote panel on opportunities in critical and battery minerals. He was joined by experts Robert Baylis, Portfolio Manager of the European Battery Materials Fund at EIT InnoEnergy; Paul Renken, Senior Geologist and Mining Analyst at VSA Capital; Artyom Sitnikov, Director of Regreen Capital; Andy Caruso, President and Chief Executive Officer of New Moly; and Stacy Hope, Chair of the Advisory Board at the Fair Cobalt Alliance and Chair of Women in Mining UK (WiM UK).

Jeff posed two broad questions to the panel: What does the term ‘critical mineral’ mean in 2023? And are we prepared for the transition to the green economy?

CMA co-founder Jeff Townsend (left) introduces his fellow speakers on the keynote panel.

Discussion quickly veered into asking whether ESG compliance and the lack of financing in the UK adds another level of criticality that the Critical Mineral Intelligence Centre (CMIC) are not considering in their reports, despite the great work they are doing surveying and mapping the nation's geological potential. (Read the CMIC’s recent report, conducted by geologists at the British Geological Survey, that identified eight prospective regions in the UK for critical minerals here.)

The British Geological Survey (BGS) released this map with their survey, identifying eight prospective areas in the UK with critical minerals potential. The depth of green represents the number of critical raw materials that any one area is prospective for.

Criticality is always changing. Critical minerals are defined as mineral resources that are essential to the economy and whose supply may be disrupted. But what is essential for the modern economy evolves with technological breakthroughs and other market shocks, and supply chain vulnerability is also changing in a world of increasing polarity and geopolitical turmoil. What we consider a critical mineral today may not be ten years from now.

Robert contended that the West’s vision of building an alternative critical mineral supply chain is endangered by this lack of certainty and unification across the Anglosphere, whose governments have all released differing critical minerals list in the past two years. Western nations cannot meet their critical mineral needs through domestic primary extraction alone— they will need to dramatically boost waste recycling capabilities and diversify their supply by collaborating with one another and like-minded nations. To break China’s stranglehold over the sector, the West must collaborate and build cross-border supply chains— but how can this be done when Governments disagree on which minerals to prioritise for funding?

When the UK’s first Critical Minerals Strategy was released in July 2022, the CMIC released their strategy for characterising critical minerals. However, some minerals that the UK’s allies have identified as critical remain on the UK’s ‘watchlist’ or not on the radar at all.

Attention on certain critical minerals such as cobalt and lithium have saturated discussions in the media and among private finance, and other important critical minerals have been left behind -- copper, for example, does not feature on the UK’s critical minerals list.

Jeff also highlighted two types of ‘value’ that the critical minerals sector generates for society—commercial value and strategic value. Commercial value focuses on big names such as lithium, while strategic value (the need for governments to invest in expanding critical mineral facilities that may not be economic, but are strategically important) is largely ignored by decision-makers even though critical minerals are vital to produce defence, renewable, and aerospace technologies.

Currently any structure that provides funding for overseas critical mineral projects (such as the US Government’s recent announcement that they would extend IRA subsidies to Japan and Germany) is “still in its infancy” and will require strong “political partnerships” to foster. Stacy also emphasised the importance of “multi-stakeholder partnerships” in addressing the critical minerals risk. In mining jurisdictions such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where local and national government are unable to pioneer socially, economically and/or environmentally sustainable solutions, multi-stakeholder partnerships are vital for progress. Andy concurred, statingthat all stakeholders have a “responsibility” to work together to accelerate and de-risk mining projects,so we have a better chance of meeting the growing demand for critical minerals as the energy transition gathers pace.

The panel discussion ultimately landed on two main points. Firstly, that Western governments are reactionary when they need to be proactive and forward-thinking. To achieve net-zero targets, nations need an effective critical minerals strategy with a long-term vision. To put it into perspective, China started investing in critical minerals when it bought massive stockpiles from the US in the 1980s. This means the US, even equipped with the ambition and scope of its Inflation Reduction Act, is still 40 years behind China in critical minerals action.

Jeff Townsend details to the audience and his fellow speakers the large gap between commercial value and strategic value of critical minerals for the UK.

Stacy responded to Jeff's question,“Are we prepared? For 2030, for 2050? Have we done enough?” with a "No," and explained how the UK and EU need to form partnerships with developing jurisdictions in emerging economies and leverage their ESG and finance power to solidify its place in the alternative supply chain.

For Robert, industry and other stakeholders need to continue lobbying Government and pressing private investors to fund mining projects. For Paul, stakeholders need to be engaging young demographics under the age of 35. “Look at this room,” he gestured. “I can count the amount of people under 35 on one hand.We need to be engaging young people-- they will be living with the consequences. This is about the world we leave for them.”

Thank you to Andrew Thake, Brooke Irwin, and the Mines and Money team for organising this conference. Mines and Money is the world’s leading international event series connecting investors with miners, and its programmes facilitate the right connections and stimulate the right discourse.

Thank you also to Wilfredo Rayes, the founder and CEO of our sister association CMA USA, who joined Jeff and the rest of the CMA UK team at the conference.

CMA looks forward to the next Mines and Money conference!

Mines and Money Resourcing Tomorrow will be returning to London for the third year running. Resourcing Tomorrow is Europe’s largest and most in-depth mining and energy event, bringing an unrivalled network of thousands of exploration and mining companies, qualified and vetted investors, educators, innovators, government officials, and more. You don’t want to miss it.

This article was written by Eileen Maes, Public Affairs & Communications Associate.

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